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Western United CEO Chris Pehlivanis: “The biggest challenge we have in our game is infrastructure”

Western United have had a tumultuous start to life in the A-League. After weathering the start of the pandemic, Chief Executive Officer Chris Pehlivanis talks to Soccerscene about his involvement in football, building a stadium and the future of the A-League.

Q. How did you first become involved in football?

Pehlivanis: I started playing football when I was five years of age. I was the middle child of three boys, and we all played for a club called East Bentleigh Soccer Club. That was our first taste of it, and I continued to play until the age of 18 where I unfortunately had a knee reconstruction at 17 and again at 18. I started refereeing for about 13 or 14 years and became a sports administrator, worked at FFA, then at the AFL and now at Western United.

Q: When the did the opportunity to be involved with Western United first arise?

I was working at Essendon Football Club, I was CFO (Chief Financial Officer) there for eight years. The people who won the bid, I had a relationship with them, and during their journey they identified me as someone they wanted to bring into the organization. I was really interested in the project, there was more than just a football club, and as such it was really appealing. You don’t get the opportunity to work with a startup or work with an organisation where you get the chance to build the foundations, the culture and build something special. We are two years into this journey and loving every moment of it.

Q: What have you learned from your time with WU throughout the Pandemic?

Pehlivanis: The pandemic was challenging for everyone – for us, it was especially challenging when we were trying to build a new brand, and bring in new fans on the journey. Not being able to physically connect with people and share experiences in the beginning, we lost that. In our first season we played finals, and we didn’t get to enjoy that with our fans, which was heartbreaking for me.

That was a missed opportunity and then you go into the second year, and the matches are stop start – fans had to be resilient with games moving venues left, right and centre – we haven’t been able to get into the community like we planned to, visit schools and clubs in the west, take Western United to the west.

All those things have been challenging, but at the end of the day we are a club holds important values, and we are going to find ways to activate everything we are trying to do, be more resilient and go on this journey. The club isn’t about one or two years, it’s about what we are going to build for the next 20 years.

Q: Has there been any unforeseen challenges?

Pehlivanis: There are always challenges in any startup, and there are always the challenges of people, there are always challenges of players, staff and when you bring a group of 100 people together for the first time. The pandemic has clearly been the most significant. The ability to work in an environment where we play in purpose built stadiums, I think has been the biggest challenge we have to face and that is why we are building a stadium.

It has really highlighted in our state that we don’t have enough purpose built stadiums that create good atmosphere needed to connect with your fans. It is something we continue to work on, and something that challenges us, but this is something that will be fixed in our journey as we continue to build our stadium.

Q: Are boutique purpose built stadiums the future of Australian football?

Pehlivanis: I think so, definitely. It is the atmosphere, we live it and breathe it. When you get to a stadium and it is purpose built for your code there is nothing better. It allows us to activate in a manner that our fans want, so I think it is the future of our game. We need to work with all the key stakeholders, government, and private investors to ensure that we create enough assets, and that is the legacy we want to leave behind. Not only us as Western United, but with the Women’s World Cup coming to this country. The biggest challenge we have in our game is infrastructure, at grassroots level and at senior level. Our game is the best game in Australia, but it lacks infrastructure. As soon as we can get government investment, and private investment into those areas, its only going to mean better things at those levels.

Artwork for Wyndham Stadium

Q: Is the plan to play at AAMI Park for next season?

Pehlivanis: We are working on a solution, and that is our intention. We will still go to Ballarat and Tasmania as part of existing deals, and they are opportunities for us to expand our brand. The majority of the games will be hosted at AAMI Park, because that is a purpose built stadium in Melbourne that caters to A-League games.

Q: How important is the new TV deal to the continued success of the A-League?

Pehlivanis: This is the best game in Australia, it just needs the right investment. Channel 10 has backed our game, and it is a really good message to the community. My view is that the game is in a good place, and what it needs is a partner that will back it. What I mean by that is a partner who will invest in the product, invest in the brand and marketing, and invest in everything other than what is on the pitch, because we will invest in what is on the pitch and ensure it continues to grow.

I think they are ready to grow the game with us, they’ve done it with the Big Bash and the racing, by sticking around and investing in them to turn them into spectacles. I’m really excited by Channel 10 and where we are going, but ultimately it’s going to need everyone to work together to get our game to where it needs to go. For Channel 10 to support on us on this journey sends a really clear message that the next five years of this deal will be really special for the game and help us take it to the next level.

Q: How important will next season be to engage with fans?

Pehlivanis: We’re still on the journey to our forever stadium, and the reality is that every year it is important we continue to grow our brand, our market and build a genuine connection with our fans – these people are our family. Our aim is to turn every football fan, and any potential fans that lives in the west, into a Western United supporter and member. That doesn’t happen overnight, we need to take these people on a journey with us. But we’re patient, and we have time. We want genuine fans that fall in love with Western United.

We are in our third year, we need to keep embracing these challenges and opportunities to enter new markets and connect with people before we get into our new stadium. That will be the time where we showcase our brand at its optimal level. Everything we do for these first few years is foundational, and that is why it is important we continue to work closely with the community and be successful on the park. Our commercial partners are strong, and continue to grow, and without their support we wouldn’t be able to continue to grow. We are going into the season this year with most of our partners re-signed, which is something that didn’t happen in our first two seasons.

From our point of view, we are excited about the upcoming season. We think the game will go to another level, and we are on the verge of some really big announcements regarding coaches and additional players in the squad. The next year will be a really big opportunity to continue growing and build on those foundations.

A-League supporter numbers grow – but 2 million football fans still unattached

Despite attendances dropping in A-League matches over the past few years, supporter numbers across the board have grown in the past 12 months, according to a recent Roy Morgan report.

“A-League clubs have enjoyed a substantial increase in support over the last year in line with the increases seen for other football codes such as the AFL and NRL,” Roy Morgan Industry Communications Director, Julian McCrann, stated.

“Over 3.6 million Australians now profess support for an A-League club, an increase of over 1 million (+38.3%) on a year ago.”

“As we have seen across other football codes the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many sports to be played in front of empty stadiums but live on TV to supporters stuck at home in the many lockdowns we have seen over the last 18 months around Australia.”

Sydney FC have the biggest supporter base with 640,000 fans according to the report, a 32% increase on last year’s numbers.

Melbourne Victory were also well placed on the supporter ladder, slightly behind Sydney with 632,000 fans, an increase of 46% on a year ago.

A-League Men’s champions Melbourne City and expansion side Macarthur FC also saw impressive numbers of increased support.

“Another big winner over the last year has been Melbourne City which won its first A-League Men Championship earlier this year after defeating Sydney FC in the Grand Final (between Melbourne’s fourth and fifth lockdowns) in late June,” McCrann said.

“Melbourne City’s support has increased by an impressive 50.9% on a year ago to 249,000 to have the highest support of any A-League Men expansion team.

“The newest club in the A-League Men, Macarthur FC, has had a successful first season in the league with a finals appearance, a victory in an Elimination Final, and a loss to eventual Champions Melbourne City in the semi-final.

“Not only has Macarthur FC performed strongly on the pitch but they have already attracted 84,000 supporters to rank in tenth place overall.”

Whilst all A-League sides saw an increase in supporters in 2021, Central Coast Mariners experienced the largest percentage rise from 2020 – with fan numbers growing by 90%.

In regards to television numbers, over 1.5 million Australians watch the A-League Men’s competition.

However, the report states that 3.5 million Australians watch any football match on television, including leagues such as the English Premier League or international tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup.

This represents a huge untapped audience of around 2 million Australians, something which should be capitalised on.

“Looking ahead, the challenge for the A-League will be to continue to grow the league in an increasingly competitive sporting market and find a way to connect with the millions of Australians who love their football but don’t presently engage with the A-League,” McCrann said.

“There are over 2 million Australians out there who watch high quality football competitions, such as the English Premier League, who are yet to become fans of the A-League. This at-hand market of 2 million Australians is a significant market for the A-League to target during the recovery from Covid-19.”

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the new body running the professional game in this country, have continually emphasised in their messaging that they want to target football fans of all types to engage with the local elite competition.

The organisation’s investment in a $30 million digital hub is set to play a big part in converting these fans into A-League supporters.

“It is the biggest single investment football has made in itself. It’s a $30 million investment into digital infrastructure and data infrastructure that will serve the football fan. It won’t be the home of Australian football; it will be Australia’s home of football,” Danny Townsend, Managing Director at the APL, recently told FNR.

“What it will deliver is content – audio-visual, editorial and everything else you need.

“Part of the reason we are doing that, and investing in what we are calling APL studios, is ensuring that by organising the football community in one place we are able to deliver the utility in their everyday lives and focus on how they choose to consume football. If you do that – they’ll keep coming back.

“You put great content in there, you serve it, and you will continue to understand that fan and all of their preferences.”

Catherine Cannuli: “It wasn’t easy to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again”

Catherine Cannuli

June 1 this year saw long-time stalwart of the Western Sydney Wanderers – Catherine Cannuli – appointed to the role of Head Coach of the Women’s side for the upcoming 2021/22 A-League Women’s season.

In addition to having built up an impressive resume through her role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association, Cannuli has been announced as the latest addition to the Executive Committee at Football Coaches Australia (FCA).

Her landmark year of achievements thus far reflects her immense efforts in working to reach what she acknowledges as a personal high point in her coaching career. Cannuli’s success is undoubtedly a testament to her determination, but her transition from player to coach was self-admittedly challenging one.

The lack of clear routes towards securing coaching roles at all levels of the game has led FCA and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) to announce – within their Memorandum of Understanding strategies –all members of PFA’s Alumni will have their joining fee to FCA waived in an effort to provide additional support to aspiring coaches.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Cannuli spoke on her efforts to reach the point she is at now in her career and highlighted the significance of this recently announced FCA and PFA Alumni partnership.

Coaching

It was announced in June that you were to become the new Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers. What has that been like for you so far?

Catherine Cannuli: It’s been exciting and challenging. Obviously, with the current COVID-19 situation that we’ve been in, I probably had four or five weeks in charge as the head coach and then we went into lockdown. So a lot of it has been done from behind a computer. But it’s been a great time to be able to plan and make sure that everything was ready to go come first day of pre-season.

In terms of opportunities for females in football following the end of their playing career, can you give us some insight into what was going through your head as you were coming to the end of your playing time?

Catherine Cannuli: I really didn’t think about coaching straight away to be honest. I retired and I thought I was going to get my weekends back and be a normal person. My friends were always having a go at me for missing so many significant birthdays or weddings.

It was after being off for about six or seven months, and not having football, where I realised more than anything what it left in me as a person. Football’s been such a big part of my life. It took me some time to realise that I couldn’t be a player anymore, because the commitment at the time was really hard – juggling full-time work and doing everything that I wanted to do. I was at a crossroads in my career at that point. It was thinking ‘do I sacrifice another four years or do I just focus on work and preparing for life after football?’.

It was at that point that I got into contact with the Southern Districts Association and explained that I wanted to give back to our community and asked what I could do to get involved with the girls. I went down and did some sessions with the team at the time, and within six months I’d landed myself my first coaching gig. I took over the First Grade Women’s team there and that was it. I fell into coaching.

What was it like mentally traversing that transition period between playing and coaching?

Catherine Cannuli: It was clear, because everything that I’d spoken to the club about they were on board with what I wanted to do and the vision that I had for young girls in the South-West region. For kids in the Liverpool and Fairfield areas, young girls like myself didn’t have the opportunity to be mentored or be coached. They didn’t have an environment where they felt they’d be able to really excel.

For me it was pretty clear from day one that I wanted to make a change. It was hard to transition, because after my first couple of years in coaching I remember going back to some of my coaches that had coached me for a long time and apologising. Because I didn’t realise what it actually took to be a coach. As a player, you turn up; you train; and you go home. As a coach there’s so much planning going on in the background that players just wouldn’t have an idea about.

The transition was definitely difficult, but after my first 12 months of coaching, I chose to dedicate myself to it. I had a business at the time and I stepped away from it to be able to then go into coaching. At the time I was working at Westfields Sports High School and Southern Districts and learning my trade, and it wasn’t easy when I decided to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again.

But it was really important for me to experience it that way. Even now that I’m at the top of my game as the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, I feel that as a coach it is really important that you learn your trade, go through different environments and see different things before you actually get there. It shapes you as a person and as a coach.

Cannuli

What have been your key learnings in your role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association?

Catherine Cannuli: I think that the main one has been learning to build an environment for not just your players, but your staff and everyone to excel in. I think it’s important that everyone knows what your vision is and what direction you’re wanting to go in within your program and your football. It’s important that everyone understands that if they’re on this journey with you, they have a clear understanding of what the message is and what you want to do.

Whether I’m at Southern Districts or at the Wanderers, having that clear message with your players and your staff of ‘this is what it’s going to take to be successful’, and that we can do it as a collective.

Sometimes you see people saying ‘it’s my way or the highway’, whereas with me it’s about bringing people on the journey with you and making them understand what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.

Do you feel the partnership between FCA and PFA Alumni will aid aspiring female football coaches?

Catherine Cannuli: I think back to when I did my first C License and how far coach education and support has come. FCA have been a massive game changer in the coaching space, not only for females, but for males.

For any coach that aspires to be better and wants to be helped, even for those A-Leagues players wanting to transition out of playing into coaching, I think it’s important that there’s a mentorship and a process in what we want to do and how we want to do it.

Sometimes when we jump straight into the deep end it becomes difficult to have an understanding of what the role of a coach is. If you are a player, the role of a coach is a very different role to when you’re a player.

The partnership between FCA and PFA is huge. I’ve always said that football needs to come together and we need to work together as one. This is showing that together we can be stronger. And these partnerships are only going to allow our players and people to grow and further develop their skills in that space.

You’ve recently been announced as an addition to the Executive Committee at FCA. What initiatives will you be looking to drive as a part of your work there?

Catherine Cannuli: I think the main one is to give as much coach education as we can for all coaches. Giving all people from all different levels the number of resources that they can get onto. You can already see that with a lot of the workshops that we’ve been running. The numbers that we’ve been getting for these have been fantastic.

For me, the key thing with FCA is to drive its existence for people to understand that FCA is there and what it can do for coaches. Because I’ve already seen how it supported me over the last two years as a member. And I think, down the track, FCA is going to have such a significant impact on the coaching life. It’s going to be amazing to see where it’s going to be having known where it started.

FCA

What changes and opportunities for the women’s game are you hoping to see come to the fore leading into and after the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Catherine Cannuli: The greatest achievement for me with receiving the opportunity to be the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers is that other females can look to this and say: ‘Hey, I can be a Head Coach at the A-League Women’s as well’. That’s the most important, that young female coaches can actually aspire to be a coach in the A-League Women’s.

The more that we see it on the TV and the papers that there are female coaches leading the way, there’s going to be even more opportunity for young females to come through NPL clubs and do coaching.

At the moment, the number of coaches in the female space in a professional environment is probably quite low. And that’s something that we need to keep driving change for; changing the dynamics around females not thinking that there are those opportunities for coaching when there are.

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