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.

Melbourne City proudly unveil their state-of-the-art-facilities

Melbourne City have proudly showcased their clubs latest project through the unveiling of their new state-of-the-art-facility, located at Casey Fields in Cranbourne.

The City Football Academy Melbourne continues to push the already established high-standards in which football across Australia are beginning to reach. The facility will host the men’s and women’s teams, as well as the club’s grassroot program, and an administration office is also involved in the newly developed location.

The Melbourne based club were inspired by their British parent and European juggernauts Manchester City have some of, if not the best facilities in world football. Melbourne City’s latest facility was developed in accordance to the structure and framework relating to Manchester City.

Within the newly furnished building, it’s features are acknowledged to stand out amongst other rival A-League entity’s. A 60-seat theatre and community classroom was installed to host club officials and guests, 16 changerooms combined with Hydrotherapy pools and two gyms, all designed to propel their playing personnel in achieving their peak athletic condition. Administration spaces where also created for Sports Science, Sports Medicine and club officials to all reside in.

The official opening took place on April 10 by City of Casey Chair of Administrators Noelene Duff PSM, and Melbourne City FC Vice Chairman Simon Pearce.

Located at the Casey Fields Sporting precinct in which is building quite the resume within the tenants it has acquired in various codes of sport across the state. The 5,900m2 facility that City now possess in their arsenal sits on eleven hectares of land, upon it they have five different football pitches, with varying surfaces.

The opportunities in which this facility presents to football fans and participants alike, are in abundance, 3,500 aspiring young football participants will be able to use the facilities on offer, with many more able to spectate City matches in which may be played at their Academy.

Melbourne City FC CEO Brad Rowse stated via press release:

“This amazing facility will be the new home to our Men’s, Women’s, Academy, and Administration teams, and will allow us to come together under the one roof to train, share ideas and challenge each other every single day.

“We’re setting new standards for football in Australia and laying the foundations for sustainable growth, on and off the pitch.”

With the latest edition of the McDonald’s City Cup being played at the newly launched facility, the tournament was a token showcasing that the clubs elite are not the only ones who will benefit from the facility but also local footballing communities in addition.

Nick Galatas on addressing the link between National Second Tier with promotion and relegation

The National Second Tier (NST) competition is building towards its expected start date of March/April 2025, but its final structure has not been settled.

While eight teams were initially announced with representation from Victoria and New South Wales, we are still yet to find out who will make up the rest of the ‘national’ component.

We will at least have an update on this around June 2024, as the Request for Proposal (RFP), Assessment & Review and Completion Phases are all completed.

Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) Chairman Nick Galatas has been a vocal advocate and involved in establishing the NST from its inception, but despite the previously announced foundation clubs, there is still work to do to ensure the NST starts in the best possible shape.

At this stage, eight foundation clubs have been confirmed, but there is a push to increase the number to at least 12.

Despite 26 clubs advancing to the RFP phase, only 8 foundation clubs proved to be a major drop off from what appeared a healthy pool of teams to choose from.

“There were 26 clubs that looked to be in a great position to be selected to start in the new NST,” Galatas told Soccerscene.

“From those, it would be expected to get 12 for a kick-off in 2024 but didn’t pan out that way.”

A lack of structure around how promotion and relegation will work with the NPL does leave some uncertainty for the clubs left out of the NST. Many clubs remain eager to be part of the expected four additional teams to be added for the competition’s commencement early in 2025.

For Football Australia, consistency will need to be applied across the board about how clubs go up and down between the NST and NPL when promotion and relegation commences. Football Queensland has made rules that a Queensland coming into the NST will revert to the competition it was in before it joined the NST. That is inconsistent with the approach of other member federations.

For example, with Preston Lions FC competing in Victoria Premier League 1 in 2024 prior to the commencement of NST, if they get relegated is it one step below to NPL Victoria or the original league they are in now?

Galatas outlined how everyone must be on the same page to form a unified system.

“As a scenario, we can think ahead to, say, 2027 and it’s the third year of competition, which is may also have expanded by then and include Queensland teams,” he said.

“For example, if, say, Preston Lions from Victoria and Sunshine Coast Fire FC from Queensland are relegation candidates in that season, it’s untenable that those teams would face different predicaments if relegated with Preston to the NPL and Sunshine Coast to oblivion.

“Hypothetically if we talk about relegation, everyone agrees that a Victorian-based club would be relegated to NPL Victoria even if originally from a lower league.

“However, when you compare it to a Queensland club, getting relegated means that they go into oblivion, which doesn’t add up. It’s fundamental and accepted practice that a relegated team goes down one rung and it has the chance to come up again.

“Football Australia needs to discuss a relegation scenario with all of the member federations and ensure there is a consistent approach. It will run the competition and must ensure the member federations work together with it and the clubs to achieve this outcome.”

Galatas outlined what he hopes to see out of the upcoming application process, moving one step closer to an Australia-wide competition.

“Instead of the eight confirmed teams we see now, it should be 12 teams from hopefully at least four states or territories to achieve the best competition,” he said.

“I would have liked to have seen a 2024 start date with 12 teams and have all the big players ready to go, but instead we’ve had a delay. But so long as we use the additional time to start strongly, the extra year to wait is not important in the overall picture.

“Having Queensland plus at least one of South Australia, Tasmania and Canberra to include four states from the get-go is the ideal platform to build on.

“Then we can look at Western Australia and the remaining areas as we build – we are just starting. We can grow the competition without rushing into it too much from a logistical point of view.”

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