As the concept of a National Second Tier becomes a reality in Australia, there are questions on what the removal of the biggest clubs will mean for the State League competitions.
Football Australia are still discussing and workshopping the format of the concept, and how it operates and coexists with the National Premier Leagues (NPL) is one of the biggest questions.
When the NPL was created in 2013, the aim was to standardise the State League competitions across Australia and serve as a second tier to the A-League. The competition has been the top division in each state outside the A-League, with the winners playing off against each other at the end of the season.
The NPL hasn’t managed to bridge the gap between the State League clubs and the A-League, shown by the push for a true National Second Tier.
We know that the current NPL clubs would jump at the chance to join a National Second Tier, however, what would this mean for the State Leagues moving forward?
There is certainly commercial value to having South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights play off in the Victorian State League. Without the traditional powerhouse clubs in there, the Victorian NPL would struggle to attract sponsors and fans that drive the clubs, allowing them to perform at a semi-professional level.
Determining what the value of the NPL is without traditional clubs is a question that will be asked across every state competition if a National Second Tier drags them away.
Football Australia has previously floated a Champions League-style competition idea, with 32 teams competing in a group stage format followed by a knockout stage.
The allure of this concept is to reduce the cost of travel and the financial burden on the clubs at the league’s inception while allowing the clubs to continue to play in their respective state NPL competitions.
However, this is a stop-gap solution to get the competition off the ground, with the intention of easing into the transition from semi-professional into a fully professional second tier with promotion and relegation down the track.
There are certainly positives to this structure. Using the Champions League-style format to get the competition off the ground and running before evolving into a traditional league format could be the best way for a National Second Tier to launch.
The reality is that the first few years in a National Second Tier will be difficult for the clubs if the competition is a complete home and away league featuring at least 18 games. It is a distinct possibility clubs will fold, or flee back to the relative safety of their state competitions.
This isn’t a reason not to proceed with the competition, however, it is a danger that the clubs must recognise. To alleviate this danger, clubs can play in their state competitions while featuring in a parallel Champions League-style competition.
Some of the NPL’s biggest clubs would prefer a traditional style home and away season. South Melbourne President Nick Maikousis outlined in an interview with Soccerscene that a National Second Tier could mean some of the biggest clubs depart the State Leagues.
“We don’t agree that a Champions League-style competition is a National Second Division. Our views are that it needs to be a stand-alone competition. The challenge for the state federations is potentially losing some of their biggest member clubs,” Maikousis said.
“If you take South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights, and Heidelberg out of the NPL Victoria competition, it becomes a different conversation.”
He also pointed out that reluctance to lose these clubs from their respective state leagues by some stakeholders is similar to arguments raised against the formation of the National Soccer League in the 1970s.
Fears of losing the State League’s biggest clubs aren’t new. At the NSL’s inception in 1977, the Victorian Premier League forbid its clubs from joining the new competition. Mooroolbark SC, an unremarkable Eastern Suburbs club, broke the deadlock, paving the way for South Melbourne, Heidelberg and Footscray just to follow in their footsteps.
Mooroolbark unfortunately found themselves relegated out of the NSL in their only year in the competition, before ending up in the provisional league at the bottom of the football pyramid by the 1980s.
Eventually, any national second tier competition must become a stand-alone league if Australian football is to have a proper pyramid of competitions featuring promotion and relegation. The state NPL competitions will lose their biggest clubs to this, but it creates opportunities for other clubs to forge ahead and take their place.
Australian football needs to be brave in its attempt to create something that will outlast us all. Countries like England, Spain, and Italy have built their football not only on heritage, but also a deep talent pool developed playing in the leagues below their top division.
Promotion and relegation must be the end game for football if it’s to reach its full potential in Australia. For a club to climb from State League 5 to the A-League, from amateur to professional, is the ultimate expression of the beautiful game.
The state leagues will survive losing their biggest clubs, like they did at the NSL’s inception. The question is what value these competitions still have without their biggest assets.