Why Australian football needs a promotion/relegation system to survive

Promotion and relegation is one of the few constants in nearly every single soccer country across the globe. It makes the sport unique and it gives each team something to play for each season. It also makes it one of the most cutthroat sports on the planet. Why is that? Well, to prove this statement, let’s take a look at the Australian Football League.

Teams will often rise up and drop down the ladder over the years, with no club recognised as the club to beat every year (like Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United). It’s much more of a lottery. Yes, coaches, players, fans etc. would suffer as a result of a club doing poorly. But unlike soccer leagues across the world, there’s no punishment for poor performance. If you finish bottom of the ladder, you get rewarded with the number one draft pick.

The system works but imagine if the same system was implemented for a soccer competition. Would it work as well as it does in the AFL? The answer is simple, no.

For starters, fans wouldn’t be as invested as we see in the European leagues. Even if their club is fighting off relegation, fans will come in droves to cheer them on. In Australia’s A-League, if a club is struggling, you’ll very rarely see packed out stadiums.

The league itself would feel like it was coming off a conveyer belt each season. It would be the same teams, the same stadiums and the same league each season. Again, we see this in the A-League, but they also have the FFA Cup and there are new teams entering the competition, starting with Western United next season.

These two factors are what makes the European leagues so successful. Who would’ve thought that Bournemouth, a club that not too long ago was non-league, would now be a mainstay in English football? What about how Huddersfield Town, who despite already being relegated this season, would’ve had the season from heaven to get promoted to the top flight.

It’s the beauty of European soccer, that there are the big teams that have been the benchmarks for so long as well as the battlers who scrap their way through the divisions.

This is where the A-League is losing so much potential to create a strong, multi league soccer country that is outside of Europe. FFA Chairman Chris Nikou recently suggested that promotion and relegation may not enter Australian soccer for up to 15 years, a suggestion that could harm the sport’s future in the country.

 

Soccer has grown exponentially in the last few seasons in this country, especially at the community and grassroots levels. Junior participation is at an all time high and interest in the National Premier Leagues across the states has never been greater. If anything, the next few seasons would appear to be the perfect time to implement some sort of promotion/relegation system.

The FFA, in refusing to create a system, is neglecting the people that have madder soccer in this country what it is today. Those at the grassroots and community levels are the heart and soul of Australian soccer and have been ever since the early NSL days. Clubs such as South Melbourne and the Melbourne Knights defined Australian soccer for decades and now, when they, along with a host of other clubs want to change soccer for the better, the FFA neglects them.

The FFA should take a leaf out of European leagues books, but sometimes the evidence is right in front of them. In the last two seasons, the NPL in Victoria has seen some crazy final days and some clubs in promotion and relegation fights that are simply unbelievable.

In 2017, the Melbourne Knights struggled and finished third last on the table, entering the promotion/relegation playoff against Dandenong City. Despite winning 3-2, to see such a historic club almost leave the top flight was a massive surprise. 2018 however, was far more remarkable.

Green Gully are another revered NPLVIC side who have won titles in years gone by. They finished third last and entered the promotion/relegation match against Moreland City. They were down 2-0 in the 90th minute and looked a certainty to be relegated.

But through sheer force of will, they scored two quick goals, sent the game to extra time and scored a late winner to secure safety in the top flight. That level of drama has never been seen before at the NPL level and if the FFA could open their eyes to the possibilities a pro/rel system would create up, we could see it in the A-League.

Instead of going through the motions, every A-League season could have extra meaning with clubs knowing that there is always something on the line. Because in recent seasons, the desire from players, clubs and officials behind the scenes appears to have been non-existent.

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Caelum Ferrarese is a Senior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on micro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions at grassroots level.

Perth looking to pave new Glory through fresh ownership

The ownership of long-standing A-League team Perth Glory has changed hands, with property mogul Ross Pelligra taking the reins.

The multi-millionaire Melbournian has pledged to Glory fans his intentions of reinvigorating the club into becoming ‘a benchmark club of Australian Football’.

The sole Western Australia club have had to earn their stripes and achievements while accommodating for difficulties, which other A-League clubs have not endured. Initially the Glory were seeking to become a National Soccer League (NSL) tenant in the mid-1970s, given the talent showcased by their state representative side. Due to financial and logistical issues, Western Australia had a football outfit, without a title.

A consortium spearheaded by Joe Claudio, founded a Perth based club, known as the Perth Kangaroos IFC. Although a licence to participate in the NSL never materialised, the club where granted entry into the Singapore Premier League (SPL). Within their maiden, and only season, the Kangaroos breezed through their competition, winning the League Title while remaining undefeated in the process.  Although there was success on the field, the wheels off the field had violently, fallen off.

Italian Australian Entrepreneur Nick Tana capitalised upon the financial failure that was the Perth Kangaroos. NSL representatives, noticing the talent pool within Western Australia given their success in Asia, combined with the potential for another Australian market, led to Perth Glory’s creation, making their debut in the 1996-97 NSL Season, taking place a full year after their materialization.

Acknowledging their early hardships yet successes, the fluctuation from Glory to of the club is somewhat built in its DNA.  Both on and off the pitch, post their success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Perth had lost its previous ambition. It had taken the club 14 seasons to taste their first A-League Title, with two runners-up medals in A-League Finals.

The consortium that had acquired Tana’s club in 2006, were unable to eclipse the dominance of their previous owner. Recently, the club was almost pawned off to an illegitimate London-based, Cryptocurrency football exchange. Insert, Ross Pelligra.

Perth fans have reason for prosperity, as their new owner is no stranger to the football world. Historic Italian outfit Catania FC had gone into administration in 2022 culminating in all board, playing and non-playing staff to face redundancy. The club where excluded from the Serie C in 2022, with their future in limbo. Pelligra, showcasing passion for his heritage and football, acquired the club in which is the birth place of his mother, in order to save it from termination.

Pelligra and his ambitions resulted in the club swiftly reinterring the third tier of Italian Football, as the club where able to win the Serie D (Group 1), granting promotion. This man oozes passion. In comparison to football club owners on an international scale, in who do have the financial capacity, do not showcase the desire Pelligra possess, in wanting to see his outfits succeed.

To succeed in both off park stability, and on park triumph, football is within Pelligra’s fabric. It is a safe assumption, that Pelligra is not undertaking the financial pressures involved in club ownership, for monetary gain. This is heritage, this is a way of life.

But how is he going to lead Perth to Glory? What does he have within his arsenal?

His passion is combated by football brains in whom represented the Socceroos.

Asian Cup and Socceroo legend Marc Bresciano is rumoured to feature as a prominent figure under the Pelligra hierarchy within the football department. Vince Grella, who is Pelligra’s right-hand man in Catania’s 2023 Serie D Title Win, is also tipped to be involved.

The warning signals haven’t quite rung out yet, however it is best believed that Perth are looking to emphasise the Glory part of their name – the era we are about to see may just be their Glory.

Scraping through: What the APL can improve ahead of the next Unite Round

A-Leagues Unite Round 2024

The first iteration of Unite Round has not gone by without criticism, but the product itself may well have saved the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) from a complete disaster.

With high-scoring thrillers, player milestones, and little controversy, A League football delivered when it really needed to, and it should give the APL plenty of marketable content for future editions of the round.

In addition, match-going fans performed admirably to help create atmosphere within the grounds.

This includes valiant efforts from interstate fans, particularly Adelaide United and Brisbane Roar, and not least those from the Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory.

These fans were treated to some rip-roaring football, but there simply was not enough of them, with data analysis reporting a total attendance rate to be 47,425 across 12 games; an average of 3,952 per match.

Attendances continue to be the major talking point for fans and critics of the A League, but a simple fixturing change to the round could make the difference next time.

Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory fans had their women’s sides play at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night, before having to wait until Sunday night for their men’s match.

Given the distances fans from both sides have to travel, situating their games as bookends was far from accommodating and recorded a combined attendance of under 5,000 across the club’s three games.

The reverse of this occurred to Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City, with the men’s match taking centre stage on Friday night, whilst the women’s encounter took place at 5:00PM on a Sunday.

While some Wanderers fans did turn out in the grandstand for their women’s team, the RBB was nowhere to be seen and contributed to the low crowd of 1,515.

Finally, there was a same-day clash for Adelaide United fans, who had to make an incredibly tight public transport connection between Leichhardt Oval and Allianz Stadium, or fork out money for a taxi/uber fare between grounds.

It led to many Reds’ fans either leaving their women’s team early, or arriving late to their men’s encounter.

A mirroring of the men’s and women’s league fixtures could have alleviated some of the pressures on attendances, and delivered a more economical and logistically sound solution for fans.

In addition, the APL would be allowing clubs to do its own Unite Round marketing for them, by encouraging their fans to attend both their men’s and women’s fixtures.

We could have seen popular active supports’ such as the RBB, The Cove, The Red Army and The North End, supporting their men’s and women’s teams throughout one night.

Instead, we had disjointed looking crowds at the men’s double-headers, with women’s double-headers left hung out to dry in Leichhardt.

Furthermore, the APL’s decision to pair its newest clubs Western United and Macarthur FC to play at 5PM on a Friday only accentuated doubts over its fan base growth.

The logic may have been to capture match-going fans of Wanderers and City, but it simply did not work, recording an attendance of just under 3,500, with many fans not arriving until the conclusion of what turned out to be a thrilling encounter.

Again, the APL could look at scheduling games between clubs with smaller fan bases, as well as clubs with the greatest amount of travel, Perth and Wellington, to take place at smaller venues that will enable a greater atmosphere.

Twelve games across three venues makes sense, but the scheduling did not. Thankfully, this should be an easier fix for the APL if Unite Round returns next season.

Most disappointing from the perspective of match-going fans, though, was a lack of entertainment at the grounds.

Whilst in-stadium DJ’s and compares did their best to engage the crowd in-between games, there was very little activities on offer with no food vans or sideshows present.

Regardless, with grassroots participation in football so strong the APL cannot let up in finding solutions to entice juniors and their families to A-League matches.

Player and fan interaction could be the place to start, evidenced by the frenzied post-game atmosphere involving Wanderers and Adelaide United fans, who stayed well after the final whistle to meet the players, take selfies and sign shirts.

Could the APL have created exclusive areas, similar to those at the Melbourne F1 Grand Prix, for fans to meet players across the weekend?

There is also the potential to replicate what AFL sides did during Gather Round by conducting open training sessions the day before their matches begin, so that fans can again interact with their clubs.

Even further afar, Major League Soccer continually provides examples of how to engage fans into football whilst battling several high-profile codes.

Offering free merchandise to fans outside the ground such as scarves, hats, banners or even t-shirts are a fixture of the MLS fan experience, whilst brand partners of clubs and the league itself immerse their names and products around stadiums.

To the latter point, sponsor involvement has been so successful that a 2022 survey revealed 73% of MLS fans would try the products of brands associated with their MLS club.

Connecting league and club sponsors, especially during a landmark event like Unite Round, should be pivotal to its success. Of course, the APL will need its representative clubs to pull their weight by getting their sponsors on board.

Finally, in relation to off-field entertainment, the APL cooled some doubts about the round clashing with the Socceroos Asian Cup opener against India, announcing it would provide a fanvzone outside the stadium for spectators to watch the match.

However, fans leaving the Allianz Stadium were led on a merry dance around Moore Park, as the big screens in the designated fan zone failed with very little explanation.

A pub in the entertainment quarter graciously re-opened its doors to show the match on its two big screens, but many fans had already called it a night, leaving them disgruntled despite a terrific night of A-League football.

Indeed, situations like this re-ignite lingering resentment towards the APL, particularly from clubs outside New South Wales, who still hold the organisation accountable for its now-reversed decision to move grand finals exclusively to Sydney.

The reversal gave birth to the Unite Round, and it is likely that many fans chose not to support the initiative because of its connection to the APL’s initial decision.

Meanwhile, reports of financial turmoil within the organisation are being attributed to its redundancy measures, which will see its digital content arm KeepUp effectively removed.

This turmoil could explain the APL’s hasty approach towards its organisation of the round, as well as its conservative approach to its marketing and promotion.

Responding to the redundancies, an APL statement released on Tuesday offers reassurance for stakeholders, clubs, and fans.

“With the original three-year strategy coming to an end, a planned full strategic and commercial review has taken place over the last several months,” it read.

“The review has identified significant opportunities to create efficiencies through consolidation and this necessitates an organisational restructure that is now underway.

“APL’s priorities remain the same – to deliver commercial growth and sustainability by creating the most exciting competitions possible for our fans – with strong teams producing great young players across Australia and New Zealand.”

If the APL stays committed to these priorities, we will hopefully be treated to a more successful edition of Unite Round, and more importantly, a football experience befitting of what is being delivered on the field.

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