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Why the FFA have made the right call on grassroots soccer

The grassroots level is where our stars are born, where we discover our love for the game.

It’s arguably the most important level of the game and without it, the sport of soccer in this country would be next to nothing.

In light of the recent coronavirus outbreak that has been dominating the headlines worldwide, the FFA originally decided to continue games at the community level, without crowds.

From a certain point of view, it made sense.

Local clubs thrive on matchdays and to play fixtures as per usual, just without any supporters.

Only players, coaches, officials, registered ground staff and media were going to be allowed attendance.

But this week, the FFA have overruled this decision, instead opting to postpone all fixtures below the A-League until the virus outbreak reaches a manageable level.

One which would allow fans to go to games without running the risk of contracting COVID-19.

It’s hard to argue that the FFA have made the incorrect decision.

As much as we want to watch our favourite clubs play whilst we sit at home, cheering them on, it’s hard for clubs to warrant fixtures being played without gameday income.

As fans, we can often take our purchases and financial commitments to clubs for granted. It’s easy to do so, especially if you’re a long serving member of the club.

At the start of the year, prior to the outbreak, many fans would’ve felt paid their membership fees, bought their attire and anything else without thinking twice.

Just the beginning of another season.

But now, with all those fees paid and no games to help bring more money in, clubs would struggle.

Clubs rely heavily on food, drinks and ticket purchases to keep them afloat during the season. It’s a reliable source of income that doesn’t need much attention, if any.

People will always buy tickets on the day, buy their own dinners and even a few drinks if they’re in the mood. It’s a given for most clubs and it is an easy way to make profit.

However, with no fans at games, things change drastically.

Players, coaches, ground staff and club media still have paychecks to be met. Referees are in the same boat.

Power bills don’t come cheap and with games being played, you can bet those bills would take their toll, especially night fixtures where lights are required to be on.

Furthermore, by playing these fixtures, you run the risk of people contracting the virus.

Yes, it’s not as risky as having hundreds or thousands of fans enter the stadiums/grounds.

But the chances of it happening, albeit slim, are still higher than we all wish it was.

Clubs will still make significant losses from this outbreak, make no mistake about that.

Some AFL clubs are reporting that they may be in for financial losses of more than $5 million, a staggering amount.

Clubs across the Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League will also make losses.

Community level clubs are in the same boat. But it’s certainly smarter and above all else, safer to have these games postponed until the time comes when we can all shake hands again.

When we can go outside without having to worry about what might happen.

When we can live our lives as per normal.

Many fans will be staying at home during these bizarre times and limiting how often they leave the house.

As much as they’d love to see their sides play whilst in the comfort and safety of their own homes, it simply isn’t the way.

Fans will simply need to find other ways to entertain themselves as their local clubs will have to join many more around the world, in a period of limbo.

Although the decision would have been one they did not make lightly, FFA CEO James Johnson and his team have certainly done the right thing in postponing.

By running these fixtures, it’s simply running the unnecessary risk of spreading the virus and that’s the last thing needed right now.

Johnson has been thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire as CEO, but he has made a good start in trying circumstances and let’s hope he stays on this trend.

However, he and his team need to continue making these tough calls.

Next up, postponement of the A-League.

Once again, it’s merely common sense.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Let us know and get involved in the conversation on Twitter @Soccersceneau

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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.

Fixing Australia’s youth development starts with revamping the Y-League

A lack of consistent talent-production has cast the spotlight over Australia’s youth pathways in recent years, a topic that has generated robust discussion in football circles.

With many in the industry calling for change, it was a welcome sight when in July, Football Federation Australia (FFA) released its ‘XI Principles’ discussion paper. The document was generally well-received and among the key issues James Johnson and his team addressed was the requirement for a systematic revamp of Australia’s youth system.

According to principle five, FFA will seek to ‘Create a world class environment for youth development / production by increasing match minutes for youth players and streamlining the player pathway.’

Reinvigorating Australia’s youth football pathways will require a long-term, systematic approach to be successful but one thing is certain – young players simply need more competitive minutes.

And that starts by revamping the Y-League. As it stands, 10 clubs make up Australia’s national developmental and under-23 reserve league, forming two conferences.

In principle, the league fits a purpose, but in practice the system is not providing anywhere near enough high-level football for youngsters, certainly not since structural changes were made that hamstring the progress of Australia’s youth prospects..

Gary van Egmond was appointed Young Socceroos manager after the team failed to qualify for three consecutive Under-20 World Cups.

The 2015-16 season saw a new format introduced whereby the Y-League’s regular season was reduced from 18 games per team to a meagre eight (with potential for nine including a grand final).

Part of this reduction in games was due to budget cuts, another part due to FFA’s desire for players to use the NPL system as a developmental tool. On paper this seemed reasonable, but it has proved counterproductive, as talented youngsters are often torn between multiple commitments, causing a severe lack of continuity.

Although A-League clubs can enter their academy teams into their respective state’s NPL competition, elite players are playing a mixture of Y-League, NPL and the A-League games, the latter usually in a substitute or benchwarmer capacity.

This lack of consistency is creating a massive void in player development during what are some of their most critical years.

Earlier this year, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) published an extensive report reviewing the national youth competition through historical analysis and player surveys. In an interview with pfa.com.au regarding the report, Guinean born Australian youth-level star John Roberts had the following to say.

“The Y-League is only eight games, and sometimes you don’t play eight, maybe it’s just four or five because you’re trialling with the first team or you’re the 17th or 18th man and you don’t get to play. In my opinion, for young players I think the youth league needs to go to a full season because I just think it will benefit us young players, it will give us more opportunity when we’re not playing.”

“But after the youth league finishes, you have to wait a while and then play NPL1 or NPL2 or just wait for your opportunity in the A-League.”

“You have to play regularly in higher competitions. If you’re playing NPL1 or NPL2 and you get called up into the A-League, the intensity of the game is too different because you’re not used to that and you don’t play in a high enough competition.”

The full interview with Roberts can be found here.

Striker John Roberts spoke about the limitations of the Y-League.

Among the notable results published in the report were that 90% of players believe the Y-League season should be extended and that only 20% of players who have graduated from the Y-League over the past five years went on to make an A-League appearance.

The findings led PFA Chief Executive John Didulica to state “In its current format the Y-League does not meet the needs of the players, A-League clubs or Australian football.”

The lack of youth production has predictably influenced the national setup, with Australia’s Under-20 team failing to qualify for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for a record third consecutive time.

With the Y-League’s structural changes in 2016 clearly not having their intended impacts and FFA’s 2017 closure of the AIS, changes need to be made.

The solution may simply involve favouring the decentralized, academy-first approach which FFA has created but designing an environment which complements it. Something akin to the National Youth League of 1981-2004.

Extending the Y-League to run parallel to the A-League as a genuine reserve grade competition would allow players to fully commit to their academy side. This would mean ample minutes, plus a guarantee of continuity that does not currently exist for players who are forced to rebound between Y-League, NPL and occasionally A-League clubs.

While in theory this could harm NPL teams if their talented youngsters are poached by academies, it could create a perfect opportunity for FFA to implement new rules and regulations surrounding player transfers and compensation that would form part of an improved transfer system.

This is something the federation has stated it wishes to achieve through principle number three, in which FFA states in intention ‘To establish an integrated and thriving football ecosystem driven by a modern domestic transfer system’.

Designing a formal compensation system to parallel a legitimate under-23’s full season competition would kill two birds with one stone, rewarding grassroots clubs for producing talent while giving young players the consistent exposure to competitive football

There are undoubtedly factors, mainly commercial, which would dictate the validity of these ideas, but the game’s top administrators do need to act, or Australia will face the risk of losing its next generation and fading from international football relevance.

Why an Australian football Netflix series is needed

Netflix boast just under 200 million subscribers worldwide and have released several sports documentaries over the last few years. However, we are yet to see an Australian football Netflix series – an opportunity that should be taken advantage of.

There is a market for these types of documentaries as Netflix is not the only streaming service that features sport docuseries. Amazon Prime has produced also produced documentaries on Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

One of the most popular football docuseries has been Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die. The show which provided a behind the scenes view of the club was one of the most watched programs on Netflix in the UK during the week of the release of the second season.

Sunderland has received global recognition off the back of the popularity of the show.

Stewart Donald, owner and former chairman of Sunderland told ChronicleLive that there are lots of reasons why the documentary is good for the club.

“My initial thought with it was, there aren’t many football clubs that can have a global brand, but if you’ve got a Netflix documentary and it goes right, you can get that out to the world and maybe you might get a few people who come along and get emotionally involved in Sunderland who otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said.

“If our name goes out to 20 or 30 million people on Netflix, or however many it might be, that can only be good for the club.”

There are several possibilities for an Australian football docuseries. The show could follow a single A-League club’s season, in the same vein to the Sunderland or Manchester City programs.

Other documentaries have focused on a season of a series or championship as a whole. Netflix’s Formula 1 docuseries Drive to Survive involves several different teams and features a different storyline each episode.

One million households streamed Drive to Survive within the first 28 days of season two’s release according to research agency Digital-i.

An A-League version of this could cover the biggest storylines and moments of the season.

Documentaries have also focused on the national team of a sporing organisation such as Amazon Prime’s The Test which documents the Australian cricket team’s redemption following the ball tampering scandal in 2018.

A series that follows the qualification process of an Australian team for a FIFA World Cup would be a particularly interesting documentary series given the high stakes involved.

The exposure gained from an Australian football Netflix series could be a great opportunity to either introduce people to Australian football or reinvigorate their love for the game.

Drive to Survive has seen an increase an interest for the sport in the US, which is not a traditional market for Formula 1.

Earlier this year Renault Formula 1 Driver Daniel Ricciardo appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah where he discussed the impact that Drive to Survive has had in the US.

“I definitely feel F1 is becoming much more of a thing here in the States. Drive to Survive put it on the map,” he said.

“I spend a bit of time in the States, and up until a year ago, not really anyone would say ‘Hi’ to me – not in a bad way, but they wouldn’t recognise me for being an F1 driver.

“And now it’s all: ‘We saw you on Netflix, it was great, Drive to Survive.’ We wear helmets, so not many people can see our faces a lot of the time.

Given the younger demographic of streaming service users, a docuseries could create a new generation of fans for football in Australia. Depending on the success of the series, it could even inspire more young Australians to play the world game.

At an event for 188Bet in March 2020, F1’s Managing Director of Motorsport Ross Brawn, said that the Netflix series had seen positive impacts for the sport.

“What we’ve discovered is it’s been very appealing to the non race fan: in fact it turned them into race fans,” Brawn said.

“Some of the promoters in the past season have said they’ve definitely measured the increase in interest in F1 that has come from the Netflix series.

“And while Netflix in itself wasn’t for us a hugely profitable venture, in terms of giving greater coverage for F1, it’s been fantastic.

While Football Federation Australia, the A-League and its clubs would not be able to demand the millions of dollars that other clubs and organisations are paid for their participation in a documentary, it could provide a cash boost for the organisations.

Ryan Reynolds has partnered with fellow actor Rob McElhenney to purchase Welsh soccer club Wrexham AFC, who compete in the fifth tier of English football, the National League.

Part of Reynolds and McElhenney’s takeover bid involves plans for a documentary series that follows the events of the team.

Bloomberg spoke to Ampere Analysis analyst Richard Broughton, who said that it would not be unreasonable for a streaming service to pay several hundred thousand pounds per hour for the broadcast rights to a show.

An Australian football Netflix series would be extremely beneficial for the sport in this country.

Australian football needs to further explore the potential of Twitch

Twitch continues to be one of the world’s leading platforms to live stream content and Australian football should build their presence on the service.

The FFA launched the E-League in 2018, a competitive Esports league where professional gamers played and represented A-League clubs in the FIFA video game series.

The league is broadcast on the Amazon subsidiary Twitch, with viewing numbers impressive across the board.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the opening night of the E-League saw 138,000 people tuning into the show, a figure which was bigger than most A-League games in the past few years.

Speaking at the time of the launch, former FFA head of commercial, digital and marketing, Luke Bould, explained that the idea behind the E-League was to attract a younger audience and build awareness of the A-League’s brand.

“We’re being entrepreneurial, we’re taking a risk. We have to be there and for us it’s a strategic advantage, there’s a million plus people playing this game and we don’t have enough fans of the A-League. We can try and influence them through this media,” he told SMH.

Bould claimed the E-league’s opening night attracted a larger social media following than any other streamed event covered by the FFA (including Bert van Marwijk’s unveiling before the 2018 World Cup).

“That’s the strongest thing we’ve ever done in terms of social platforms, whether it’s live press conferences, it’s by far the strongest thing we’ve ever done,” he said.

Fast forward two years, the E-League now has over 6,000 followers on Twitch and just under four million video views.

The Esports competition has engaged fans successfully on Twitch, but there are more options that Australian football can take advantage of on the platform.

Those in charge could develop strategies to encourage the sizeable E-League fanbase to further engage with real life A-League content, on the same service.

The issue is, there is no official A-League account on the live-streaming service.

The absence of this could be seen as a missed opportunity.

La Liga recently became one of the first major European sports competitions to join Twitch.

On the service, they now broadcast behind the scene’s footage, preview and review shows, special programs on featured players in the competition and much more.

The Spanish competition’s partnership with Twitch also allows for collaboration opportunities which benefits the streaming community.

Could the A-League enter a similar partnership on a smaller scale?

Since Fox Sports has currently cut back on producing A-League magazine shows, it could address a current hole in the market.

Producing exclusive real-life content on Twitch could also see more young football fans flocking to the platform, in addition to those who are already interested in the E-League competition.

It helps that Twitch is an extremely popular platform for a young audience (a market which Australian football administrators are currently targeting), particularly male.

According to Globalwebindex, 73% of Twitch users are aged between 16-34, with 65% of all users being male.

Another possibility for the Australian game is to follow the likes of famous clubs such as Real Madrid and Juventus, as well as leagues such as the English Premier League, in broadcasting live matches on the platform.

Real Madrid and Juventus have their own channels on the service and they have broadcast friendlies and youth team matches.

The English Premier League live-streamed matches on Twitch for UK users earlier this year for the first time.

With murmurs that the FFA Cup is set to be broadcast on YouTube next season, it may not be the worst idea to showcase some of those games on Twitch instead.

It would open up potential commercial opportunities for the present and the future, on a platform where Australian football needs to increase its visibility.

It could not only benefit A-League clubs, but also maximize the exposure for NPL clubs competing in the cup competition.

If Australian football is serious about its focus on engaging a digital audience, Twitch needs to be further entrenched in its plans.

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