Friday, March 1, 2024

Australia’s football pyramid is one step closer to reality. Now what?

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Football Australia has confirmed it will introduce a national second tier (NST) in 2025. The competition will feature 10 to 12 clubs, playing a full home-and-away season, plus finals and cup commitments. The federation has crossed the Rubicon. Now what?

For a concept dismissed as impossible, fanciful, or both, for so long, and one that only really began to make headway once the Australia Cup imprinted on the broader public, it’s remarkable that it is happening at all. The game has had a national footprint since 1977 but will now have multiple tiers of that scope; a minimum of 110 players will get the chance to play, week-in-and-week-out, against the best of the best outside the A-League, alongside associated coaching staffs, support crew, administrators, and more.

When examined within a footballing prism — which one would hope would be a primary perspective for most decisions in the game — there are effectively no downsides. It’s also important to clarify the A-League and NST aren’t in competition and that, done right, they’re supplementary in nature. A strong A-League helps make a strong NST, and vice-versa.

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As for the “now what,” one of the next immediate steps is probably figuring out just which teams will join the eight clubs — Preston, South Melbourne, Avondale, APIA Leichhardt, Marconi, Sydney Olympic, Sydney United, and Wollongong — that were announced last week as foundation members. Preferably, there will be four additions as a 22-game, 12-team regular season represents a more investment-worthy prospect — both in emotional and economic terms — than an 18-game, 10-team regular season.

Football Australia says it has no definitive timeframe for making these decisions beyond early 2024, and the federation will be hoping that at least some of the future additions will be drawn from outside Victoria and New South Wales. Indeed, the geographic spread of the league’s initial founding has become a point of contention, even if it was a scenario that didn’t come as too much of a surprise to those who have been consistently engaged with the process.

It was something of a damned if they do, damned if they don’t scenario for Football Australia. Given the high bar the federation set for entry and its unwillingness to subsidise participants, it became almost inevitable that the league would draw the bulk of its entrants from the National Premier Leagues (NPL) of NSW and Victoria, the two largest competitions outside the A-League. Entrants to the NST will need to pay an annual participation fee and provide a bank guarantee, both understood to be close to $500,000, on top of other costs. It’s not cheap.

Of course, the process of selecting which clubs would participate is one of the primary points of angst surrounding the NST; the almost necessary hypocrisy that comes with establishing a new, national competition while juggling the economic realities of doing so with principles of empowering clubs — all clubs — and giving them a point of aspiration.

Creating and sticking to criteria for entry was the only realistic way that a competition like the NST could both get off the ground and ensure participants would maintain investment not just in 2025, but in 2026, 2027 and beyond. It addresses the often-asked question of how it will all be paid for. Even the most laissez-faire of leagues around the world have some level of minimum standards associated with entry; football clubs exist in an odd world where there are simultaneously cultural institutions, entertainment products, and working environments, and the latter two come with certain responsibilities to all involved, especially as you progress to more elite levels.

Some subsequent concerns have been raised that the bar is not set too low to be sustainable, but too high, arguing that the competition won’t thrive because the economic standards are too arduous — especially when considering other strategic decisions surrounding the league, such as where it sits in the already busy footballing calendar, and, of course, the pyramid. Melbourne Knights and Heidelberg United both issued statements reiterating a commitment to entering the NST, but spoke of continuing concerns surrounding participation requirements. Given the risks involved for clubs, which appear much more existential than those faced by Football Australia, it’s not surprising that some will take a wait-and-see approach to the league’s viability.

In parallel to this, the initial geographic spread of the competition to Melbourne, Sydney, and Wollongong creates challenges in attracting the kind of nationwide interest, viewership, and sponsorship that will allow the league to grow. Perception is three-fifths of reality and nuances surrounding external impediments and strict fiscal criteria just don’t quite have the same cut-through as accusations of a NSW and Victorian league. Fortunately for the federation, Gold Coast United, South Hobart, Brisbane United, and Sunshine Coast are among the clubs that have signalled their intent to continue to pursue a berth in the inaugural season if certain obstacles can be navigated.

But there’s even more of this web of doublethink to weave, because the concepts of exclusivity, standards, and market-driven thinking — while necessary — are uncomfortable bedfellows with the egalitarian messaging that has been at the core of a push for an NST.

Football Australia chief executive James Johnson has rightly observed that an NST still doesn’t even exist, so any plans to link it with a third tier — the NPL below — will inevitably need time. Even if the federation didn’t say it, Football Australia’s mooted Champions League-style competition for non-NST NPL sides to participate in 2025 is clearly something designed to be co-opted into a means of eventual promotion and relegation.

Connecting the NST with the A-League above, meanwhile, will require even more stringent planning, stringent benchmarks, and lot more time. A conversation for down the track, says Johnson, and he’s right.

But the entire purpose of the NST — to fill the gap between the A-League and the NPL and serve as an incentive for clubs to grow — is rendered almost obsolete if all it does is add another layer of landed gentry to the game. It’s important to remember this during the coming formative years when long-lasting decisions will be made. It’s also worth noting that it is Football Australia — not the A-League — who controls access to all Australian football competitions “whether by expansion, contraction, or promotion/relegation.”

Now that the bullet has been bitten, the inevitable question is if Football Australia has struck the right balance of sustainability and aspiration, between exclusivity and standards. If the things required for the competition to be born can evolve to allow it to become the thing it needs to be.

Because it all comes down to the clubs. Sooner rather than later, the NST needs to work for them, not the other way around.

Philosophically, the creation of this new league has never been the ultimate goal. It’s been to provide a platform for clubs, those in it and those that have determined it’s their goal to gain access, to grow and develop. It’s to drive investment in facilities and players, administrators and coaches that the game needs more of by rewarding excellence. It’s to foster and grow a sense of connection, excitement, and loyalty amongst fans and communities that either already exist around clubs or that can be developed; welcoming them, drawing strength from them and, when they need it, giving strength back to them.

Australia’s history of closed leagues (both the NSL and A-League) faltering in a crowded sporting market has produced a phenomenon where, because it is constantly under siege, the competition has become its own entity that fans begin to root for. Supporters of clubs feel the need to prop up the competition as a whole, rather than concentrate on their own fandom. But that’s not the goal here. You don’t set up an NST just to have an NST. You do it as part of a journey to produce stronger clubs and mobilise the massive participation base that football in this country loves to brag about. While there are still plenty of other regulations, negotiations, and strategies that need to be decided before 2025 — television deals, financial and competition rules, and so on — building and growing football clubs is key. It’s the clubs that will play the games, employ the athletes, build the stadiums, facilitate the sale and movement of players at home and abroad, and allow more recognition for the thousands of tireless souls who devote themselves to their community year after year.

“It’s always been my frustration in Australian football that we’re such a small community, but even within that small community we’re divided,” former Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou recently told Optus Sport.

“And it didn’t need to be that way, even from the start of the A-League. I understood why the A-League came to be, and it definitely offered some really important pathways for footballers in terms of professionalism and opportunities to pursue a career.

“But there was so much history, and so many passionate football people [who] were cast aside at the time. It just gives people hope now, and more opportunity … hopefully this kind of brings everyone together and creates something special.”

For now, there’s eight clubs that will benefit from the establishment of the National Second Tier. Soon enough, it will be 10 or even 12. But it’s a failure if it ends there as these are just more blocks for part the pyramid; it’s Football Australia’s job to make sure it all fits together.

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