Over the last few weeks, one of the biggest talking points in Australian football has been surrounding its future in the country and how it can compete with the other codes that dominate the focus during the middle 7 months of the calendar year.
While the round-ball game is now into its 11th season under the A-League banner, 5 games a week doesn’t quite whet the appetite of a starving community who have been longing for a national system that can go head-to-head with other domestic leagues around the world, and provide a competition that will attract tens of thousands of fans to each game nationwide on a weekly basis.
The formation of the National Premier League (NPL) in 2013 aimed to develop the quality of the youth coming through each state system in the hope that Australia will mature into a world-class footballing nation. Clubs from each of the 8 state NPL competitions battle it out among the A-League sides in the FFA Cup (the country’s only domestic cup competition) and currently this is the only link between the top division – A-League – and the lower leagues of the NPL.
While the NPL acts as the nation’s second division, there is no promotion/relegation system in use as of the 2016/17 season.
Before talk of the promotion/relegation scenario, the current state of the A-League needs to be considered and analysed properly. A competition with 10 clubs, a strict salary cap and faltering attendance numbers is in no fit shape to welcome a second tier with promotion and relegation linking the two.
If the A-League wishes to expand its appeal to a wider audience, then it needs to expand its competition to more locations around the country – and even around New Zealand and south-east Asia – and increase the number of competing clubs within the top division.
Talk in recent weeks has revealed that by the 2018/19 season, the A-League will be a 12-team competition. Many clubs have put their case forward to be included, however there are pros and cons to each scenario.
A second team in New Zealand, possibly Auckland or Christchurch, has been suggested. However, with all the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the future of the Wellington Phoenix and their A-League license, this is an option unlikely in the competition’s current state.
A team based in Singapore has been raised as a possibility, with the potential to draw the support of an entire city-state with a population of over 5.4 million people. The possibility of A-League expansion into south-east Asia has multiple benefits (trade relationship and tourism notably two of the most significant), however securing the competition’s stability within Australia needs to be the priority for the FFA going forward.
Another option raised was a second team based in Western Australia. Coming from WA and supporting the Perth Glory from a young age, I can see that from face value a second team is a good idea to provide a local derby and secure A-League football here in the West week-in week-out, just like the AFL have a game here every week during their season. However, being a supporter first-hand allows me to see that a second team here would only be a detriment to the Glory now, and should only ever be considered once their games are being watched live by a near-capacity stadium consistently throughout the season.
With a population of around 500 000 people, Canberra has a strong case to put forward. With no current team in the national capital, a successful W-League squad and a stadium that could potentially hold around 25 000 fans, a franchise in Canberra needs to be considered for the competition’s diversity and stability going forward.
There are three inclusion bids however that seem to be leading the race to be added into the A-League in the coming seasons.
Tasmania has a reason to kick up a fuss. With no team in any domestic league (apart from the various forms of domestic cricket and hockey), there is an abundance of support waiting to be unleashed for the sport with the highest participation rate in the state. The formation of a State Team in recent years to play pre-season games against A-League sides has acted as a pre-cursor for what we could expect if a Tasmanian team was included in the coming seasons.
Two sides who have a proud NSL history are also putting a strong case forward to join the Australian football elite once again.
A club in Wollongong – very likely to be the existing Wollongong Wolves – have a strong financial backing, one of the best stadiums in the nation and is in a footballing heartland in New South Wales. Past and present Socceroos Scott Chipperfield and Tim Cahill have thrown their support behind an A-League team based in Wollongong and have expressed their desire to be involved with the club going forward.
In an interview with The Daily Football Show, former Wolves chairman Andrew Byron said that they wished to join “not as a number, but one of the biggest franchises in the competition”, and it is hard to argue against this, when for a mid-week FFA Cup match they had 15 005 people through the turnstiles on a weeknight.
South Melbourne are the second club with a proud NSL history behind them. In another interview with The Daily Football Show, Director of Football Nick Maikousis said that South Melbourne were an “A-League franchise in waiting” and that they had secured their home ground of Lakeside Stadium for “The next 40 years”. This stability is something that the A-League could utilise as a blueprint for other clubs going forward, and their inclusion will add another two metropolitan derbies with the existing Melbourne clubs playing in the league currently.
However, one big question surrounding their inclusion into the A-League is their ethnic support group. Heavily involved in the Greek community, there are concerns surrounding their supporter group and the numbers they could potentially attract. Competing in the NPL currently, South Melbourne are said to have a bit of ‘smugness’ about them, and use their proud history as a basis to assert their authority in the competition. Rivalries with NPL clubs within proximity of South Melbourne can be a detriment to their fan base and potential attendance, with ethnic clashes often separating fans from each other.
In saying that, potential derbies with Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City, and clashes with the “big-name” Sydney teams will attract high crowd numbers and would be a spectacle for the league. Match-ups with Western Sydney would be an eagerly anticipated clash on the calendar, with the Greek community in South Melbourne up against the Lebanese community in Western Sydney.
At the end of the day, the decision for the future of Australian football is in the hands of the FFA, who will no doubt be influenced by the potential accumulated revenue through broadcast deals and sponsorship to name a few. To everyone weighing in on the debate, it is clear that the common consensus is growth is needed. While a 12-team competition looks likely in the next three years, will that be enough for Australia to take that extra step to becoming a world-class footballing nation? Or is a second division necessary in the future?