A National Premier League club chief has offered an “overnight solution” to the conundrum of sky-rocketing registration fees for kids - a blanket ban on all payments to senior players.
With parents slugged as much as $2,500 a year in a pay-to-play model which ranks as the world’s most expensive, legions of youngsters are being lost to the nation’s highest participation sport because their families can’t afford the prohibitive costs of grassroots football.
New FFA chief executive James Johnson has placed resolving the issue high on his to-do list, whilst former Association of Australian Football Clubs boss turned Macarthur Bulls chairman, Rabieh Krayem, has called for a national enquiry into what he views as a blight on player pathways and the game as a whole.
It’s common practice across the NPL’s 200-plus clubs to pay players - a small minority in excess of $1000 a match - whether they are tied to professional contracts or not.
Those payments, one NPL club boss alleged, are often derived from cash paying sponsors, with only a portion of the donation officially recorded.
Levies imposed on juniors enrolled in clubs’ development programs are also used to finance first team player costs as well as general shortfalls in club expenses.
“There would be an overnight reduction in the cost of youth football if you did just one thing ,” said the NPL club boss, who asked to remain anonymous “for fear of repercussions”.
“That one thing, as unpalatable as it might be to many, would be to stop paying first graders.
“If there was a moratorium, and the FFA outlawed the practice, as they do in rugby union, you’d go a huge way to resolving the problem.
“Some of these payments come in brown paper envelopes on a Sunday or Saturday afternoon.
“There’s clearly enough animosity and vilification behind the scenes and almost like the vigilante attitude, where all this goes on but nobody can talk about it.
“The question over youth fees is: Do players get $2500 worth of benefit? In other words do clubs spend $2500 on their youth programs?
“If they did, nobody would have a complaint because they would be getting value for money. But everybody knows that’s not the case.
“This is the sort of thing James Johnson needs to know about if he is looking at making radical and meaningful changes.
“These player payments are historical, but that doesn’t make them right.”
Last year, the NSW Suburban Rugby Union dropped Lindfield RUC a division after they were found to have breached the game’s amateur status by making payments to a single player.
“The players who love the game will still play, and those who aren’t prepared to do that can, in my view, disappear,” added the NPL boss.
“Everybody should be playing for the love of the sport.
“Anybody on an amateur contract should not be entitled to be paid anything and if you are found out the club involved should be fined or docked competition points
“Do that and straight away there will be enough money in the game to charge less fees for kids immediately.
“Do players in the A-League get paid cash under the table? If it’s good enough for the A-League should it not be good enough at our level?"
The NPL source did, however, offer a caveat to NPL 1 clubs, many of whom have signed players to professional terms.
“You don’t begrudge that because these players will train more and have to spend extra time with clubs and thus have less earning power in their day jobs,” he added.
The system administered by the state federations and their affiliates has become a cash cow seemingly geared to disincentivise meaningful structural reform.
State federations charge NPL teams between $10,000-40,000 in license fees, whilst registration fees arc inexorably upwards.
It’s estimated that up to $50 million is held in cash reserves nationwide by the sanctioning bodies without any relief on parents who even at the levels below the NPL are compelled to pay around $350 annually in registration costs per child, and up to $1,500 in the officially sanctioned Skill Acquisition Program for U-9s to U-13s.
Sydney-based NPL 3 club Dunbar Rovers have been one club willing to challenge the status quo, waiving participation fees for juniors over recent seasons in a trailblazing move.
Last year they tweaked the model, only charging registration fees to parents not prepared to volunteer some of their time to the club. Those that do don’t pay a cent.