The Australian Professional Leagues has made an impassioned plea to all football lovers of this country to get behind the club game as it enters a new phase of its long and tortured road to sustainability.
The A-League and W-League, fresh from being unbundled from Football Australia, have been bolstered by a $200m deal with Channel 10 and Paramount+ that should usher in an era of prosperity from next season.
The APL has bold plans for its showpiece competitions but the independent body says every decision it makes will have the fans as front and centre.
The body also believes that league football should kick out the inferiority complex that has hindered the game’s progress for decades.
“The game’s stakeholders and governance over many years lost sight of the needs of the fans, the participants, the parents, the coaches, the managers, the members,” managing director Danny Townsend said.
“In any business, you have to put your customer first. Unfortunately, our game did not make that decision.
“The APL is all about driving outcomes for the fans and provide a better experience for them. People need to engage with our game and this will ultimately move the football economy forward. It’s about putting the fans at the centre of every decision we make. That’s the key difference.
”We’ve always been a bit apologetic about Australian football and where our game sits in the broader sporting landscape. It’s always been on the periphery. Okay, it’s not the Premier League or as technical a La Liga but you know what … it’s our football and we should be really proud of it.
“We need to break into the centre of Australian sporting culture and celebrate the role football has played in the waves of migrants who came to this country. Old Australians, new Australians … it does not matter who you are … everyone has an affinity with the game and a story and experience to tell and we need to bring those to light. We need to give these people something that is uniquely Australian to hang on to.
“If we do that and think this way we will unlock a huge opportunity for our game.”
Townsend, who doubles up as Sydney FC chief executive, also addressed the concerns of many league followers in this transitional phase of Australian club football.
The league has achieved its independence and is free to run its own show to a degree. How are the relations with Football Australia?
“Our relationship is fine and we have now settled into our respective areas of responsibility. We are really focused on doing what we need to do to make our areas as successful as can be. We are working collectively with the FA to get the outcome we all need for the football fans and participants. It’s a relationship that has taken on a new paradigm but so far so good.”
Can you give us some more details on the deal with Channel 10 and Paramount+?
“The main points of the deal are twofold. It gives us the reach which we have craved for a long time so the free-to-air audience which we will be able to achieve on a Saturday night will be first on a commercial network. And the launch of Paramount + that will have football as the central pillar of its sports proposition is another important piece to the deal that made it really attractive.”
Many fans fear a ‘big bash league’ approach to football coverage and ads during play. Should they be worried?
“What Ten did for the ‘big bash’ is unprecedented. They took a sport that was in decline and turned it into a juggernaut of the Australian sporting landscape. They intend to do the same with us.
“That doesn’t mean that has to be done in a way that compromises the integrity of the broadcast or the 90 minutes that remain sacrosanct to our game. I think fans can take comfort from the fact that our conversations with Ten have been enormously respectful of our game. Equally, we have added that on top there are certain FIFA regulations in place to ensure that certain aspects of the game are sacrosanct.
“Ten are very aware of this and we are genuinely excited about the entertainment factor Ten will bring to the broadcast. Not just the broadcast itself but, more importantly, the noise around it through magazine-style programming and graphic profiles. I don’t think fans should be concerned. They should be excited, to be honest.”
The competition will be played primarily in the warmer months which goes against the FA’s desire to align its seasons and play in winter. Do you expect a few problems with head office down the track?
“Not at all. I speak with (FA chief executive) James Johnson most days about several matters and obviously, the domestic match calendar is an issue that is critically important for everyone in the game, not just the A-League or W-League.
“Working collaboratively with the FA, James has been very clear to me: he is not against any type of seasonality around our game. He wants to ensure that the match calendar caters for everyone and we are working to make sure that that is the case. We absolutely do not see any problems with that dynamic, moving forward.”
Will the salary cap stay and if it does what is the figure likely to be?
“We are in talks with the PFA over the collective bargaining agreement. The cap and playing conditions are obviously being negotiated so I won’t be talking publicly about the matter out of respect for the PFA. We are confident of, as always, finding a way forward with the PFA to do what’s right for the game and ensure that the model we work towards is sustainable.”
Football was hit hard by the pandemic with viewership and attendances declining. How will the new league win back those people?
“As I said, an important part of the APL strategy is to put the fans first. To do that it, the fans need to understand when the games are on, the marketing of the game has let us down in recent years and our focus will be on making sure the A-League and W-League are talked about on as many different channels and platforms as we can. It’s all about driving that awareness of what we will be doing on the football field. We know we have enormous strength in the number of participants and fans who love football.
“Our challenge is to convert those participants into A-League or W-League fans and to bring back those fans who have lapsed by giving them a reason to re-engage. It will be about serving them with great content that we know they’ll love.”
The standard of this A-League season has been one of the best in the competition’s history yet there is a general apathy among stakeholders. Does this show very clearly how difficult it is for football to win the hearts and minds of average Australians?
“Absolutely, it’s a challenge. We are competing with many entertainment platforms for our fans’ time. And being able to do that effectively is going to be central to the re-imagining of our leagues. That’s the first step. It’s also about re-energising the football fans, getting them to believe again. We know they believe in football, we want them to believe in Australian football. And that is what the APL is all about. We are confident that if we engage our fans more effectively they will come back in droves and help football rise up the table and become the biggest sport in Australia in 2030. That’s our goal.”
Former FFA chief executive David Gallop said something similar during his time. Are we setting ourselves up for failure by making such bold declarations in a country that is besotted with Australian Rules football and rugby league?
“I don’t think so. We need to be confident and have the conviction that our sport is No 1 in the world. How to make sure we are able to deliver that same experience in Australia? The reality is the A-League a 16-year-old proposition. Yes, we had the NSL which was fantastic and before that we had organised football for quite some time.
“But in terms of a professional league we are only half a generation old and we need to ensure that we learn from the past and take advantage of all our strengths which the other sports don’t have. They have always labelled us as the ‘sleeping giant’. It’s a boring label because we have never been able to capitalise but the times for uses now.
“We are structured for success. We are a commercially driven organisation which means we need to invest more money into the game and we are now structured in a way to deliver. I’m not suggesting we are better than the AFL or NRL - they are great sports - but we are in a unique position. We’re the global game and there is no reason we cannot be the same in Australia. It’s going to take time and we have to be realistic. But we are on the path to get there and we should not be ashamed of that."
The VAR system is detested by the vast majority. It has not improved the decision-making process and ruined the game as a free-flowing spectacle. Since the league is not legally bound to keep it, why do we still have it?
“I’ve said this before. We are still in the season where VAR is in play and all things related to the game including VAR will be reviewed in the off-season. I see a lot of discontent that needs to be taken seriously. It’s far from perfect, it needs a lot of attention and it needs to improve. And if it can’t improve we need to consider removing it. I’m not going to cast aspersions on it because any decision we will make about VAR will require proper analysis.”
But most fans don’t want VAR tweaked … they just want it out of the game.
“With all respect, yours might be a straw poll of opinions. That’s not the way I do research. I go through a proper process of speaking to players and coaches. Some remember life without it and prefer this, others don’t. It’s all opinion. We need to have proper diligence and test all opinions and look at alternatives not just ask people you know.”
Footy finals are part of Australia’s culture yet teams finishing first past the post are recognised worldwide as champions. With the grand final winners deprived of a spot in the ACL Champions League do the end-of-season playoffs have a future?
“It’s simple. The finals are the peak of interest in our code in this country. We need to celebrate what is great and unique about our football and the finals are a fantastic experience. It is where our attendances grow and when new people are exposed to our game. So we will keep that as a key part of football in this country.”
The A-League trio’s withdrawal from the ACL will affect Australia’s ranking. If the worse comes to the worst we might be relegated to the AFC Cup. Would we still compete in that tournament?
“Absolutely. We’ll be taking part in any competitions we qualify for. At the end of the day, we’re about competing and putting Australian football on whatever map we can put it on. If that’s the AFC Cup, so be it.”
The forced introduction of young gifted players due to the effects of the pandemic has been one of the highlights of the season. Will the new league reconsider the merits of spending less on foreigners?
“I think what you see at the moment is not so much the impact of COVID but the maturation of the investment the 12 clubs have made in their academies. We took control of the elite pathway about six years ago and we are now seeing the fruit of our investment. So now we are seeing a wave of amazing young talent that we are producing regularly.
“Of course, we need to find a balance between the local and foreign components. Can you imagine how much a young player could learn from the way a quality foreigner plays his football?”
Will the quota of five foreigners per club stay?
“We have no intention to change that any time soon. That’s something we would have to work with the FA because it would impact the national interest. But like everything else, over time you review things and if you think there is a reason to change your actions accordingly.”
What’s likely to come first: expansion to 14 teams or a second division?
“We have ambitions to go to 14 teams as part of the strategy. The second division is out of our control. I think the AAFC is working with the FA on that.”