Opinion

If 2020 didn't bury us, nothing will - Long live Australian football

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It’s difficult to believe that it’s been almost a year since the A-League was postponed indefinitely and the future of the professional game in Australia was thrust into purgatory.

Whether it was the Fox Sports walk-out fiasco or the Collective Bargaining Agreement dispute between the clubs and players’ union - you could have been forgiven for thinking the game was on death row.    

The wide-reaching ramifications of COVID-19 have had a devastating impact on all levels of industry but the problems within Australian football existed well before the virus reached our shores and was not the cause of our downfall, merely the microscope.

So, what have we learned since then?

Somehow, both the A-League and W-League managed to evade a grim fate and eight months on from the announcement that jilted broadcaster Fox Sports had renegotiated terms for another season, our appetite for change has delivered in different ways.

Players were lured to the Indian Super League and beyond, conservative spending opened the door for new blood, the lengthy divorce between Football Australia and the clubs was finalised, some owners showed their true (cheap) colours, the CBA conflict came to an end and the governing body opted for a name change.

Promises have been made via a set of not-so-new ‘XI Principles’, the National Second Division conversation sparked a turf war between state league clubs and the powers-that-be, and the W-League has reminded us all why women’s football and it’s coverage is so damned important ahead of 2023.

For all of the spiteful prophets predicting Australian football’s demise, there have been a handful of steadfast administrators, committed stakeholders and a battalion of devout fans all fighting for its survival and as a result, it’s given birth to a revival.

So far, the contests we’ve seen across the A-League and W-League have been enthralling and boasted high-quality which has surprised many of us.

Prior to the season kicking off, there were grave fears that the standard of football was going to suffer and that the lack of big names would impact overall interest - but it’s the first time I’ve been this engaged in a long time.

Perhaps the absence of the game did embolden our hearts to grow fonder but maybe, just maybe, entertaining the thought that we might be plunged back into the dark ages awakened something in all of us?

For the first time in years, the Central Coast Mariners are on top of the table; young players like Wenzel-Halls, Kuol, Nieuwenhof and the Toure brothers have excited us and we’re getting a delightful glimpse at what the next generation of Matildas looks like in the W-League.

Where at one point we were gasping for air, now we’re revelling in the breath of fresh air that we so desperately needed.

However, the issue concerning Fox Sports and their coverage of the game recently has ignited much debate and with five months left on their existing contract, you’d imagine that the “tuba guy” will come up at the next round of negotiations.

Rumours are swirling that they’ve expressed interest in renewing their relationship with football but well-placed sources will tell you that they’re not the only parties who have sent in love letters.

I’ve been told that decision-makers are quite impressed with what’s on offer but one thing’s for sure - the status quo cannot continue.

This week former Fox Sports commentator Simon Hill spoke openly on his podcast and said "the game cannot afford to be dictated to by one over-bearing partner in such a brutal fashion going forward” and I couldn’t agree more.

During SBS’s four-year broadcasting agreement with Football Australia and Fox Sports, we were never given an opportunity to showcase a derby and headline fixtures were few and far between but not by our choosing.

Ratings were unimpressive and it forced the network to move the coverage to its secondary channel but mostly for financial reasons, which was hard.

To say that this free-to-air arrangement took the game forward would be disingenuous - it was a conciliatory effort from those in power at a time when the sport needed to take another giant leap forward because we knew Alessandro Del Piero wouldn’t be here forever.

The potential and the opportunity was there but it wasn’t taken, which, frustratingly, seems to be the theme of Australian football over the decades.

Since then, we’ve seen the game bounce over to other broadcasters and be given minimal love in terms of promotion or investment and that type of treatment has translated to viewers.

It’s a series of missteps that the key stakeholders must learn from if they hope to grow the game and reach a significantly wider audience otherwise they risk repeating the past.

In the face of it all, my message on this particular subject has always been clear: I don’t care which free-to-air or pay TV network broadcasts it, but whoever does needs to love and respect it like they would their children - equally and unconditionally.

Beyond the television rights issues, there are still a host of other kinks that need to be ironed out before we can truly celebrate how far we’ve come.

We’re still yet to see the clubs enact an aggressive marketing campaign that they alluded to many months ago, there haven’t been any other public declarations from Football Australia on a viable second tier competition and while COVID-19 still holds a firm grip on our freedoms, we haven’t addressed how to re-engage the fans.

Throughout the ages, many have wanted the game to fail in this country but far more have wanted it to succeed and for the latter, I am truly grateful.

If a long-standing pandemic, rogue owners, the absence of marquees, poor decisions from the governing body and a wayward broadcaster aren’t enough to bury us then nothing will.

Long live Australian football.

Source SBS The World Game