As we bid farewell to the thirteenth instalment of the W-League and usher in the halfway point of the A-League season, the clouds of uncertainty around the future of the professional game continue to loom ominously.
Whether it’s the yet-to-be resolved broadcast deal, the repeated calls for the W-League season to be extended, doubts over when the competitions will be played or Football Australia’s insistence on a Domestic Transfer System - there are, worryingly, still more questions than there are answers.
From a player point of view, they’ve openly expressed to me that they don’t want to sign one-year deals anymore and that they’re tired of waiting for the television rights deal to be resolved to determine their playing futures.
This week, I sat down with Professional Footballers Australia co-chief executives Beau Busch and Kathryn Gill to try and get to the bottom of some of the game's most pressing issues.
Lucy Zelic: An alarming number of players will be off contract at season's end, and there's a growing sense of uncertainty around what the future of the professional leagues will look like. Can you shed any light on where discussions are at?
Beau Busch: Thanks Lucy, it's a good question and one that needs to be addressed. For example, this season kicked off with almost 70 per cent of A-League players coming off contract. Yes, we've had a global pandemic that has caused major upheaval, but this level of churn has been trending upwards for the past seven seasons, so it's a systemic problem that requires a solution.
This player churn, which is extreme compared to many leagues globally, creates significant uncertainty for players and is the direct result of short-term CBAs, broadcast deals, economic regulations such as the salary cap and ongoing speculation regarding the season window. This, combined with a contracting model that requires urgent reform, results in our players' careers being amongst the most short-term and precarious in world football.
Kathryn Gill: In the W-League, multi-year contracts are almost non-existent, with our players patching together their playing careers season to season. Addressing this is critical if we are to become the sport of choice for women by offering meaningful and stable careers to our players. Further to this, W-League players play half the amount of games in comparison to their overseas counterparts.
The players are of the view that security and certainty are desperately required. The upcoming CBA negotiations for the W-League and A-League represent an opportunity to build a platform for our game to forge a genuine partnership between the players and the clubs, one based on a shared vision for the professional game.
LZ: The current Collective Bargaining Agreement is due to expire this June. What progress has been made on the next agreement and why is it so important to get it right?
KG: Discussions to date are at an early stage, but what has been clear is that there is a strong desire on both sides to reach an agreement that advances the game and builds a stronger industry.
Collective bargaining has always been and will remain our most effective means of advancing our game's interests. Through it, we have established the W-League and A-League as professional competitions domestically, whilst our national teams' competitiveness has gone hand in hand with progress via our respective CBAs.
LZ: Football Australia CEO James Johnson has signalled publicly that he would like the football calendars to be "aligned". What is the PFA's position on this?
BB: The season window is one of the most critical decisions for any league to decide upon. The decision has to consider a range of factors, including commercial relationships and revenues, the atmosphere in stadiums and fan experience, relevant FIFA regulations and, critically, the quality of the product on the pitch.
Alignment is a means to an agreed end; it is not an end in and of itself. What is critical is that the decision regarding when the Professional Leagues are played has to be based on robust evidence and research. The decision to move the season window would cause significant upheaval, so if it is being proposed, the case must be a compelling one, and the pros must outweigh the cons.
LZ: Earlier this year, Football Australia released a Domestic Transfer System White Paper. However, PFA research has revealed that the proposed system and existing salary cap regulations are "incompatible". What needs to happen for a DTS to be viable in Australia?
BB: We recently concluded club visits with all of our A-League and W-League players, and on this issue, they were clear in their position that the transfer system must be collective bargained, and they will not allow it to be imposed on them.
Importantly, we need to better understand what revenues a domestic transfer system will generate, including what modelling has been conducted to support its introduction, as our professional clubs already have access to the international market.
In the last 12 months, we have been told by the clubs that the players' employment is too expensive and cuts to salaries have been sought to maintain clubs' bottom line. Yet, a transfer system is essentially a tax, making the employment of players more expensive. As such, the business case for its reintroduction needs to be precise.
We must be satisfied that all of the problems of the past, including widespread corruption, won't return and that the most vulnerable players won't be negatively impacted; those players looking for their first professional contract.
Finally, it is absolutely incompatible with the salary cap. The cap is meant to support competitive balance, and the transfer system is about big clubs compensating smaller clubs for the playing talent; combining the two would be, at best, self-defeating.
From a players' perspective, if there were an attempt to impose both systems simultaneously, there would be a tax imposed on players’ employment and a cap on their earnings. The impact would be a reduced ability for our game to attract and retain talent.
KG: For young players seeking their first contract, we need to ensure that any training compensation does not act as a hindrance and prevent them from realising their dream of becoming a professional footballer. Currently, we have a user pay model in this country, so we need more information on what costs clubs are incurring in producing players.
In essence, FA is not obliged to attempt to reintroduce a domestic transfer system into this country. If that is their intention, it must be agreed to with the people who will be subject to it - the players - and the business case must be clear and overwhelmingly benefit the game.
LZ: Establishing a successful legacy post the 2023 Women's World Cup is hugely important but what are some of the opportunities that securing the tournament will provide for the women's game?
KG: The Women's World Cup is a generational opportunity to transform the game in this country. Largely speaking, the W-League will be the engine for the women's game. As it currently operates, it is not fit for purpose, and we have fallen behind our international rivals. The separation of the professional leagues represents an opportunity to work in partnership with the owners to build a fit for purpose league and establish our domestic competition as one of the world's best.
To do that, we need to enshrine opportunity and equality through the CBA. The current season length denies players the opportunity to develop in a high-performance environment year-round. There remains a significant disparity at some clubs between what the male and female players are offered. The combination of the Women's World Cup with a reformed W-League can allow us to establish the game as the sport of choice for women in this country and equally to be a force for good in our community.
LZ: The mental health and well-being of players has been the subject of much discussion recently given the shocking online abuse that many of them are subjected to. What provisions are the PFA putting in place to protect players and how can football address these systemic problems?
BB: Domestically and internationally, we know the impact this abhorrent abuse on social media can have on players. Our players are clear that it won't be tolerated, and they will call it out. Equally, they are determined to play a broader role by using their voices to combat this issue so that people don't feel like they have to continue to suffer in silence.
Through the PFA Player Development Program, players have access to confidential psych support and advice on reporting abuse. We’re currently working with the eSafety Commissioner's Office to develop a comprehensive strategy and resources to ensure we are not only reactive but proactive in combating this significant and challenging issue.
LZ: Recently we caught up with former Socceroo Brett Holman who is an ambassador for the PFA's Past Players Project. What are some of the key issues that players are experiencing in life after football that need addressing
KG: Adequately supporting past players is one of the biggest challenges and opportunities for professional sport globally and highlights the ongoing duty of care that needs to be afforded to players. Our research has illustrated that many past players feel disconnected from the sport they have given so much (to) and face ongoing mental and physical challenges.
BB: The program is a step forward in the right direction to address these challenges, but much more is required. Currently, the establishment of the Program is the result of the commitment of the current generation.
We now need greater support from the industry if we are to ensure we build a worthwhile, sustainable and impactful program to support those who have given so much. Ultimately, the care that we afford our past players reflects who we are as a sport.