We need more than Del Piero to fix football in this country
Sport has long played an important social and cultural role in Australia, but when it comes to football, it has been perceived historically to relate to communities which have just ‘arrived’.
One of the key legacies of qualification for the World Cup for the first time in 1974 was to be the formation of the National Soccer League (NSL). It was seen as being the key to improved international performance, player development, increased participation at junior levels and capturing the hearts and minds of middle Australia. At the time of its establishment in 1977, it was the first and only national professional football competition in Australia.
The NSL was a really good idea poorly conceived and undercapitalised. Fundamental to its formation was the predominance of ethnically based teams that played into the mainstream negative image of football as a game for volatile foreigners, despite its English ancestry. Corporate Australia in 1977 was not prepared to support a bunch of ‘garlic eaters’, some of whom still harboured ethnic rivalries which played out both on and off the field.
Ironically, these same ethnically based clubs helped produce most of what we call the ‘golden generation’ of players who are nearing retirement today, as well as some great talent before them. But by the time the poor old NSL ground to a halt in 2004, the crowd at its final and deciding match of the season was 9,600.
In terms of sporting culture, the fact that teams were based around migrant communities and the NSL survived on the smell of an oily rag for 27 years, gave the three other football codes time and opportunity to mitigate against the potential gains football may have made from World Cup participation in 1974 by broadening their national footprint.
Despite historically high participation levels, football has always played ‘catch up’ to the three other football codes and cricket in terms of devising and implementing long term growth strategies that are made possible because of lucrative broadcasting deals.
Last year, the AFL announced a five year $1.25 billion deal; last month, rugby league announced a $1.0 billion deal for five years; rugby rights are currently around $90 million a year; and cricket is currently around $45 million a year and set to double under new arrangements. Football which includes the A-League and Socceroos matches other than World Cup matches, is $20 million a year in a deal that expires in June next year, and is currently under negotiation. Although the new deal should reach $60 million pa, it is still short of its rivals and is required to do much more with less.
In recent years, a national domestic league could not have survived without the support of the Australian Government. Approximately $150 million has been granted to Football Federation Australia (FFA) for operating costs in the past eight years, excluding the World Cup Bid, which is a testament to the clout of FFA Chairman, Frank Lowy.
But what the gap between Aussie Rules broadcast deal of $250 million per annum and football’s current level of $20 million per annum underscores is that, despite some hard won gains, the sport continues to struggle. Football is not central to Australia’s sporting culture.
There are four governance related issues which have a direct impact on the cultural perception of football.
1. The failure to set up a separate entity for the A-League - a key recommendation from the Crawford Report in 2003 that has not happened. A-League clubs lose between $25-$40 million a year and do not have a say on how the competition is run.
2. Lack of accountability surrounding the implementation of the 2018/22 World Cup bid.
3. ‘Closed shop’ FFA Board - and with no obvious successor to 82 year old Frank Lowy.
4. Serial allegations of corruption and mismanagement concerning FIFA - which add to the perception that football is something foreign and corruption prone. The game will never achieve its full potential domestically while there’s a constant narrative of corruption at the international level.
Right now, despite the setbacks, Australia may well be in the strongest position possible in light of the state football has been in since it was humiliated at the World Cup vote in 2010.
The future financial viability of the sport depends on this next broadcast deal which is to be finalised imminently. With David Gallop starting as the new CEO next month, and the outgoing CEO Ben Buckley continuing to lead negotiations, the sport has two knowledgeable and experienced people playing a part and having a vested interest in the outcome of the broadcast deal. For Gallop, his capacity to shape the future will depend on the outcome; and for Buckley, his own reputation, and the way he is remembered, largely hinges on the outcome.
It may well be Lowy’s smartest move: tying up talent and knowledge from two entrenched and commercially successful competitors as vested advisors.
However, regardless of the outcome, the broadcast rights deal will not be the ‘quick fix’. It will not catapult football into the hearts and minds of the sporting mainstream.
But it will be a critical factor in helping build the culture of football, develop an informed understanding of the game, and shape Australia’s sporting future several generations.
Similarly, although players of the calibre of Alessandro Del Piero and Emil Heskey are a very welcome fillip to the A-League and will be of enormous benefit to their clubs and to the finalisation of the broadcast rights deal, recruiting high profile and highly credentialed players is not a long term ‘silver bullet’ that will fundamentally shift cultural perceptions.
Football does not want to displace other sports, but we do not want it to be forever a struggle.
So to answer the question I posed at the beginning – Can football ever ‘belong’? – I say ‘yes’; and in the medium term, football should aspire to be the number two sport in every part of Australia.
Importantly, football must be at ‘home’ in 21st century Australia, and recognised as a football nation in the rest of the world. Or, as former Socceroo and national coach, Frank Farina, said in his book written 14 years ago: “I dream for, and work for, the day when all of Australia sees it that way too.”
This is an edited extract of a paper prepared for the European Association of Sports Management meeting in Denmark this week.
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