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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

FSAA: The new fan association aiming to "always get involved"

The desire within Australian football for a fan association that fights at will for supporters regarding decisions made at the very top of the game had long been spoken of as something that needed support and a solid base from which to form.

Western Sydney Wanderers active support. (AAP)

Earlier this week, the Football Supporters Association Australia (FSAA) officially launched with the goal of not necessarily being the all-encompassing lobby fighting for fan rights but the bright spark that helps engage average fans in how and why boardroom-level decisions are made.

This intention makes perfect sense at face value when you consider the long-disgraced Grand Finals sale. One does not need to go too far into the past to know this decision is not an isolated incident. Authorities within the Australian game have long been at odds with fans, and the many guises of how this conflict has occurred have not been well hidden.

Be it the lack of authority to stand up for the game in 2015 when Rebecca Wilson publicly named offenders at A-League matches in the Daily Telegraph or the expansion of the leagues in 2017 perceived as being dictated by then broadcaster Fox Sports, to name a couple of prominent examples.

The game has needed fan representation, and regardless of what and how it looks, it is something the FSAA wants to address.

Front Page Football sat down with chairman Don Sutherland and founder Will Thompson to discuss all elements of their journey and, more tangibly, what the FSAA is looking to do and how it aims to achieve those goals.

Firstly, we must address how the organisation started at the grassroots and on social media, with bold aims and connections in the right places. But how does the FSAA aim to ensure its influence is heard and agreed with by most fans?

Thompson assured that all angles had been covered in starting such a movement.

"It's a long process; we set up the Facebook and Twitter and then asked people if they wanted to get involved. We had [an] interest in that; we got to about 15 people or so, and some were more interested than others, so there was about a quarter, about six of us, and then we went through to having expressions of interest back in February. This (the process) is what got people like Don on board. People with really strong backgrounds that could assist in getting this up off the ground," Thompson said.

"We had about 450 email sign-ups in the initial interest stage, and as for people that have signed up as members, we're at about 100, and that's just in the first day of the launch."

With representation appearing healthy for the dawn of the organisation, chairman Sutherland opened up about how he reached his position of authority and what that looks like in its current set-up.

"I have a life steeped in football that goes back to playing and coaching in my earliest days, and I'm someone that if there is an issue that is of genuine interest, you have the decision that you either roll up your sleeves and get involved or you sit on the sidelines and critique; my view is that you always get involved," he said.

Sutherland added more about what it means to represent the fans more broadly and how the FSAA can deliver on that promise.

Its big-picture goals have yet to be considered, mainly due to how fresh a presence the organisation is within the football community and with its impact being lulled whilst still trying to entice more fans to the cause.

"When I saw the announcement, I went through the expressions of interest, and we whittled down through our election process, so I'm honoured to be in the position of chair," Sutherland said.

"But this is about a collection of people that represent a collection of football supporters; it is not about an individual or series of individuals who have taken on roles, so from our perspective, if we don't represent football supporters, then our opinion is diluted dramatically."

It is worth noting that putting out a name and a cause is one thing, but another is having your audience engage with your goals and vision.

So how does the FSAA aim to ensure they hit the right notes and build credibility moving forward?

"Today, there is a network where if you look at the committee, everyone has their hands involved in football already, so there is already a network out there," Sutherland added.

However, he reassured that regardless of someone's background, hard work and acknowledgement must be done, and the dangers of missing the mark of the proposed engagement be dealt with.

"What is really important is to know that if we decide as a group that we know what football supporters want, but we haven't actually gone to them en masse and asked the questions, we fall into the dangerous ground of assuming we know," Sutherland said.

Sutherland expanded on the importance of securing that level of understanding, something a new face on the scene must achieve.

"Every time you assume you know, someone will stand up and say we've never been aligned with that theory and that desire. So our goal, having formed as a group, is to make sure we truly understand," Sutherland said.

But this issue is already quite contentious within Australian football. Sutherland explained what the FSAA can do to deliver, yet some fans are unsure whether they want to put their eggs in the FSAA's basket.

As one fan claimed in a Facebook group, their lack of understanding of where the FSAA was heading in its initial stages is cause for caution.

"I had a browse of the website and the material available, and I don't really see what you're (the FSAA) doing. That is to say, you have values statements and seem to want to position yourselves as somewhere between a lobby group and union," the fan commented.

The fan went on to list a set of points that are mainly sceptical of the greater goal, one of what will likely be many examples in the coming months and something the FSAA will need to take action on to gain the fans' trust.

So, addressing this aspect, how can the FSAA ensure fans trust them? It's something Sutherland is ultimately not too phased by.

"Our goal, having formed as a group, is to make sure we truly understand. The only way we can do that is by asking and listening and then collating and preferably analysing what the most important issues are that football supporters across Australia have today," he said.

"When we have that, and we have locked that down, we have a much clearer understanding of the key points that we can take to the governing bodies of the sport."

Diving deeper into what has been done, Sutherland was asked whether any conversations had been had or if the authorities at the top of Australian football had earmarked any awareness. Ultimately, such recognition would prove their worth and legitimacy as a group supporting the fans from the bottom up.

"Well, we have just launched, so the idea [that] we've had any discussions is quite presumptuous. We established who the body was, and as Will would know, these discussions go back a long way," Sutherland said.

"The business was incorporated earlier this month, and so it is now an incorporated identity, and there is a process, and it is well planned in terms of how the business will be set up, and now it is our chance to launch to gain support from football supporters and to seek a voice from the key dignitaries of football in Australia."

Though many in the game still reserve the right to be unsure of where the FSAA is heading, few in football's more established corners have yet to notice. How could this element be counteracted? What process will be put in place for more steady growth in the future, and can the conversation be catapulted forward with more discourse in the community?

"Well, I think what is crystal clear is the old adage that talk is cheap, and results count. So we can stand at the altar and preach what we think needs to be done and what is good for the football community," Sutherland said.

Another talking point Sutherland is adamant the FSAA have enough heads to understand and appreciate is the need for results matched with the desire to find the appropriate authority to represent fans with their scepticism.

"The reality is that until we start to achieve things, and until we start to put runs on the board, anyone is sitting on the fence there not quite sure, 'Is this something I should be a part of, is this something I want to support?' At the moment, it's hot air; there is no actual achievement," he said.

Both legitimacy and an element of trust are also required, which is a battle for the FSAA team but something that can be further complimented with a fair amount of time passing and more appreciation for the cause.

"Beyond what we have done to set up the incorporated entity, fans need to say, 'Is this something I want to belong to? Is it something I think is going to support my own issues and concerns around football in Australia? If results are starting to suggest that these guys are able to achieve certain goals, then maybe I'll come along.' At the moment, it's noise, and it's promises, and it's intent and goodwill, and that goes so far," Sutherland said.

"I think that our success will be when we start to meet with key people and we start to achieve certain agreements and when we start to see certain things being done and then it's, 'Okay, it's not all goodwill, these guys are starting to get things done.' Now how long is that going to take? If you could tell me how long a piece of string is, I'm all ears. But it is a journey, and we've started, and we have launched, and to a small extent, we're celebrating that we have done that."

Thompson further showed where FSAA is heading and how its values have been presented to the footballing public.

"We've got the vision and values on the website. Our vision statement is that the FSAA is an inclusive, independent, and democratic association working with supporters, governing bodies, leagues, and other stakeholders to drive positive change in football through supporter engagement," he said.

"A commitment to diversity underpins all of our activity, and we oppose all forms of discrimination or violence in relation to football.

"Our values include inclusiveness and anti-discrimination, multiculturalism, equality of representation, transparency, and democracy. As well as that, we've got our key messages alongside our vision statement up on the website as well, which have been observed from the fan survey we did earlier, back in March."

But is it solely about the Grand Finals decision being the trigger? Just how much of a background in the game and other influences from past atrocities led to the formation of the FSAA?

"What's happened in the past has happened, and a lot of that was without due consultation, and we want to look at all the points raised from the past and manage to ensure that all these decisions are made with that due consultation," Sutherland said.

"In a democratic world, you don't always get what you want, but if I'm running a business and I've got customers, I would want to understand what the very broad opinion was with my customer group.

"I think football supporters require football to be about football supporters. The two need each other, so our goal is to make sure that whatever decisions are being made in the future are done with consultation and are truly representative of the football-supporting community."

The question was raised about an endgame and whether the FSAA ultimately want a seat at the table discussing business matters that affect fan participation and the fans' overall views of the heads of football in Australia.

"It would be presumptive of us without having met with Football Australia or the APL to determine what their expectations are, fair or reasonable, of what our own expectations might be," Sutherland added.

"But if this was the end result, then fantastic. But just as equally, we don't want a token gesture, so if there is something tangible and concrete, that is a terrific outcome. Though [it's] definitely presumptuous to imply this is the expectation for us."

Finally, how can the FSAA deal with a diverse range of football fans in all shapes and sizes? By grouping to represent all those fans, how will they take on the burden of ensuring Australian football fans are ultimately heard and appreciated?

"This is a much bigger picture than just the fans disenfranchised by the APL; this is the full diversity of the full football pyramid. So it's gender, it's age, it's the whole host of tiers within the game," Sutherland said.

"We talk about the A-League a lot, and we talk about the women's A-League, but we have got the NPL across each region too, so the broad spectrum of the people who consider themselves to be football supporters are not always the people that go to an A-League Men match at the weekend, it is much bigger than that.

"So our goal is to give all of those people a voice. Is it wildly ambitious, or is it something that, in a sequential, step-by-step process, will eventually get through? Regardless, that is our goal."

Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of the A-Leagues, or here for our coverage of the NPLs.

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