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  • Writer's pictureHarry Bailey

A-Leagues future: The APL labours on, or time for Football Australia to regain control?

The Australian Professional Leagues' (APL) stewardship of the A-Leagues since 2020 has been met with significant challenges. Declining viewership and revenue have cast a looming shadow over the future of Australia's two premier domestic competitions. While COVID-19 undoubtedly played a part, fans have been pointing to the APL's leadership as a key factor in this decline. Financial pressures have forced tough decisions, including major staff redundancies and the closure of KEEPUP. These issues raise an important question: Can the A-Leagues flourish again, and if so, who is the best organisation to lead it forward—the original custodian, Football Australia, or the current operator, the APL?

Serious doubt is emerging over the APL's ability to lead the A-Leagues moving forward. (Image: Harley Appezzato)


The A-Leagues' recent financial woes have undoubtedly served as a wake-up call for fans. Declining investment and questionable decisions threaten the long-term viability of a professional Australian football league with commercial success. This stark reality demands a course correction to ensure the leagues can not only succeed moving forward but also survive.


The A-Leagues are currently at a critical juncture. The APL's tenure has coincided with declining finances and fan disillusionment. While past tensions between Football Australia and the leagues are well-documented, the APL's shortcomings have reignited the question: could the FA offer a better path forward for the competitions?

The current obstacles include Canberra United's precarious position and founding club Newcastle Jets' struggle to find new owners, which have highlighted the professional game's financial fragility. While the clubs remain optimistic about securing new ownership, the APL's inability to provide clarity on their futures casts major doubt on the A-Leagues' overall stability.


The ongoing financial struggle continues to raise serious questions about the APL's management of the leagues. The A-Leagues' inability to support both clubs, especially one which has won the men's competition and is a founding club, shows that it is not in a viable position moving forward. Not to mention today's news that the current TV deal is set to be cut in half, which is a major blow to the central funding mechanism for clubs. Hence, in this piece we explore the potential benefits and drawbacks for the A-Leagues remaining under the APL, and in the event Football Australia regain control.


A future with the APL


In 2021, the A-Leagues' "unbundling" from Football Australia ignited a mix of hope and trepidation. Years of frustration with the FA from fans and clubs fuelled optimism for a brighter future under more independent and commercially focused ownership.


Many found the allure of increased investment and a revitalised league attractive. However, three years on, the A-Leagues finds itself in a more precarious position than ever before. While external factors (such as COVID-19) have played a significant role, the current financial burden of the APL’s management of the leagues demands a swift and decisive response to ensure their longevity.


Looking forward, the APL remains committed to expansion and a commercially successful future for the A-Leagues. Former CEO Danny Townsend's promise of a bright future still rings hollow for many fans, with the ex-Sydney FC executive telling fans in 2021 to “strap yourselves in. Here comes the future.”


While Townsend was correct in telling us to strap ourselves in, the A-Leagues experience under the APL has been more akin to navigating white-water rapids than a smooth road.
Former Australian Professional Leagues (APL) and Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend.

Former APL and Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend. (Image: Sydney FC)


In an interview with ESPN in March, current APL commissioner Nick Garcia expressed his optimism that the APL can still provide adeqaute support for the A-Leagues to develop talented players and, therefore, contribute to its success.


"Historically, there wasn't a football strategy at A-Leagues," he said.


"I'm not sure there's ever been a football strategy. It's all been about fans, commercialisation, monetisation -- which is really important -- but if you plan that through and you haven't defined what your product is, then how do you market it?


"What we know from fans is that they like young talent coming through their systems, to see those kids get a chance...go on and do great things in Europe and maybe one day return as Socceroos or Matildas. That's really important to them.


"Giving match minutes at a very young age is very important. Creating exciting, attacking football is important. Seeing young stars get developed is important.”

While the APL's vision—as outlined by Garcia—emphasises player development and a pathway to European leagues, this strategy lacks concrete action. His acknowledgement of the A-Leagues' previous lack of a "football strategy" underscores the current disconnect between vision and execution.


The optimism surrounding the APL's plans hinges solely on their pronouncements rather than a proven track record. The current financial struggles and questionable past decisions, like selling off the Grand Finals, paint a concerning picture that the APL lacks an understanding of what fans want to see from the leagues. Ultimately, judging the A-Leagues' future under the APL requires looking at the present – with all the evidence suggesting a bleak outlook.

The APL's tenure has coincided with dwindling finances, which included the closure of its $40 million digital platform, and a complete lack of engagement and collaboration with its consumer, leading to several decision that have pushed fans away from the A-Leagues. Major staff redundancies and issues with the Paramount+ broadcasting rights have further eroded confidence. Based on several concerning trends, the A-Leagues' future under the APL appears increasingly doubtful.


Time for Football Australia to regain control?


If the APL relinquishes control of the A-Leagues, Football Australia will most likely be the candidate to reclaim its ownership. But why? Simply, without two domestic leagues, the lack of quality pathways for Australian players would severely hinder football's development. While it would be financially risky for the FA, it may be the only way to ensure a viable long-term future for the domestic leagues and the sport.


Understandably, a return to FA control raises questions about the viability of the proposed National Second Division, which has also been promised to be introduced in 2025.


But the FA has maintained its commitment to launching the league, with a spokesperson saying back in January that “it’s happening—we’re not changing our plans.” However, the A-Leagues' financial woes, should they be assumed by the FA, raise concerns about the organisation's ability to manage it alongside the second division.

Would the FA be able to simultaneously manage two struggling top-tier competitions and deliver on the initial financial backing promised for the second division? If the A-Leagues were forced back into the hands of the FA, a strategic delay of the second division's launch may be necessary, resulting in a backwards step in a successful relegation-promotion football pyramid system in Australia.

 

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Football Australia (previously FFA) promotional material for the Hyundai A-League 2019/20 season.

A promotional poster made by Football Australia for the 2019/20 Hyundai A-League season. (Image: Football Australia)


A return to FA control could also potentially result in a less commercially driven A-Leagues. Reduced advertising and media exposure are potential downsides; however, the APL's current model has quite clearly struggled to find this traction, even with a bigger commitment to commercialising the game.


However, the FA's leadership could prioritise regaining fan engagement, potentially through a broadcasting shift to free-to-air television. While this move would likely lead to a siginficant drop in broadcast revenue, it could broaden accessibility and reignite interest in the competitions.

A notable criticism of the A-Leagues under the Paramount+ umbrella has been the need for subscription access, a major hurdle for casual fans amidst the crowded Australian sports streaming landscape (which now includes Kayo, Foxtel, Stan Sports, Optus Sport, etc). This limited accessibility hinders viewership growth, especially with football being the only sport the platform offers.


The FA could prioritise free-to-air broadcasting, potentially sacrificing a greater financial backing to broaden the A-Leagues' audience and reconnect with fans. This approach prioritises fan engagement over immediate commercial revenue—a critical decision for the A-Leagues' future.

The North Terrace in full voice ahead of the Melbourne Derby on Sunday. (Image: Harley Appezzato)


Free access could make the A-Leagues a more attractive proposition for casual viewers, potentially boosting long-term popularity and revenue. While short-term financial struggles are likely, with clubs like the Newcastle Jets and Canberra United potentially at risk, increased viewership could ultimately revitalise the league's most crucial element – its loyal fan base.


The historical tension the clubs and fans have had with the FA is undeniable. However, considering the shortcomings of the current model, FA ownership might offer a more sustainable path forward, focused on accessibility and fan engagement. This move could ultimately lead to a healthier domestic league.


The trajectory of the A-Leagues


Ultimately, the A-Leagues' financial woes have deepened under APL control. Ownership issues and the Grand Finals saga have eroded fan trust. The APL's solutions to key issues, such as heavy-handed policing at the Sydney Derby, have further alienated supporters, with some fan bases resorting to full boycotts.


While the APL envisioned two commercially profitable leagues, its strategies have not translated into realising the vision, raising questions about its suitability to lead the A-Leagues in its current state.


However, looking through a positive lens, the APL can be proud of its efforts and investment in the women's game. With this season, the A-League Women became the most-watched female sporting league in Australia of all time.

In that same interview with ESPN, Garcia said that the women’s league is comparable with the top leagues around the world.


"We need to think about the women's game differently from the men's game. I think there's a real danger for us -- I'm a middle-aged, white guy who's grown up watching men play football -- to look at it through the same lens and try and create that game. The women's game is completely different," he said.


"We've invested in the women's game. Since unbundling, we've created three new teams, and we're going to continue to create those new teams. We've got the match minutes up to a level comparable with other global top leagues.”


While the APL has invested in the women’s game, it must also be noted that this success has been driven by the Matildas' efforts on the pitch, and the FA's work off it, throughout the Women's World Cup last year. The FA's ability to enhance the commercialisation of women's football in the country, as they have done through the Matildas brand, can also support an argument that the A-Leagues could further benefit under their control.

Clearly the APL's grip on the A-Leagues is dubious, with fan disillusionment at an all-time high. A series of controversial decisions and persistent financial difficulties have cast a shadow over a future under APL control. The current trajectory of Australia's two premier domestic competitions suggests that the APL's tenure may be shorter than initially anticipated, and that a new era of professional football is on the horizon, for better or worse.


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1 Comment


siskra0
May 07

Danny Townsend losing money occured right under the noses of the APL board. Were they not aware of what he was up to? These board members include a representative from the investment company Silver Lake Partners who poured $140M into the A-leagues, Simon Pearce (Melb City/CFG), Chris Fong (Brisbane Roar) and Paul Lederer (Sydney FC). Were these guys asleep at the wheel? The problem with the APL is that they see football through a business perspective and the paying fans are treated as an after thought. Or maybe just a nuisance. Until the fans voice is properly heard and respected by the APL, they will continue to take us down the gurgler.

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