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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Rupolo

Why community ownership is the ideal model for the A-Leagues

On November 13, 2020, then-Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend addressed the Football Writers Festival ahead of the A-Leagues' official independence from Football Australia. Townsend hit the hustings, describing the corporate sports utopia the A-Leagues was about to embark on. One of the chief architects of the league's separation was laying the groundwork for its grand reform. However, as he addressed the crowd in Manly, Townsend was about to write the APL's epitaph.

Sydney FC's active supporter group, The Cove. (Image: Harley Appezzato)


"Give us the keys to the car" and the clubs will "show you how to drive it", were a couple of Townsend's quotes on the day.


The APL has arguably succeeded in driving the A-Leagues off a cliff.

Within three years of becoming independent, clubs are even more financially precarious. Clubs have gone extended periods without owners. A $200 million TV deal has rendered the league invisible on Australian screens, including the A-League Women's competition being kicked off free-to-air TV in the year the country hosted the best Women's World Cup ever.


Fans have argued that the APL consistently ignores rusted-on supporters, leading to decisions that aggravate and isolate them. The Grand Finals decision, Unite Round, and the APL's response to heavy-handed policing at the recent Sydney Derby are a few examples, with the last leading to boycotts from the Red and Black Bloc (RBB), the passionate Western Sydney Wanderers active supporter group.



The APL remains handcuffed to a private equity deal that surrenders the strategic direction of Australia's professional league to a California-based private equity firm. After two years, a $40 million website was dumped, and along with it came the brutal slashing of jobs at the APL. The one consistent thread through this has been the need for meaningful fan input.


At this point, followers of the game must ask who they trust to take the professional tier of this country forward.

What next?


Many former NSL clubs still exist because they have the enduring spirit of the community alive in their clubs, which, after two decades, they can still call upon, buttressed by their local infrastructure.


As a result, the A-Leagues are now on a path to extinction, but one thing can still save it.


Only the people who support the clubs can help save the A-Leagues from itself.


We have long talked in this country about community or fan ownership being the ideal model for long-term sustainability for professional clubs. For too long, we have looked overseas to countries like Germany, which has led the way, and asked, 'What if?' It's time we stopped asking what if and started asking when.

AFC Wimbledon is a club leading the way. The English fourth-division side was established in 2002 after the club's supporters were upset with the board ahead of a potential relocation to Milton Keynes. During this debate, supporters created 'The Dons Trust', which represented fans in an attempt to exercise influence with the club's owners to prevent the relocation.


Despite their effort, the club's relocation was sanctioned, but after an emergency meeting by The Dons Trust, a decision was made to create a new club, AFC Wimbledon.


Today, AFC Wimbledon is a wholly supporter-owned community football club that democratically elected officers run through The Dons Trust, which owns 75% of the club. The Trust offers school football programs for kids who need it most. It supports the health and well-being of older people in their community, creates comfortable social environments for veterans, and empowers local children with the inspiring Phipps Bridge Youth Centre project.

 

READ MORE A-LEAGUES CONTENT ON FPF

A-Leagues fans always remind the powers that be of that famous Mark Bosnich quote: "Football cannot do without its fans." Community ownership is a progressive way to package and put that sentiment into practice. Football clubs are supposed to serve their communities, not vice versa. Only a community ownership model, like AFC Wimbledon, with fans at the heart of decision making can ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the A-Leagues.


At this point, it has almost no downside. What other options are there? Wouldn't you rather have decision-making power instead of tokenistic representation?


Don't you believe a rebrand, reset, or relaunch just means using the same tired corporate jargon designed to distract, defer, and deny true reform?


With community ownership models, you get better decision-making because the people who care the most are at the heart of it.


Fans can ensure their club expresses values that align with their region and act as a bridge that unites sport and society. An American private equity firm telling you to stay in your lane won't quash your ideas.

In the A-League era, fans have been told that business knows best. But we have now seen that might not be all it is cracked up to be.


The money men have failed. It is time for the people to take control.


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