Up until the launch of the Whole of Football Plan, FFA chief executive David Gallop’s impact on football had been mainly the result of fortuitous timing and diligent execution of plans created mainly by his predecessors. As Gallop took the stage in front of the media on Sydney’s harbour on Tuesday, he finally presented an outline of what his legacy for football could be.
Gallop’s arrival into the top job in November 2012 could not have come at a better time. A four-year $160 million media rights deal had been negotiated by his predecessor Ben Buckley, Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero had signed as Sydney FC’s marquee, which in turn lead to the arrival of marquee signings Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono. After four years of false dawns, a team in western Sydney – football’s traditional heartland – was finally established. Combined with increased crowd attendances and television audiences, football was on an upward trajectory.
Leading up to Gallop’s arrival, Buckley had also spent the previous two years cleaning up the disaster created from the fallout of the failed World Cup bid – most notably the closure of expansion clubs North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United. The largely untold story of Buckley’s time in the game was most of his unheralded administration work. In amongst the chaos of simultaneously trying to expand the game and win the hosting rights for the World Cup (all of this happening during the global financial crisis), a number of plans were rolled out under the umbrella of FFA’s Strategic Plan. FFA was successful in achieving the plan’s stated financial target of $100 million in revenue by 2015 (revenue in FY2014, $136 million), but ultimately Buckley left behind a myriad of well-intentioned plans which were under resourced, in parts contradictory and mostly incomplete.
Gallop has taken a more considered approach during his time as chief executive. An experienced sports administrator, he has developed a better working relationship with clubs than Buckley and has focused on improving A-League clubs’ business models. His major strategic decision up until this point has been launching the FFA Cup; a plan that had been discussed for several years prior to his arrival. Predominantly, he’s ensured football has continued along its gradual incline.
Where Gallop will make his greatest impact is in the execution of FFA’s Whole of Football Plan (WOFP). The first step was to integrate all seven of FFA’s major documents – National Football Development Plan, National Football Curriculum, National Facilities Audit, Refereeing Strategic Plan, National Competition Review (which lead to the formation of the National Premier Leagues), Women’s Football Strategic Plan and the Whole of Football Schools Strategy – into one universal 20-year strategic plan.
The plan is highly aspirational in its objectives, with the vision for “Football to be the largest and most popular sport in Australia”. FFA is hoping to achieve several fairly ambitious goals (see chart below): doubling the number people in the football community from its current levels of 7.5 million people to 15 million, and achieving the same target growth levels for participation from 2 million to 4 million. This growth target is well above Australia’s projected 27% population growth rate, from 23.6 million to 30 million by 2035. Other growth figures are just as ambitious, with the aim of half of these participants being converted into registered players, a 233% increase on current levels. Also stated is the goal to improve the quality of football experience for these registered players, and to increase the number of coaches from 24,000 to 100,000 – a 317% increase.
These targets are ambitious, but each key performance indicator (KPI) is measurable, which allows the football public and media to hold FFA to account. For example, we know that at least 3,800 new coaches per year must be educated. Progress can be measured and analysis can be performed.
Gallop’s plan to achieve these targets is to address the central issue that has continually plagued football in Australia – the lack of money. All of football’s plans and dreams will not be achieved unless there are adequate funds to finance it. As noted in the chart below, FFA’s revenues have gradually moved in an upward direction, posting $136 million in FY2014. A profit of $7.26 million was recorded for the same period, largely off the back of the sale of Western Sydney Wanderers (reported sale price of around $10 million). However, a large portion of the revenue comes from the media rights deal, which provides $37 million in cash (the remaining $3 million is in contra) to the federation each year (30% of FFA’s total revenue). Therefore despite the overall incline in revenue, football does not currently have the adequate funds to carry out all of its stated strategic objectives.
Australian football suffers from the ‘sleeping giant syndrome’. This is caused by assuming that once the sport’s large participation base is converted into fans of the top domestic competition, that the ‘sleeping giant’ will finally wake up from its slumber, and propel the sport into its ‘rightful’ number one position in Australia. During the process of developing the WOFP, there was one statistic that stood out in Gallop’s mind: that only 22% of junior participants are fans of an A-League club, compared to Australian Rules Football where 70% follow an AFL club. It is this gap where Gallop believes the ‘sleeping giant’ of Australian football resides. Either Gallop has himself succumbed to the syndrome, or he truly believes he has found the cure.
What Gallop is trying to create is the ‘virtuous cycle’ by doubling the number of participants and converting 75% of them into fans of the A-League. By doing so, this will increase the commercial revenues of media rights and corporate sponsorship. Then FFA will ‘trickle down’ revenue to the grassroots, along with government funds for facilities and corporate partnerships for targeted programs, in order to improve the participant’s experience through better facilities and coaching. Increasing participation, keep more people within the game and convert more of them into fans is the cycle for sustainable growth – or so the theory goes.
The challenge with long-term plans is that short-term issues need to be addressed. Gallop’s plan does not have a ‘low hanging fruit’ strategy that will provide a massive boost in the short-term to win over the doubters. In the medium term, at Gallop’s disposal is expansion plans (2017), a new media rights deal (2017) and trying to win the rights to host the Women’s World Cup (2023).
As some A-League club owners look beyond Australia’s borders to create a pan-Asian competition in an effort to increase their commercial opportunities, Gallop’s is selling his ‘virtuous cycle’, a sizeable untapped market in Australia with the potential of huge financial windfalls. FFA’s target of 1 million A-League members is ten-fold growth over the 20 year period. However, these children are not going to become instant fans overnight. The last major lift in crowds occurred when the National Soccer League (NSL) was replaced by the A-League. Between 1977 to 2004, the NSL’s average attendance (excluding finals) was 3,730. When the A-League was launched in 2005, the average attendance for the 8-team competition (excluding finals) was 10,956 (total aggregate 920,318). Since then there have been various peaks and troughs, but the average sits at 11,479 over the 10-year period and this season’s 10-team competition finished at 12,511 (total aggregate 1,688,951). Whilst the A-League has undoubtedly been more successful than its predecessor in bringing more people through the gates, the reality is growth in future attendances will be a slow burn.
If Gallop does not achieve his stated target of an $80 million a year media rights deal, some of the anxious A-League club owners’ faith in the plan will diminish. Increasing content, via expanding the competition to 12 teams, is no guarantee of a dramatic rise in value of the A-League’s media rights. This, coupled with NRL bringing their media rights forward in an effort to achieve a $2 billion five-year deal, and AFL valuing their rights at $1.75 billion over the same period, means there could be less dollars for FFA to extract.
The other challenge with long-term (especially 20-year) strategic plans is there a lot of actions that need to be implemented. FFA is hoping for a ‘tipping point’ effect of multiple actions creating enough momentum to propel the game into a leadership position. FFA has engaged the services of Boston Consulting to help map out the next four years, and project the revenue and costs implications of the WOFP. Once of the realities from the detail of the plan are mapped out, one can try to project at what time the tipping point might eventuate.
It is tangible and meaningful actions, not plans and speeches, which win over the masses. It will take some time for Gallop’s virtuous circle to kick into gear. In the meantime, he will need to use all of his experience and managerial skills to get the majority of the football community to buy into his grand vision. The proven way to win most people over is through continually producing results.
Note: NSL average attendance figures provided by Andrew Howe, A-League attendances by Ultimate A-League and FFA Profit and Loss figures by AFR’s John Stensholt.