Why Now?

What’s the stink in Victoria? As news broke at the end of May that Melbourne Knights and Green Gully would not apply for the proposed National Premier League (NPL), cracks were beginning to show in Football Federation Victoria’s (FFV) grand plans. Over the following few days, Hume, Altona Magic, Bentleigh Greens and Cairnlea (Port Melbourne is considering not to submit an application) all joined the Knights and Green Gully in deciding not to apply for the competition, causing the governing body significant headaches and embarrassment. The FFV website  proclaims that it is “gaining momentum”, having received 44 “expressions of interest” from clubs around the state. However, with some of the strongest clubs deciding to take their business elsewhere, fans around the country are more worried than excited by developments down south. Cataclysmic talk of breakaway leagues is being bandied about, and the whole episode has turned into a public relations disaster for the FFV.

The interested parties have submitted their applications, and the disgruntled have furiously typed up their press releases, but confusion reigns over why the house seems to be falling in. With the FFV standing firm on one side and the clubs digging in on the other, opinions are polarised and speculation is rife as to the what, where, how and why. The fact is, there are several issues at play in this stand-off, some more important than others.With the National Premier League supposedly a panacea for Australia’s player development issues, and a ‘second tier’ for the A-League, these problems need to be explained and analysed for the good of the game. While the immediate problem centres around Victoria, they have implications for clubs, players and fans around the country.

Leopold Method has identified three major areas of concern, which are inevitably intertwined. The first is cost, the second control and the third trust.

Versions of the National Premier League have been rolled out in New South Wales, ACT, South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland, with varying degrees of success. The model is designed to synchronise and standardise player pathways and development around the country, in order to resolve some of the fractures in our game. The FFA press release states that the NPL will:

  • Create consistency across the Member Federation top leagues across Australia;
  • Recognise the role that State league clubs are playing to develop players, and showcase local talent;
  • Raise overall standards in club management;
  • Improve the financial and commercial position of state leagues and clubs.

Since the inception of the A-League in 2005, the disconnect between the national league, the state leagues and the grassroots have been cause for plenty of anger and disenchantment among football fans. However, the FFA have a historic opportunity to bring the states into line with the national plan. There has even been talk of promotion and relegation as a future prospect, although the criteria for promotion into the A-League is still not clearly specified. Still, that carrot has been dangled in front of the state league sides, in particular the National Soccer League clubs who have been left out in the cold for so many years.

National Competition Review (NCR) player pathway.

The NPL is a product of the FFA National Competitions Review (NCR), which was completed in 2012. Essentially, the NCR addressed issues of consistency in the delivery of football across the country, increase the level of ‘elite’ football being played, and fill some of the gaps in youth development. For too long, the development of Australian youth has relied on clubs, rather than an overarching strategy from the top. In turn, this has meant that Australian kids are being taught how to play football in a fairly arbitrary way. There has been no central ideology and vision, causing uneven development around the country.

It all seems fair enough, then, that the governing bodies at a state and national level should come together in a systematic way. However, the devil is in the detail. In other states, not least New South Wales, the rollout of the NPL has been massaged to fit particular environments, but in Victoria the governing body has taken a more hardline approach with clubs, leaving many fans and club administrators angry at the lack of dialogue. Despite the fact that Victoria was given an extra year to get up to speed with the national plan, it seems little has been done to explain the process to clubs, and the NPLV now looks to be going ahead without some of the strongest and most historic clubs in the state. Leopold Method has identified three major areas of concern, which are inevitably intertwined. The first is cost, the second control and the third trust.


Issue 1: Costs.

Already, football is an extremely expensive game to play. Anybody who is involved in the game faces the annual heartache of having to fork out their hard-earned just for the privilege of their weekly kick-about. Still, most clubs do it tough, and for those wishing to participate in the NPLV, the new competition will only increase their costs, with little room to raise their own revenue from the usual sources. Firstly, the licence fee for the NPLV is set at $50,000 per annum, with the applicant needing to prove that it can pay the fee detailed in three year budget forecasts. Secondly, the FFV will cap fees on registrations at $1700 plus GST per player per season, with no room given to clubs for ‘add-ons’ such as extra clinics or private sessions. At present, to play for one of the top clubs in the state costs anywhere between $400 and $3,200 per season. But, even if clubs participating at the elite level increase their fees to the maximum amount, it is believed that they are still set to lose significant amounts of money on operational costs. Anthony Siokos raised this concern around this time last year, when the NCR was first released:

“How much will it (the NPL) cost? When will this structure be delivered? Are all of the States and Territories in agreement with the NCR, practically not tentatively or in theory? Most importantly, what resources are required to ensure youth development outcomes equate to quality football(ers) across the country?

It seems that twelve months on, many of these questions remain unanswered and unexplained. One of the central reforms, and also the main costs, is in the upskilling of Australian coaches. The FFA rightly wants to create a situation whereby the ‘elite’ clubs have the highest quality coaching possible. The FFV has set out a phased plan for the next four years, which clubs must meet to fulfill their obligations. Coaches will need to have obtained certain licenses to maintain their position. For example, a club technical director must hold a ‘B’ licence for 2014-15, but by 2016-17 they must hold a new A-Licence or an old A-Licence with a “refresher certificate.” At the other end of the spectrum, an Under 18’s coach must progress from a Senior Licence to a new ‘B’ Licence over the same period of time. It’s a good plan, and one that most clubs seem to broadly agree upon. However, all this education costs money, and as there are precious few coaches that currently meet the criteria, it creates a market for the coaches to charge relatively high rates for their services.

“The fees are not going to be enough to pay the coaches” Green Gully General Manager Raymond Mamo told Leopold Method,

“We support the principle of coaching accreditation, but what is the cost to the club per week? Nobody knows. It’s an astronomical amount of money to be part of the ‘elite. It’s simply not viable for us to be entering into the competition.”

Considering the lack of manpower on the ground, it stands to reason that market forces will inevitably push up the wages of coaches. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as full time coaches will likely produce better outcomes. However, where will that extra revenue come from? The FFV has pushed the cost of development down the chain to the clubs. In the search of perfection, the NPL model is designed to reduce player wages at a state level, however its consequence is higher costs in employing accredited coaches (who have paid to get themselves accredited) and operational costs.

The FFA and the state bodies have had issues implementing the National Curriculum and the NCR due to their lack of understanding of club economics, particularly in the area of revenue generation. At all levels of the game, the primary source of revenue is from registration fees and sponsorship. Unlike in NSW, FFV is not allowing any NPLV clubs to have amateur component (sub-junior teams), and by doing so there is a risk that they will generate less revenue from registrations, along with their ability to obtain larger sponsorship dollars. Moreover, less players in clubs means less money from other revenue raisers such as fundraising and canteen sales. Alternatively, the FFV could look to obtain their own large sponsors for the NPLV, and then split the revenue across the clubs to be used to offset their player development costs. This could also drive down registration fees.

Many clubs are worried that they will have to raise their registration fees enormously to meet costs. Leopold Method also spoke to Melbourne Knights committee member Pave Jusup, who was not happy with the situation facing his club:

“We expect costs to go up for the club and for parents. The ‘cap’ in registration fees is actually being used as a cost recovery mechanism. We are from an under-privileged area in Melbourne, and some of our players may be lost to the game if the cost to play goes up under the proposed scheme. We think that football should be fully accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic position.”

It’s an important point. The fact is, both Green Gully and Melbourne Knights do plenty of social work in their area to ensure that kids of all ages, abilities and backgrounds are able to enjoy football. The FFV has stated that it expects clubs to continue these programs for disadvantaged kids, but have stopped short of providing them any assistance to do so. Raising fees to the cap level may help recover some costs, but it leaves nobody happy. The astronomical increases in fees goes against club ethos, and even then, it will not be enough for the club to stay out of the red.

These concerns were reflected in the Melbourne Knights press release, which is accessible from the club website,

“Members were concerned that the club would be forced to charge excessive fees in order to meet exorbitant operational costs, thus making the game or pathway accessible to only those who could afford it. Members questioned the enormous financial strain imposed upon clubs with little to no support from any of the country’s football governing bodies.”

The fact is, the FFV have given clubs like Melbourne Knights and Green Gully little room to move. Point 12 of Section 2 states that clubs “may only recruit players who are registered to play with a community club located within the geographical boundaries of the zone in which the Applicant is located.” But what happens if a player moves from one area to another mid-season? Does that mean they will have to sit out for the remainder of the season? How is that good for their development? And what if a talented player can’t find their way into an elite level club in their particular area? Are they simply going to be consigned to the community leagues? In an ideal world, every Australian would have the finances to play ‘elite’ level football. But in the real world, there are rich areas and there are poorer areas. Sunshine, in Melbourne’s west, is not known for it’s affluence. Therefore, instead of continuing to provide affordable pathways for it’s community, clubs like Melbourne Knights will only be able to provide for those who can afford it. Presumably, the FFA want their NPL teams to be an integral part of their communities, in order for them to properly form the so-called ‘B’ League. Immediately raising fees by some 200% in an area like Sunshine is hardly a good way to start this process.


Issue 2: Control.

On June 1, Melbourne Knights celebrated their sixty year anniversary with a gala event at the Croatian club in Footscray. From the very beginning, the club has struggled against authorities to maintain their independence. Battles have been fought over symbols, names and control of the board of directors. Rightly or wrongly, the club has been a centrepiece of the Croatian community in Melbourne, and provided tangible pathways for players around the country. Having produced generations of Socceroos, the club rightly feels as if they have the runs on the board when it comes to developing Australian talent and creating a stable club culture. While the NPLV is supposed to raise that level, it’s a delicate proposition to put forward to proud clubs like these. Lecturing clubs on finances and development was never going to be welcomed, not least because the state and national federations have been the most wasteful and incompetent over the past few decades. Indeed, the FFV last year announced a deficit of just under $783,000, although it promises us that this was just a “one off”.

FFV bottom line impacted by increase in costs of $222,000, a decision to move away from club/player fines and the late opening of Knox Regional Football Centre. (Source: 2012 FFV Annual Report)

The issue of who controls the delivery of football has plagued our game for decades. The tension between club administrators and the state and national federations is one that seemingly never ends. The NPLV model is specifically designed for uniformity and consistency in order for the player pathways to be less fragmented. Unsurprisingly, clubs are not happy at being forced to meet stricter guidelines with regards to coaching, grounds, recruitment and intellectual property rights. Inevitably, this infringes upon their autonomy, and places them at the mercy of change from the top. In many ways, this is exactly the point of the whole program. The FFA and the states want to retain control of delivery, and therefore have legislated certain standards.

However, this kind of dogmatism supposes a tabula rasa where there is a Jackson Pollock. Most of these clubs have survived against all odds, and are generally run on the smell of an oily rag, driven by a small but passionate group of members, sponsors and fans. According to Pave Jusup from Melbourne Knights, this is a “power grab” by the FFV. “It comes from an ideological point of view that the clubs are inept” Jusup told Leopold Method. Raymond Mamo agrees, “the FFV should listen to the clubs” he says. You can hear the frustration and disappointment in his voice. The paternalistic attitude of the governing body is clearly a source of great resentment among many clubmen. Green Gully, for example, has a sound track record when it comes to financial stability and player welfare. They pay their players on time, into a preferred bank account, with superannuation. They deal appropriately with player agents. Their financial records are usually impeccable.

But it’s not just the clubs that have a problem with the FFV plans. City councils around Victoria are also worried about the use of public facilities. While many clubs own their own grounds, clubs like Green Gully, Bentleigh Greens and Hume City play on council grounds, which are open to everybody. Brimbank City Council, which leases Green Gully Reserve, is worried about the term ‘elite.’ Put simply, councils cannot be seen to be giving exclusive access to public property. Again, it is a situation where the FFV is letting it’s vision get in the way of realistic goals. In an article published by Donald Sutherland at MFootball, Hume City’s Club Communications Manager Ezel Hikmet said:

“Our clubs stance is that our facility is a community facility that needs to be available for everyone not just the ELITE. Our stance is in accordance with Hume City Council and their position on the NPL.”

Altona Magic, in the south-west of Melbourne, have other problems regarding grounds. Their home ground, Paisley Park, is unlikely to be up to scratch for the NPLV criteria. However, upgrading the stadium to meet this criteria costs money, which they have little of. Meanwhile, other second tier clubs like Preston Lions have stated that they are not going to be applying, perhaps because they are still heavily indebted to the tax office. It’s illustrative of the mess the FFV finds itself in. Do they know their constituents?

The FFV’s participation requirements are also problematic. Point 5 of Section 3 states that once an application is processed, the FFV possesses the intellectual property rights to clubs. In other words, clubs sign away their ‘brand’ to the governing body. This means that the FFV can, theoretically, produce and sell merchandise which trades upon the logos, colours and names of clubs, with no guarantee of remuneration. Meanwhile, Point 2 of Section 2 states that clubs must submit an appropriate name, as well as three alternatives. Unsurprisingly, names cannot:

“Make reference to any ethnic name, nickname or slogan or any abbreviation thereof, sponsor or business or any word or words which in the reasonable opinion of FFV represents only one gender… make reference to a foreign country, place or state… contain any reference direct or indirect to any organisation that is associated or synonymous with any political racial or religious organisation.”

Source: NPLV FAQ’s document.

While it is not the opinion of this column that all clubs should revert back to names like Ajax, Croatia and Hellas, it is worth wondering why this is still an issue in football at all. What is a “reasonable opinion of FFV”, and what exactly constitutes a reference to a foreign country or slogan? When you combine this with the anxiety over signing away intellectual property rights, FFV  have created an issue where there needn’t be one. In all seriousness, the most important issues surrounding the implementation of the NPLV are player development and sustainable financial planning. Why dig up old symbolic grievances? There is no conspiracy here, but if it’s in the fine print, clubs have a right to be worried.

 

 

Co-written with Shaun Mooney.