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What’s wrong with the Australian A League?

September 20, 2010

Newcastle Jets and the Central Coast Mariners

There has been a flurry of discussion about the problems within Australia’s football competition, with some even fearing that it is on the verge of collapse. Maybe that won’t happen but there are signs that things aren’t looking good.

Newcastle Jets is the latest club to be provided with an emergency loan to pay their players but even this might not be enough to keep the club running this season. This follows North Queensland and Queensland Roar being bailed out by Football Federation Australia (FFA), and after being bailed out in 2009, the FFA is now running Adelaide United. The Western Sydney Rovers, scheduled to enter the competition in 2011, have been given until the end of the month to show they have enough capital to compete next year. Crowds are down, and Clive Palmer, billionaire owner of Gold Coast, has introduced a “crowd cap” of 5,000 to reduce running costs.

Despite this, the general consensus is that the quality of the games is higher than ever. I wouldn’t know, since I can’t afford pay television and live in Tasmania, where no games are played, so I haven’t seen a minute of action.

There have been various reasons put forth for the problems. The ones I’ve heard are the following:

(1) Lack of free to air television coverage, which immediately cuts out access to 70% of Australian who don’t have Pay TV.

(2) Governance issues within the FFA. The FFA are focusing too heavily on the world cup bid and not enough on the A league or the fact that there isn’t a separate body that runs the A League.

(3) Too many outsiders and not enough “football people” involved in running the game.

(4) The league starting too early when the other major football codes have their biggest games in the final series

(5) Incompetence within the FFA

All of which may be valid, the first one especially so. We need to be looking at the ownership model of clubs if a successful league is to be created; it is disappointing that a discussion about this, which began when the FFA bailed out North Queensland, has not been followed up. Craig Foster, a strong critic of the FFA, raised the idea of the “German model” for Australia. The German Model is described by the website Pitch Invasion as follows, “The basis of the German model is the 50+1 rule whereby a minimum of 51% of the club must be owned by club members. This still allows for considerable investment opportunities for private business to invest while preventing them from having overall control of the direction of the club. A Bundesliga club board is made up of delegates selected by the shareholders. That way the supporter membership associations or Mutterveiren have a direct say on the management of the club.”

The German Model hasn’t stopped clubs going bankrupt, some still do but the Pitch Invasion article summed up the system as a whole by saying, “The system does seem to work overall and with a broad consensus within the game. The Bundesliga is not the most glamorous league in the world. However, it continues to turn a profit, has the highest attendances in Europe and among the lowest ticket prices. The existence of subsidised attendance costs, terracing and access to free football on TV can be directly attributed to supporter’s influence in the club’s decision making.”

Some clubs are completely fan owned, while there have been movements in England to extend the rights of supporters to have a say in their club. A lot of these are organised into supporters trust described by Pitch Invasion as “democratic non-profit fans’ organisations aiming to influence how their clubs are run”. Manchester United Supporters Trust in March had 128,000 members and was seeking to raise enough money to try and buy the club. The Spokesperson for Arsenal’s trust was confident for long-term successes for this model. “Generally I believe fan ownership, including majority fan ownership and board membership, will be commonplace in the future. I think we’ll look back in 20 years and wonder what all the fuss was about. The level of disaffection and alienation of fans will either be recognised and dealt with or the game will wither and die as a mass spectator activity. It’s as simple as that. I’m optimistic that it’ll be the former.”

This seems to me what we should be discussing. The current model is based on trying to encourage those with lots of capital to invest money in clubs; this is inherently unstable, because capital investors can withdraw their money as quickly as they invested it, leaving the clubs destitute. But it’s also important that the fans feel connected with the club. Currently, disgruntled a-league fans have no say in fixing any of their clubs problems; we all have to wait for white knights flashing cash to save us. This is not sustainable or desirable. Moving to a model of ownership where fans have a stake in the ownership and have a say in how clubs are run seems to me the best long term strategy to establish a viable and successful football competition in Australia.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 5:32 am

    I’m midway through a similar piece (as well as one on the financial crisis hitting football clubs across europe). I’ll let you know when it’s done.
    I would (for example, and not that I’m suggesting this is all you’re saying) argue that more than a simple change to the “german model” is needed in Australia, especially given the massive competition for a football audience.
    More funding might help, but what kind of funding, in whose interests, and administered by whom?
    There’s a structural issue at play here too, which the whole “franchise” approach of the FFA floating over and above existing teams, and Lowy’s influence and control at far too many levels.
    Anyway, more later.

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