A-League Expansion A Must
It’s now a fact that FFA plan to expand the Hyundai A-League to 12 teams for the 2018/19 teams. But beyond that there is a goal for continued expansion of up to 16 teams, and the inclusion of promotion and relegation. From a competition with only 10 teams at the moment and some teams averaging crowds of less than 8,000 there are a number of hurdles the FFA must jump if they are to successfully expand.
The Biggest Hurdles
The major hurdles that FFA faces in the race toward expansion and promotion/relegation are the current club licensing arrangements, club finances, supporter interest and the talent pool. The FFA has recently cited club licensing arrangements as an issue preventing promotion/relegation until at least 2035 when the licensing arrangements with the current 10 clubs are up for renewal. But there is a way of circumventing this. Let’s assume that we grow the competition to 14 teams by the year 2022 using FFA ‘selected’ new entities. The FFA could simply stipulate those new entities are beholden to the possibility of relegation rather than the current 10 permanent A-League (1st Division) license holders (until 2035 and new licensing).
Where are the Expansion Clubs?
Despite South Melbourne and Wollongong Wolves putting forward bids for the 2018/19 expansion, no 2nd Tier club is ready for the A-League at this moment, so expansion clubs will be new franchises chosen by FFA itself. Tasmania is currently flavour of the month with full state and federal government backing, but other population growth areas are also under the microscope. Geelong (Vic), Casey-Dandenong (Vic), Brisbane, Townsville/Cairns (Qld) and Canberra are amongst those being mentioned. FFA is set to release criteria for prospective expansion clubs in the coming weeks.
From Conference System to 2nd Division Promotion and Relegation
It’s the jewel in the crown for Australian soccer but how do we get there? Can we continue with the current conference system and use the National Premier League Finals Series as the promotion play-off?
No. In all honesty we can’t say that Sunshine Coast FC, Adelaide City or Wollongong Wolves who struggle to attract 500 people to a current home game are ready for the A-League.
Most agree it’s best we establish a stand-alone 2nd Division competition before promoting one of the current NPL teams to the A-League. By commencing the stand-alone 2nd Division in e.g. 2024/25 teams can work to attract interest from fans and bigger sponsors. Along with the FFA Cup the early seasons would allow fans to get behind a team and – particularly for those clubs in regional areas such as Sunshine Coast or Cairns – soak up what is at stake.
There are a number of factors working against the current 2nd Tier clubs, preventing them from attaining professional level practices. The lack of financial support is atop the list.
The announcement of a national second division could be the boon Australia’s NPL clubs need. Businesses are looking for exposure, so sponsoring a 2nd Tier club that gets national attention and at the very minimum, regular livestreaming coverage, will likely increase sponsor dollars. Additionally if for example Wollongong Wolves win the National Second Division (A2) and were set for promotion to the A-League, suddenly they become even more attractive. So the vacuum of financial support would be somewhat nullified by the presence of a promotion and relegation system.
Fan support is currently very low in the NPL. No NPL club averages more than 1000 people to a game over the regular season. How do we increase interest and get the fans through the turnstiles?
We have already seen a huge increase in attendances when 2nd Tier clubs get the opportunity to play against the marquee clubs. In the 2016 FFA Cup Wollongong Wolves attracted 8029 fans to their Round of 32 clash with Sydney FC. Rockdale City Suns had 4165 at their Round of 16 fixture with Melbourne Victory. The point we can take from the FFA Cup is that giving clubs and players a chance in the spotlight results in increased community interest.
Improving The Talent Pool (Second Tier)
One way to improve the second tier would be to shrink the player base. At the moment we have more than 90 teams across the Australian ‘conference style’ second division. If narrowed down to just 10 or 12 teams, the best playing talent will be channeled to those teams rather than spread across 90 teams, creating a better product.
As has been said by a spokesperson for South Melbourne, “There needs to be a carrot for those clubs in the state leagues (NPL) . . .” To improve the product, clubs must be given a clear target/deadline to qualify for a National Second Division (A2). Announcement of a National Second Division would allow capable clubs to emerge through clarity of focus. These clubs will attract more sponsorship dollars and ‘should’ improve facilities.
A Criteria for A-League Standards
The A-League does not need basket-case clubs that will be a financial burden. To that end a criteria must be developed to ensure standards are met, thereby minimising the possibility of ‘Gold Coast United like’ clubs arising again. For second tier teams there should be a requirement that in the year leading to their promotion they must have averaged at least 3000 people at home games. Facilities should meet lighting and supporter safety requirements, and youth teams must be a part of the criteria for 2nd Tier clubs also.
The following is a considered approach toward the realisation of A2. Using a timeline, we envisage the path to a 16 team A-League and the evolution of A2 with promotion and relegation.
The Path to A2: A National Second Division
2018/19: A-League becomes a 12 team competition with new entities added.
2021/22: A-League becomes a 14 team competition with new entities added.
2024/25: Standalone National Second Division is formed. Teams selected come from 8 NPL Premiership Winners (2024) and 2 new regional franchises. NOTE: 2024 NPL season starts in February ending in late July early August (no playoffs) to allow for Premiers to prepare for A2 competition.
2026/27: A-League becomes a 15/16 team competition with new entities added.
2028/29: Conditional promotion and relegation begins. Promotion for A2 clubs is dependent on the two teams that finish bottom of the A-League top tier. If they are new clubs whose A-League licenses don’t continue until 2035 they are forced to play-off with A2. NOTE: A2 clubs must meet criteria including average crowd figures of at least 3000, and stadium capacity and safety demands.
2035/36: Promotion and relegation occurs for bottom two teams no matter the circumstances. The third last team plays off against the 3rd placed A2 team to decide final position in A1.