FVS Host Dave explores the hot button topic of Promotion and Relegation in Australian football.
The story of Australian football over the past eleven years has not been unlike an airplane that has taken flight while still being built. Slowly but surely, the engines, bulkheads and wings have been supplemented with a few seats, a galley and toilets. The Socceroos fly first class when they travel and it’s that particular component of Australian football that occupies the front of the plane metaphorically as well. It stands to reason that the A-League and its member clubs occupy premium economy. Grass-roots football and the rest of the Australian football community are packed into cattle class.
I promise I’ll abandon this aeronautical analogy soon, but considering the state of the game in and around 2003, it’s amazing the plane ever even got off the ground. It has been a wild ride, with lots of turbulence. Despite the bumps however, this particular aeroplane keeps on flying; and the trajectory has largely been upward. We now expect to see our national team at the World Cup every four years. Our clubs, national youth and women’s teams compete against the best of the best across Asia. Football is the most played, and often the most talked about, sport in the country.
However, over the past couple of seasons we’ve witnessed stagnation in the A-League. It’s also fair to say that despite the aforementioned progress at the top levels, there’s still quite a lot of work to be done with grass-roots football. Apart from the advent of the FFA Cup over the past two to three seasons, the top flight and its surrounds at State level have plateaued. The same clubs, the same half-empty stadia and in a lot of cases the same recycled players and coaches. In the suburban heartland, it has really only been the FFA Cup in recent memory that has generated any fresh excitement.
As a competition, the FFA Cup has aroused interest from football fans across all federations and demographics. To highlight what I mean, there are varied opinions on what supporters of non A-League clubs think of the A-League; but you will not find one football fan in this country who thinks the FFA Cup is a bad idea in and of itself. If you’ve been around long enough in Australian football, you’d know that this kind of consensus about anything is near-on impossible.
Which brings us to the most prominent discussion point of our time in these circles, that of promotion and relegation. Several well-known football pundits have turned the dials up to eleven recently about the need for promotion and relegation in Australian football, specifically connected to the A-League and the creation of a national second division. A second national division is now seen to be the ideal transitional means by which we introduce promotion and relegation in Australian football.
You will struggle to find a football fan anywhere in Australia that does not yearn for the prospect of promotion and relegation to and from the A-League. This is based primarily on the fact that most fans of the sport follow it the world over, where the principle of promotion and relegation has long been entrenched.
The variances in opinion however, can be located mainly in the time frames in which people think promotion and relegation can actually be achieved in Australia. Some believe that we should be looking to make the necessary structural changes now, or in the short-term. They would also contend that the ensuing changes associated with promotion and relegation will solve many of the stagnation issues (e.g. the poor performances of a club like Central Coast would be punished with relegation, and a more worthy club would be promoted). At the other end of the spectrum there are those that think we’re just not ready for it yet and that the change required for this is generational rather than immediate.
I situate myself in the second of those two camps. I don’t think promotion and relegation should be seen as the quick-fix to the stagnation I mentioned earlier. Very few people think that it should never happen, and we definitely need things to aspire to. We cannot stand still. But change of this nature needs to be cautious, measured and sustainable. The A-League is barely a decade old most of its clubs are not able to properly sustain themselves.
In addition, the sustainability of the top flight in Australia is almost exclusively reliant on TV broadcast rights. Like it or not the health of the game at its zenith is based on its ability to market itself to a TV audience and reap the financial benefit. There is not one administrator or Board member at FFA who would be willing to risk this revenue stream, not for anything. Consequently, any seismic shift that we see in the structure of the A-League has to factor that in. It’s not as simple as flicking a switch and turning on promotion and relegation.
This doesn’t mean I am against the idea in principle. Far too often, promotion and relegation zealots are quick to chastise those calling for restraint or caution. I’ve seen people bashed (figuratively, of course) from pillar to post for suggesting it’s too difficult right now.
It cannot be ignored that the mechanics of promotion and relegation do not exist for any other nationally-conducted sport in the country. This goes for sports that are cashed up like the AFL or NRL. The sporting landscape in Australia is littered with several large and medium players, all competing for the same, limited corporate dollar. In addition, the logistics of travelling to Perth from Sydney or Brisbane to Adelaide are scenarios that are largely incomparable to other countries.
Of course, promotion and relegation already exists within the states and territories – both in the NPL and state leagues below. Some of the loudest voices arguing for immediate change come from the ranks of the former NSL clubs. But beyond the first wave of three to four clubs that could be mentioned in this sort of discussion, the well runs dry quickly when factoring in all the elements of what it takes to be a professional club on the national stage.
As the discussion rolls on for what feels like the millionth time in recent memory, you might find some solace in knowing that this isn’t the first, nor is it the last time the topic of promotion and relegation will be visited by Australian football fans. You’d be forgiven for thinking this extract was from one of the 2016 articles I’ve linked to:
I would say ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’ but in actual fact, things have changed a fair bit. After all, the very same people who were decrying the creation of the A-League about eleven years ago are now calling for promotion to it. We’ve come a long way.