A-League on their own: Power and Control in Australian football

For something a bit different this week, FVS host Dave and Amanda Gibson take a close look at some of the recent power plays in Australian football and their ramifications. AKA “Boring Governance Stuff”.

The A-League owners had a big win last week, gaining a significant amount of extra power at no cost. It was a watershed in the game’s administration, but there were other issues lurking in the background of last week’s pow wow that will have an even greater impact on the broader football family should they come to fruition.

Because somewhere deep inside the inner sanctum of FFA headquarters in Sydney sits a secret file that rarely gets sighted and only a few individuals have had the privilege of reading it. In it is the stuff that nightmares are made of for many of the ‘old soccer’ warriors that still patrol the NPL and twitter with equal vigilance. A scheme so dastardly and Machiavellian that it would forever alter football in this country forever.

Actually, we made the stuff up about the file and the inner sanctum. This piece is about governance, so forgive us for trying to add a bit of drama to what is usually a fairly dry subject. While there may not be a secret file, there certainly is a core belief and aspiration within the FFA that is seldom discussed; it’s called the Unified model.

Essentially, a number of individuals in senior positions at the FFA think all football should be run by the FFA and the State federations should become branch offices with accompanying consultative committees instead of their own Boards. It’s not an unreasonable thought, in fact many sporting organisations are run in this manner and few could argue that the disjointed and arbitrary approach by various federations across the country are an ideal model for future growth and prosperity.


The alternative governance models for football – sourced from the FFA’s Whole of Football Plan.

But, and it’s a big but (I like them, I cannot lie), the Federations are heavily influenced by the big clubs in each state. It’s the big clubs and their power-brokers that organise the numbers for the boards of the State federations. In a Unified model, all that power disappears. The FFA has sought ways around a total revolution. For example, they have sought over time to gain more control over commercial properties that were once the bread and butter of federations. The most obvious example of this is the NPL, which is an FFA competition. The Miniroos program is another example, as is the recent inclusion into the NPL of teams from Melbourne Victory and the other local franchise. The latter decision was bitterly opposed and only acceded to when the FFA threatened to deny NPL clubs entry into the FFA Cup.

By gradually encroaching on these commercial and operational areas, the FFA is effectively exerting more control on the game at all levels and, to some degree, marginalising the State federations’ influence. To be fair, the people behind the Unified model are not that shy about their ambition. In the Whole of Football plan released last year (anyone remember that?), there was an explicit description of what the FFA wants.


Unite the clans! Oh yeah, that ended well for Scotland.

In relation to the Unified model, the FFA said: ‘This model removes the administrative inefficiencies inherent in the federated structure and retains the one management efficiencies of the National Behaviour model. This model delivers substantial advantages from the perspective of strategic direction and operational implementation. Each state/territory member federation operates as a branch of the single national body. State committees play an advisory consultative role providing the national body and its state officials critical local guidance. The model adopts a unified management structure where finances and other services are centrally pooled.’

The kicker, pardon the pun, is in the last sentence. In a game where revenue is mostly generated from the bottom up, the FFA would love to access those rivers of gold to create a truly unified national sport.

So there you have it, the future of Australian football?

To help things along recently, the FFA decided that the A League clubs’ influence on electing FFA Board members should increase from 10 per cent to 25 per cent (i.e. one in 10 votes to three in 12). With the stroke of a pen the State’s saw their influence on the FFA significantly downgraded. They may well rue the fact that in the recent past they have been woefully passive in relation to coming together to nominate suitable Board members for the FFA.

At the last election there was virtually no appetite among the States to nominate a collectively endorsed candidate. A few State presidents went freelance and apparently legitimately pushed their own preferred candidates forward to the FFA nominations committee, sometimes without their own Boards knowing who was being put forward!

For now though it seems FFA CEO David Gallop is content to persist with the current model.

In June this year he said: ‘We spent a lot of time and effort on a Whole of Football Plan, a 20-year vision for the game. This was about building a unity of purpose across our governance.

‘Getting all these tiers to agree on national objectives is the aim. We spent a year on consultation and drafting plans and ideas before the launch in April last year.

‘It’s been a huge piece of work, but it’s critical.’

Gallop also highlighted the role of oft mentioned ‘stakeholders’.

‘The stakeholders of any sport have a big say in its success. The mandate of the CEO running a major sport relies heavily on, where possible, finding consensus and mutual interests, but also making hard decisions that won’t please everyone,” says Gallop.

Good governance, he said, is about business acumen and community consultation.

‘They need to live together. The volunteers at the base of any sport must feel valued and see a pathway for continued involvement in the sport if they are going to stay motivated.”

‘You need to listen to your stakeholders and especially the fans. They will tell you very quickly if you have stuffed up. The best governance model won’t help you if your community doesn’t see the logic of your decisions.’

While a Unified model may not be grabbing the headlines, and despite Gallop’s soothing words about consensus, there is no doubt that it remains the ambition of several senior executives at the FFA. What keeps it at bay is that at a State level the simple fact is that the old soccer types hate the FFA more than they hate their own federations. The old axiom about Australian football – that your success is measured by the harm you cause to your enemies – means the fight, if it ever comes, will be bitter.