Following the A-League's coronavirus enforced suspension in March, ESPN's Stuart Randall opined that the coming crisis represented the "last opportunity to reset and fulfill soccer's true potential."
In the months that followed, Australian football has seemingly lurched from one crisis to another in an attempt to salvage the 2019-20 season -- negotiations over a TV deal continuing even after a return date was announced and players had returned to training. The future of the A-League's current season -- and beyond -- was in serious doubt until, finally, a breakthrough was reached.
Announced by the FFA and Fox Sports late on Friday evening, the new deal will see the league's long-standing television partner broadcast the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, the 2020-21 A-League and W-League seasons (the former of which was confirmed to be moving to a December to July format) and a selection of Socceroos and Matildas fixtures. The two entities will then have the option of parting ways at the end of July, 2021.
Given that the deal has been reported as being worth AU$32 million, compared to the paltry initial offer of $11m that had allegedly been floated by Fox Sports, it's hard to see it as anything less than a win for the game in the short-term. The agreement will provide some much needed certainty in the coming months and help the FFA to navigate what will be a difficult period in the Australian broadcasting landscape -- one that has already seen networks negotiate an astounding $400m off existing broadcast deals with Australia's various top-tier sports.
Crucially, archival footage of the A-League -- a necessity for the trial of any sort of direct-to-consumer FFA TV concept -- was retained by the federation in the deal, and the FFA will take over the rights of the FFA Cup as part of the truce, giving it an excellent platform, alongside existing lower-league competitions, to experiment with affordable and scalable content production and delivery that can guide how it sells and/or delivers future years worth of content.
However, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, the move to shift the season in 2020-21 is a precursor to something much more seismic: A plan to stage the following campaign entirely within the 2022 calendar. The decision would prevent a clash between the A-League and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which has been moved to November and December to avoid the searing Middle Eastern heat, and see the Australian season played in winter for the first time since 1989.
Returning the game to winter and linking it to the rest of the Australian footballing calendar, as well as that of the Asian Football Confederation, would be a bold move, even if there is nothing preventing this move from being little more than a one-year dalliance with a winter season before normal service resumes.
Nonetheless, for a sport which has entered a nadir that could prove catastrophic should it continue, ongoing winter football is a concept worth exploring.
Indeed, dismissing winter football as being part of possible solutions because it didn't work before and pointing at viewing figures, attendances and figures from a semi-professional league staged 30 years ago as if they present an accurate assessment of what would happen if it was tried again is, quite frankly, intellectually lazy. Life, let alone Australian football, is almost unrecognisable from where it was in 1990 and consumer habits, especially in how they consume sport, have changed significantly.
Ground availability would perhaps be the biggest impediment to making the concept work -- with a battle for stadia with the rugby codes no doubt on the horizon should winter football be pursued.
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"Clear air" in the media may be another, but with Fox Sports seemingly heading for the exit and traditional media shedding football journalists at a rate of knots, one must ask the question as to exactly what coverage is being salvaged by staying put? If anything, a shift in the season would mean that the rare piece of domestic football coverage that does appear in "mainstream" will now come several segments or pages back from actual AFL and NRL games -- rather than the off-season news and cricket it does now. The same goes for maintaining sponsors -- with the likes of Hyundai, Caltex, Aldi and more having seemingly already engaged in a mad dash for the lifeboats amidst the status quo.
Working most in a winter shift's favour would be the improvements to the quality of football that would accompany the move, which should be a key goal for any national federation that's defining purpose (should) be figuring out how to win a World Cup.
Throughout the 2019-20 season, we've watched on as players and coaches alike have raged against training and playing under the boiling Australian sun, a challenge exasperated by suffocating bushfire smoke that forced the cancellation of W-League and Y-League games and which, according to those such as Western United coach Mark Rudan, should have also stopped A-League games. And with anthropogenic climate change, unfortunately, showing little signs of abating that isn't a problem that is going away.
This improved product, alongside investment in new forms of content creation, streaming and coverage, could go some ways toward mitigating the loss of traditional media and attracting new sponsors as the game reassess itself and secures its viability in a new, COVID-19 shaped era for the sport.
But if Australian football is genuine in its attempts to make a move to winter, it will be incumbent on the FFA and A-League to make it work not just in a manner that benefits the professional game, but every part of the ecosystem below it.
The words Randall wrote almost 90 days ago ring true: "... the silver lining in all of this is the prospect of a whole new start, a blank piece of paper on which to create the future. A future that must be fully inclusive and build upon the solid foundations of the game. Its community."
Administrators across the country love to cite the number of participants football has, but if any hypothetical shift to a winter A-League season is to work those participants are going to have to become something more than a handy superlative to be thrown around in press releases or as a cudgel to be wielded in the latest round of the code wars.
A concerted effort to ensure that participants aren't forced into a situation where they have to choose between their local community clubs and the A-League -- because the A-League is going to lose that battle more often than it wins -- would be required. Fixtures would need to be designed not just to fit around the needs of broadcasters and sponsors, but to actively facilitate and engage the fans that part with their hard-earned to watch their clubs play. Active support, which elsewhere around the world is frequently just called support, must be once again fostered to give football the magical atmosphere that only it can provide.
The competition would have to fully integrate itself as a part of the Australian footballing ecosystem -- no longer a separate entity that largely (aside from some brief moments of FFA Cup-cross pollination) does its own thing in the summer while everyone goes about it in the winter. Some grassroots participants will never want to involve themselves in the A-League, and that's fine, but if winter is going to work, moves to implement a second-tier and managed, yet aspirational, pathway for all are needed; bringing the game's base together and pulling in a common direction. This would open the door to the creation of a proper transfer system between clubs, spur development, and provide a greater incentive for all clubs to push the limits of what they can achieve.
A lot of these ideas can and should be pursued even if the A-League remains in summer. Long-term planning and research may find winter simply unworkable or holding too little public support in the long run and a disaster of a 2022 campaign may kill it anyway; cliched cries of "back the game," "be brave" and "sleeping giant" aren't substitutes for reality, no matter how many retweets or likes they get.
But with COVID-19 already serving as the catalyst for restructuring and re-costing of Australian football to better run within its means, FFA CEO James Johnson and his team have a golden chance to instigate a real shift in the game's thinking.