The future uncoupling of the A-League from Football Federation Australia, combined with the newly unveiled XI Principles for the future of Australian football, could reinvigorate the sidetracked push for a long-awaited National Second Division (NSD) FFA chief executive James Johnson has told ESPN.
Despite its status as one of Australian football's white whales, progress towards the introduction of an elusive national second-tier had appeared to be gaining significant steam as recently as March, with Johnson going so far as to float the possibility of an imminent informal EOI process. Yet, just when advocates for the concept seemed to be on the precipice of success, the impact of COVID-19 reared its ugly head.
Forced to stand down a significant chunk of its workforce in the wake of the virus' sudden impact, the FFA's attention was suddenly monopolised by the enforced suspension of grassroots football, a mad scramble to save the 2019-20 A-League season, its broadcast partner not-so-subtlety doing all it could to sever ties, an exodus of sponsors, and the pursuit of the 2023 Women's World Cup.
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"We went into a situation where the focus was on closing the A-League down as a result of COVID," Johnson told ESPN.
"Then it was a case of trying to re-start the competition again, and there were questions through the April/May period about if the A-League would re-start -- some clubs didn't want to re-start, some clubs did. Our view was that football needs to be played as soon as possible.
"There's then a negotiation of collective bargaining agreement with the players that's done in parallel with a negotiation with Fox Sports on a new broadcast deal. That's all done and that brings us to July, and that's when the league has re-started. And the focus now is on finishing the season."
But now, speaking to ESPN with the A-League season entering its final days, a Women's World Cup secured and a renegotiated -- albeit reduced -- broadcast deal in tow, Johnson said that his focus, now the FFA was beginning to slowly move away from triaging the effects of the coronavirus, was on the implementation of the wide-ranging reform agenda laid out by the FFA's XI Principles document.
Released in July, the XI Principles outlined a sweeping vision for Australian football in the coming decades. The manifesto didn't explicitly target the introduction of a national second division, but Johnson believes that its strategic objectives such as greater opportunities young Australian players to play, and more jobs for Australian coaches, will be aided by the creation of a second-tier, bolstering the case for its implementation.
"The question becomes: Can a second-tier competition help us achieve those strategic objectives? And I say yes," Johnson said.
The wide-ranging reforms targeted in the XI Principles are also set to be supplemented by the long-awaited decoupling of the national federation and the A-League, W-League and Y-League -- negotiations for which are ongoing.
Collectively these two transformative moves, Johnson, a former Australia under-17 representative theorised, could provide greater scope for the FFA to begin the process of establishing, and running, other competitions.
"The A-League, it's maturing, and it wants to leave home, for lack of a better word," Johnson said.
"And this is where the unbundling conversation comes in and that's where we are now. We're working very hard to deliver on what is important to the A-League clubs, and that is that the A-League is unbundled.
"But I think the other thing we need to remember is that the FFA has developed, and does have, the capabilities to run and to establish competitions. With the unbundling exercise that the FFA is going through, it does open the door for new competitions for the FFA to establish and administer.
"I think that that's important in terms of sequence so that people understand that there are a lot of moving parts and the unbundling could be very much linked to the establishment of a second-tier."
Nevertheless, despite the optimistic tone struck by the FFA boss, the introduction of a nationwide second tier faces a series of daunting challenges in a post-COVID landscape. As is often raised by more cautious voices within the sport, one of the biggest potential stumbling blocks surrounding its creation has seemingly only been heightened: Does the game have the ability to pay for it? Especially following the COVID-19-related hits to the FFA's coffers and an Australian economy that would need to provide partners and sponsors.
Reservations, too, have been raised about the ability of existing National Premier League [NPL] clubs that are advocating for inclusion in a second tier to pay for their operational and logistical expenses associated with a meaningful nationwide competition. Australian player's union, the PFA, has remained steadfast in its belief that a second tier that provides real and sustained benefits to the Australian game needs to be a well-funded and fully professional one from the get-go; former PFA chief executive John Didulica once infamously remarked that the competition could not simply be "NPL on planes." And while Didulica may have departed the organisation, it is understood that that sentiment still holds true within the union's senior ranks.
NPL clubs, conversely, retort that their ability to sustain themselves at a state level following their enforced ouster from the national stage with little to no fiscal support from federations or income from television broadcasts provides ample evidence of their financial durability. A chance to actually compete on a national stage, they maintain, will also open new avenues of sponsorship and income to facilitate them in meeting a rise in standards and costs associated with a second tier. There also exists at an NPL level a widespread acceptance that minimum level of governance standards, stadiums, facilities and fan support would have to be in place for any side looking to make the leap.
Ultimately, though, a defining belief among these clubs is that the responsibility for choosing to embrace the risks and possible consequences associated with any move to join a NSD should lie with clubs and their members.
As revealed by ESPN last week, NPL club collective body the Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC), in an effort to source some level of data to back their member's assertions, plans to forge ahead with their own "informal EOI" process in the coming weeks -- forming a working group of at least 25 clubs to finalise the development of league design, modelling and criteria that can be used as a reference point in negotiations with other stakeholders.
"I think everyone agrees that NSD is no longer in the realm of 'nice to have' but a 'must have' as an important means of improving the quality and level of football, but also our credentials and viability as a football nation," AAFC president Nick Galatas said.
"A NSD gives all clubs that are interested in it something to aspire to."
Johnson, when the plans were raised with him, acknowledged they could hold some value.
"Nick [Galatas] and the AAFC have been in touch with us, they have let us know what is going on," he told ESPN.
"I don't have a problem if these discussions are exploratory, because ultimately I don't think there's anyone that disagrees, at a conceptual level, with a second tier. Where the issues start to come in is on the practicalities of implementing a second-tier competition.
"So, if the AAFC are prioritising this work, and they're getting a better feel and a better understanding from not just the people that say we should have [a NSD] because it sounds good, but those who understand or are able to develop an understanding that there are X amounts of clubs across the country [that can] pay X amount of money to participate in a second-tier over X amount of years -- I think this is helpful, I think this is very helpful."
Beyond existing clubs, newly formed entities representing underserved geographic regions such as North Queensland or Canberra, or the fielding of A-League youth sides, are other options to populate a second tier that have been floated as potentially viable.
Johnson was frank, however, when asked if the FFA had produced any of costings of second-tier models -- stating that he had yet to see concrete modelling on the financial realities involved.
"I've not seen a document, yet, from any stakeholder, that talks about the real practicalities of having a second tier," he acknowledged.
"In particular, talking about the financial sustainability of having such a competition.
"Now, can it work? I think yes it can but, certainly, there are some financial challenges that need solutions."