They know we are coming!

With all the hysteria over the last fortnight since Rebecca Wilson’s expose on the 198 banned A-League fans, I think what has largely been overlooked is that, after many decades of football playing second and third fiddle to other codes, football has arrived bigger and stronger than ever.  Since this latest attack on football, I have been overwhelmed with the response from the football community which has come together and galvanised stronger than ever.  Amongst the adversity, it’s time we capitalised on this passion and united front and turned it into our advantage.

Having only returned to football professionally in August this year after 15 years working within the AFL, a world-class stadium in Etihad Stadium and more recently Swimming Australia, I can assure you that something I saw very evident in the boardrooms of rival football codes and other sporting clubs and associations, was a growing acknowledgment of the significant growth of football in the grassroots and the emergence of the sport in terms of our national teams and the incredible fan experience at many of our Hyundai A-League matches.  They know we are coming and they are concerned.  One thing for certain is that football is now a real threat!

It is therefore no coincidence that Rebecca Wilson’s article and Alan Jones’s outburst on radio comes at a time when Roy Morgan released data clearly showing that football is the number one sport amongst kids aged 6-13, in fact 50% of all kids play football.  More alarming is the fact that more girls are now playing football than netball…..

How exactly Rebecca Wilson came to accessing such confidential information of the 198 fans that have been banned from Hyundai A-League matches around Australia remains a mystery, however, what hasn’t gone unnoticed is that both Rebecca Wilson (through her partner) and Alan Jones have links to the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust which manage Allianz Stadium and would have access to this information.  We need to identify where this leak has come from and more importantly, the motivation behind this leak.

Whether you think I’m a conspiracy theorist or not, to me it’s paramount to identify and expose this leak as there is an underbelly of ‘haters’ trying to cause damage to our sport.  Rival football codes are powerful in Australia with strong concrete links into media, government and key influencers.  I know too well how much influence AFL and NRL have in these mediums and they will not stand by to watch football take over and will do whatever they can to control the share of voice.

Whilst I can understand why the fans are upset, they feel abandoned and alone in this attack and key figure heads missed the opportunity to strongly defend them publicly, we must not forget that amongst the 198 banned fans, there are many bans that are very much justified.  In Perth last year, a young 10 year old boy had his leg burned by a flare lit by one of these now banned fans.

Notwithstanding this, I also think that we need to ensure we exercise care when we are banning alleged offenders.  Is the evidence compelling, is there an appeals process in instances where people have been wrongly accused, how are we advising the affected fans and how are we presenting the evidence against them?  Are our stadiums well equipped and trained to deal with a different type of fan, one that is more passionate and wants to participate in authentic fan engagement within their active fan areas?

What I think the fans wanted to hear from FFA was:

  • We support the fans and enjoy the colour and atmosphere they bring to the games – The Fans are are our biggest asset!
  • We condemn the media who have gone down the path of attacking the game and the fans and for leaking confidential personal information
  • We stand by and reinforce that the we are committed to providing a safe and secure environment for all fans at our venues
  • We will review the banning process to ensure that there are no flaws in the system
  • We will look at introducing an appeals process to ensure that fans are not being wrongly implicated as part of the review
  • Once we review and refine the banning process we will share it with all football stakeholders including fans so that we are all well aware of the parameters of the process
  • In the meantime, any fans who feel that they have a case that needs to be reviewed, we invite them to come forward so we can review their ban

Having said this, I would have liked to have seen the fans not boycotting our A-League matches over the weekend so as not to give our detractors any more reason to judge the sport.  We have given them more reason to talk about our sport adversely.  We have and continue to give the mainstream media too many free kicks and own goals as a collective.  It’s time to stop pressing the self-destruct button.

At Perth Glory Football Club, we have 21 fans who have been banned for a variety of reasons and we are currently dealing with three (3) cases which are being reviewed and have been submitted to FFA for consideration.  We have also made it known that if fans feel that their cases need to be reviewed that they come forward stating their case and the circumstances around their request to review their ban and which we will take up with FFA on a case by case basis.

What have we learned from the past?

We must not forget where we have come from.  Whilst kudos and due recognition must be given to the past for carrying the torch for soccer for so long with limited resources, we must not forget the plight the game faced in the early 2000’s where it was clearly at the crossroads.  However, I also don’t think we have succeeded in bringing the “old” along on a journey as the game prospers, although the FFA Cup has been an outstanding success connecting grassroots football with the Hyundai A-League.

When I left my post as CEO of South Melbourne in 1999 after six (6) and on the back of some extraordinary on-field and off-field successes as a Club in the National Soccer League, I left a sport where:

  • The National Soccer League was not very marketable and was deteriorating at a rapid pace
  • There was significant political infighting at the Soccer Australia boardroom lead by a directionless Board
  • Soccer Australia was virtually broke and struggled to fund our national teams and NSL adequately
  • Many of the NSL Clubs were in financial strife and suffering from a lack of direction from the governing body and within
  • Collective bargaining issues with the PFA plagued the sport
  • Channel 7 bought the television rights only to warehouse them with no intention of televising our game
  • The NSL was not broadcast on television other than limited  coverage on SBS

This came at a time when Australia was producing some extraordinary football talent.  Who can forget the emergence of Mark Viduka who at age 19, won the Player of the Year, Under 21 Player of the Year and Top Goal scorer all in the same year.  Whilst it came with great personal disappointment for my Club, South Melbourne, where I was a Life Member,  it came as no surprise to me when the NSL was disbanded in 2004.

However, not all was bleak, the emergence of Perth Glory Football Club in 1996 was spectacular with regularly sold out crowds of between 13,000 – 18,000 each week at Perth Oval.  Clubs like my old Club South Melbourne built a purpose built rectangular stadium as their home at the old Lakeside Oval (once home to South Melbourne Football Club now known as Sydney Swans) and regularly averaged crowds of 8,000 – 9,000 at their home games.  Current Socceroo Coach, Ange Postecoglou was given his first chance to coach the historic Club and which he did very successfully adding two championships as coach to his two championships as a player and leading the Club in the inaugural FIFA World Club Championship and drawn against Clubs such as Manchester United and Vasco Da Gama.  New clubs like Collingwood Warriors, Carlton FC and Northern Spirit came and went, invariably targeting the ‘mainstream’ football fans with no ethnic base.  Carlton FC provided young guns Mark Bresciano, Vince Grella and Josh Kennedy their entree into spectacular football careers.  Sydney United and Melbourne Knights continued to be a football development factory for Australian Football and what talent they produced, names like, Tony Popovic, Ned Zelic,  David Zdrilic,  Mark Rudan, Jacob Burns, Zeljko Kalac, Mark Bosnich, Ante Milicic, Mark Viduka, Josip Skoko and the list goes on.

In 1999, as a young aspiring sports administrator, I decided to pursue opportunities outside of football to master my accidental career path.  My opportunity was provided when I was offered a senior marketing / commercial role at Hawthorn Football Club which springboard my career with senior roles within the AFL, Etihad Stadium and Swimming Australia.

My personal experience with football was one of contrast.  Having two (2) children aged 19 and 8, I have experienced two very different environments with football at the grassroots.  When I took my eldest son George to play Under 8s with South Melbourne in 2004, I recall that the club had one team per age group and we would play other clubs each week who also had one team per age group.  Some weeks we would be short of players and other weeks the other clubs would be short of players and we would swap players to make up the numbers.  Fast forward nine (9) years later in 2013 when I took my youngest son, Jonathan, to a local community Club called Ashburton United in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne – here we find that there are up to eight (8) teams per age group at a Club with over 1,200 juniors.  Extraordinary.  They had access to five (5) reserves around Ashburton, including some underutilised AFL reserves.  The names of juniors were no longer ending with ‘os or ‘ic or ‘ski, they were the Smiths’ and Jones’.  The families were coming from traditional “Auskick” environments to “Football”.

In 2015, Auskick saw a decline in numbers of upto 15% in some regions whilst football continues to swell in numbers.  One of my jibes around town which is not appreciated by some quarters is that whilst cricket grounds and AFL grounds erect Auction Boards to advertise for “Players Wanted”, football just keeps on taking over their grounds to accommodate the soaring demand.  This is another challenge we need to keep working on as our participation base continues to soar, working with local, state and federal governments to ensure we are getting access to our fair share of facilities and funding.  In Perth, we are excited to be working on a Home of Football collaboratively with Football West and the State Government which is working on providing the state with a true “Home of Football” to house our elite and community needs. An exciting project indeed and well deserved for the 45,000 participants of football in WA.

Where are we now and where are we heading?

After 15 years away from the sport, I got my opportunity to return earlier this year by taking up the post as CEO at Perth Glory Football Club, following the controversial salary cap scandal of the 2014/15 Hyundai A-League Season.  Four months in, I am relishing the opportunity and challenges that come with it as we enter a new phase of consolidation and rebuild.

There is no doubt the Hyundai A-League is a lot more marketable. Fox Sports presents the sport so well in their coverage of all games each week.  Our Socceroos are regularly qualifying for the World Cup and in 2015 and we won the AFC Asian Cup on home soil.  The interest in football is increasing amongst the community, government and corporate Australia and the platform has been set over the last ten (10) years from which the game can now propel itself from.  Not for a minute should anyone underestimate the ‘heavy lifting’ that has been performed by the Lowy administration since taking over.

Our ‘shop front’ window is looking better than ever despite recent issues.  However, behind the scenes we have invariably many similar issues and which need to be resolved if we are to continue to improve and develop as a sport and league.

  • Club owners are bleeding money.  In fact A-League clubs lost a combined $17M last Financial Year.  The financial stability of A-League Clubs must become a priority as owner’s writing off losses is no longer sustainable
  • Our attendances fluctuate and the league needs more aggressive marketing – in fact I don’t believe we have a dedicated Chief Marketing Officer at FFA to drive Marketing strategies.
  • I stand to be corrected on this number, however, I once saw a statistic which indicated that 75% of AFL participants are linked to an AFL Club whereas only 35-40% of Football participants support an A-League Club (since writing this blog I have been informed that this number is closer to 19%)
  • Our broadcast revenue is not enough to enable us to build upon the sport top down and bottom up – we need to significantly improve our broadcast deal and introduce other commercialisation strategies to increase revenues.  To achieve this we need to market the game better to increase attendances and eyeballs
  • We lack a strong vision for the league.  What’s our vision for 2020, 2030 and beyond.  What strategies are we implementing to achieve this vision?  What are the key strategic pillars which will be the pathway to our vision?
  • The funding model of our national teams and the A-League needs review – are we allocating the funds in proportion to our key priorities and is there a disparity?  The broadcast deal at present is $160M over four (4) years, primarily for the A-League, however, only $100M ends up with the A-League Clubs to underpin the $2.5M salary cap per club
  • The quality of the league is heavily dependant on the quality of the marquee players – if that’s the case, what’s the overarching strategy to ensure we attract “MLS” type marquees?  A good example of this is, Tim Cahill.  We are in desperate need of such an Australian icon to to play in the A-League as opposed to China, noting, the economics need to work for both.  Our football fans are spoilt for choice when it comes to viewing football and in order to increase the interest, we need to attract big, high profile names to the A-League
  • The relationship between the PFA and Football has not improved as was evident in the recent collective bargaining agreement stand-off.  Clearly there is a divide there that needs to be mended and the PFA need to also take responsibility for this
  • How are we capitalising on Asia?  The EPL Clubs are increasingly entering Asia as they see the growth opportunities.  We need to understand how we can do the same and this needs to be considered carefully
  • Is our football pyramid as it should be?  The FFA Cup has been overwhelmingly successful, so what have we learned from it?  See below for my view.

Hyundai A-League Strategy and Vision

What plagues the Hyundai A-League in my opinion is the absence of a  strong and clear strategy for the competition.  What’s our vision for the A-League in the next 4 years, what do we want the competition to look like and more importantly what are the key pillars to the strategy that will help achieve this vision.  As a new CEO of a Club in the Hyundai A-League and regularly speaking about the game with sponsors, government, fans and the broader community, I am not able to speak with clarity about our vision and strategy as a competition.  As a Club, we are embarking on our own four (4) year strategy at present and this will be made much easier if we were clear on the A-League strategy and vision.  The FFA are working on a strategy at the moment, however, a concern I have raised with them is that the A-League is only a component of the overall strategy.  It’s now time to expand on this strategy to develop a vision for the league and this process needs to involve all stakeholders – owners, CEOs, FFA Board and management, players, fans, broadcasters, sponsors….

This strategy and vision needs to be developed by all key stakeholders as a one united front.  The time to develop this vision and strategy for the Hyundai A-League is NOW.  The strategy will encompass all facets of the league, expansion, financial sustainability, commercialisation, corporate governance, broadcast, digital, marketing, marquee players, venues, fan engagement etc.

Controversially, what also needs to be considered in my opinion is a national second division so we can begin developing the next tier of playing talent as part of our talent development pathways as well as building the next layer of national football brands.  This is by no way an endorsement of promotion relegation as I don’t believe our model can sustain this at the moment.  At present, if we as a Club wanted to identify talent in the National Premier League, which is a state by state type tiered football league, we would need to troll through over 200 clubs and around 4,000 players with our best talent spread over too many clubs.  In my opinion, we are not seeing the best of the next tier of talent.  A national second division (without promotion / relegation to the A-League for now) would capture our best talent across ten (10) clubs providing a national stage for them to shine and be indentified.  This view is further reinforced by the current situation where very only few players are rising from the NPL to the A-League as the gap is too big.  Capturing the best 200 next tier players in one national second division of ten (10) Clubs will help nurture and develop our best talent as well as build the next layer of football brands.

Recently at Perth Glory we trialled a number of NPL products from all over Australia who are not too far from A-League but not too close either, however, this great young talent would benefit from a second division national tier which will accelerate their transition into the top league by playing in a stronger competition.   A close review of the statistics of players transitioning from NPL to A-League will be alarming and needs to be reviewed and considered in the whole of football strategy.  Of course this comes with financial challenges, however, if we don’t have aspirational elements to our strategy, we are not trying hard enough.

As we enter the most pivotal time that has confronted our sport in the last decade, the decisions we make in the coming months will determine where our sport will be in the next 5, 10 and 20 years.  As a new FFA Chairman settles into the role and inducts his relatively new Board, we look forward to participating in whatever needs to be done to find our path to sustainable success as a sport and competition.

Without an aspirational strategy and vision we will not capitalise on the explosion of football at the grassroots.

Exciting times ahead.

We are Football. #beautifulgame

Peter Filopoulos – @peterfilopoulos |