Saturday, August 20, 2005

Australia's football 'revolution' ready to launch

When Australian soccer's all new A-League kicks off next Friday night in Perth and Newcastle it will mark the end of a two-year period of revolution in which every aspect of the sport has been revamped. Many have said that the total reworking of the game at the elite level is the last chance for soccer in Australia.

However, that may be too dramatic a prophecy, as Michael Lynch of The Age, opined: "The grass-roots explosion in the popularity of the game, the number of youngsters playing the sport and the high levels of interest in the national team are all factors which underline its inherent strength in the Australian sports market place."

"Support from the Australian Sports Commission, federal funding and the goodwill of politicians and the public keen to see Australia do as well in this, the biggest sport in the world, as it does in other pursuits has provided the impetus for the revolution to continue," he believes.

High profile, competent and experienced administrators, headed by former Rugby Union chief John O'Neill and colleague Matt Carroll have been hired. The administrators made a small but symbolically important gesture when they changed the game's official name from "soccer" to football, winding up the debtladen Soccer Australia and replacing it with the new Football Federation of Australia.

Anxious to build an economically sustainable new competition, and ensure that the quality of the play is higher than that in the old NSL, the management team opted for a "one city, one team" model.

Now both of Australia's biggest cities have only one team - Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory - in the new competition, playing alongside clubs from Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and Auckland in New Zealand. Two of the country's largest provincial centres, Gosford on the fast-growing NSW Central Coast and Newcastle in the Hunter Valley, are also among the eight founding members.

Each club has been given a five-year guarantee that they will be the only team in their part of the country. The window is designed to give them sufficient time to shore up investment, build the team's identity and attract a core audience of 10,000 to 15,000 fans, a total which should be enough to ensure their financial viability.

Team rosters have been set at 20, to maintain the player quality standards, and a salary cap of A$1.5 million mandated as a wages ceiling in year one to prevent salary inflation. Each club is, however, allowed to hire one so-called "marquee player" who's salary is not included in the cap. To force teams to unearth the best young talent and provide a path to professionalism for the leading young players in the country, clubs also have to include three players aged 20 or under in their squads.

A three-year broadcast deal with Fox Sports has been agreed, with up to four live matches a weekend being shown, while many metropolitan and provincial newspapers and broadcasters have committed to cover their local teams home and away.

The clubs will be one of the earliest beneficiaries of Australia's move into the Asian Football Confederation. The top two teams in the inaugural A-League will, from next year on, get the chance to play in the Asian Champions League. Entry to the AFC is also expected to make a position in the World Cup more accessable to the Australian national team, which last made the finals in 1974.

According to Ray Gatt of The Australian, however, it is possible that no franchise will turn a profit this year. His sources predict that clubs like Sydney FC will need an average home gate of between 20,000 and 25,000 just to break square. The source also believes there will be "massive variances" in terms of financial losses for the clubs.

"Look, with any start up business, you have to expect losses," he said. "It is unusual to turn a profit from day one. I can see some clubs being at the extreme end with A$1 million to A$2 million losses while others will do well to contain the red ink to A$500,000. It remains to be seen just how long they can maintain those sort of losses."

Melbourne Victory is so concerned about the 'crowd effect' that is slashing entry charges for its opening A-League home game against Perth Glory on 4 September. Walk-up supporters will now be asked to pay $16 for a general admission ticket instead of the $22 that had been the rate during the club's three home matches in the A-League's pre-season competition.

Victory is anxious to maximise attendance for the first home game at Olympic Park to set the tone for the rest of the season, in which it will play a further nine home matches. One of its core first-year business strategies is to build the club's "brand", and officials acknowledged yesterday that there is no better way to do that then build a buzz about the team in front of big crowds.

"We are trying to encourage everyone who supports the club to become a season ticket-holder, because that's where the value lies, but we will continue to monitor the admission charges," Victory spokesman Tony Ising said.