Real Strategy or Just Politics?

On the eve of the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) releasing its Strategic Plan for 2016-19, Australian icon Tim Cahill hit out at the game’s governing body accusing them of “wasted opportunities” and a “lack of vision.”

It has been interesting to read some of the reactions to Cahill’s comments. Some feel that his comments were based on the fact that his wage demands allegedly were too high for an A-League club or the FFA to meet. Yet A-League clubs have shelled out more on players who are closer to retirement than Cahill, some have in fact come out of retirement for similar sums as those being bandied about.

Cahill was quoted as saying “I just need vision, I’ve never asked for anything but that. The only thing is, some people’s vision is not as big as mine and it’s tough, because it depends where they want to be. Where does the A-League want to be?”

The ideal time to find out about the FFA’s vision was when they unveiled the Strategic Plan for 2016-19. Having revealed all were fans of the game given a glimpse of a vision Cahill was asking for in the Strategic Plan?

FFA Chairman Stephen Lowy said that “The 4-year strategic plan represents a significant shift in emphasis towards our showcase competition, the Hyundai A-League.” That will no doubt have pleased Cahill and many others, he continued by saying, “This is primarily about broadcast rights and commercial partnerships, which are the economic foundation of football around the world.”

So the key element here is, unless we get a good television deal our hands are tied. Everything hinges on the television deal, just like in the olden days of Soccer Australia everything hinged on World Cup qualification. Surely rather than putting all of their eggs in one basket with money from television propping up the game we should be hearing how the FFA plans to diversify its revenue streams to offer long term stability?

Cahill quite rightly slammed the FFA for not having found a sponsor for the Socceroos for three years. This was hard to believe when you consider that Australia has in the time qualified for its third successive World Cup, hosted and won the Asia Cup and the Socceroos have become a very popular well supported brand. Evidence being a sell -out crowd in Perth for a game against lowly Bangladesh.

Ironically Cahill’s comments came in the same week that the FFA announced that a four year deal had been signed with Caltex which will see the petroleum company receive naming rights to the team. Once again the benefits to the game from such a deal have not been forthcoming from the FFA, yet some would say are crucial to them achieving a vision, or a strategic plan.

The FFA’s CEO David Gallop announced that the key initiatives include:

· A refresh of the A-League brand to connect more fans to the competition as viewers, members, ticket buyers and consumers of digital content.

· New investment in digital platforms to improve the experience of the 2 million grassroots participants and connect more of them to the Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League.

· A new centralised approach to Marquee Player Recruitment to assist Hyundai A-League clubs in attracting top class international players, including Caltex Socceroos returning home.

· Incentives for football stakeholders at all levels to collaborate and align their programs to the game’s overall national objectives.

This is hardly inspiring stuff. In fact the first point confirms that interest in the A-League is waning. Despite many clubs reporting increased crowds the television viewership is believed to be down. One thing that is clear is that Special ticket deals – some clubs like to claim as Memberships – are proving a success with many of the franchises in terms of pulling fans in. This goes to show that the pricing levels for the A-League are too high, people are happy to purchase discounted tickets, but not prepared to pay the full value.

A digital presence is crucial in the modern era, but again the key is that this is a fast evolving medium and you have to have the technology and the staff to keep pace with it. Which is more important investing is a digital presence or in digital platforms and being able to manage the vast database of registered players and fans?

As for the Marquee players Cahill hits the nail squarely on the head when he said “A number of international stars have arrived on Australia’s shores since the introduction of the A-League in 2005, including Alessandro Del Piero, Dwight Yorke and Shinji Ono. Del Piero was one of the biggest things to ever happen to the game, but also the worst because it wasn’t capitalised on,” he said.”A guest stint for anyone can only harm you and coming back without any sort of plan and substance is always a recipe for disaster.”

You could also point to the World Cup Qualification in 2006, just like in 1974 the people running the game were not prepared for the interest and influx of players that followed as a result of the qualification. Was that failing to learn from history or short term myopic management?

“Our state and territory member federations, their zones and associations, and the 2,300 clubs across Australia do an outstanding job, but they need more support,” David Gallop is quoted as saying, but there will undoubtedly be many at clubs around the country agreeing and asking what support are they going to get. Was this once again a throw-away line to make those 2,300 clubs feel a part of the “family?”

Again, all of the emphasis is on the elite side of the game, the Socceroos, the Matildas and the A-League. Clubs in the real world outside of the elite level are struggling. Coaches are being forced to shell out money that gives them no guarantee of a job, and we are now seeing people who should not necessarily coach being given a certificate that says that they can be paid to do so. While ex players and long term coaches with natural communication skills and coaching track records of success are being lost to the game. It is crazy that the two most successful coaches in Western Australia in the past 15 years have been virtually lost to the game, Ronnie Campbell and Graham Normanton; although Normanton is working behind the scenes at Perth SC.

The cost of juniors in the NPL is now higher than almost every other sport, and this will have a very strong impact on the game in the next ten years as players will be lost to the game simply because parents cannot afford to pay for them to play. Some will return to the game later but will be of a standard lower than in previous years.

The last point in which the FFA state that they are going to incentivise stakeholders to “collaborate and align their programs to the game’s overall national objectives.” What exactly does that mean? Those who toe the line and agree with everything put forward by the FFA and the state bodies will be rewarded? If so, we have already seen that, and it has not worked. It has in fact fractured the game.

Again Cahill was on the money when he said that the FFA is holding the sport back by not putting enough emphasis on the sport’s next generation. “We have the lifestyle, the great schools, great cities and multiculturalism. The only thing we don’t have is investment in the game. It’s not about me, it’s about where they want to be. It’s about whether the owners and the Federation want to see the bigger picture, or if we’re happy where it is.”

The truth is the FFA may not be happy with where the game is at, but like many clubs around the country they are finding it very hard to do what is required with the funds that they have available. This is why there needs to be more transparency, such as the salaries of key executives in the FFA and at State Bodies being made public, and the stakeholders being able to judge if the salary is justified in relation to the progress made by the game.

The FFA ever since it started has recruited from other sports and by now should have realised that this does not work. John O’Neill came from Rugby, Ben Buckley from AFL and now David Gallop from NRL, all are proven sports administrators, but if they do not know the sport they need to make sure that the people below them know it inside out. Damien de Bohun, as head of the A-League having come from cricket, is possibly an example of a square peg in a round hole.

If the FFA is going to move forward and achieve even some of the goals in its “Whole of Football Plan” or it now released Strategic Plan for the next three years, it needs to be prepared to listen to people who challenge them, rather than those who nod compliantly in return for free tickets to Socceroos games and grand finals. They need to start listening to ex players from the A-League and NSL; yes the NSL, as there were a lot of good points in that competition that the A-League can learn from. They also need to get ex coaches and ex Internationals more involved, and not by way of tokenism, as ambassadors for the game. Sit down with many of the Socceroos who qualified for Germany in 2006 and in five minutes you will hear sensible suggestions that could carry the game forward.

The FFA has stated in ‘boardroom speak’ that there are four pillars in their strategic plan with key targets being:

· Connect more fans with the A-League and W-League

· Improve the experience for all participants

· Build generations of successful National Teams

· Lead towards a unity of purpose

As usual they have not said how they plan to do this, or how much they are willing to invest in achieving these goals, or if that will be left to clubs around the country who are the lifeblood of the game. One thing is for sure, if left to achieve this on their own they will fail miserably.

The FFA need to be honest and accept that they need help. If they continue down the dictatorial path and assume that they know best on every facet of the game then progress will be incredibly slow. They also need to have a wider view of the game than the elite level and pinning all of their hopes and financial dreams on one television deal for the next four years. If the standard of the A-League drops and viewers stop turning on the televisions to watch, despite the crowds increasing at the grounds, this is not an ideal place to be bargaining from to bring in money that will assure your future. So hopefully they have a back up plan if they do not achieve the financial windfall they are hoping for from television. If they don’t the Strategic Plan and the Whole of Football plan may well need to be revised.

Real Strategy or Just Politics?
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