What is Plan B?

As the Hyundai A league stumbles into a seven month break between seasons, and the FFA try and come up with another marketing slogan to go alongside the ones no one really noticed such as “Fan Made” and “Be Part of Something Bigger,” one has to wonder what the future holds.

The Hyundai A League burst onto the Australian sports scene with a big bang but since then has fizzled rather than sizzled. This is not a reflection on the football being played but more to do with the marketing and promotion of the league, the game and its stars, who to be honest have very low profiles around the country. It also has to do with the continual news that one of the clubs is in financial trouble; such news does not instill faith in fans who shell out their hard earned cash to watch the best football they can get in Australia.

So where did it all go wrong? Has this all come about simply because the powers that be at the FFA have directed all of their attention towards the Socceroos and the World Cup Bid? Probably that has had a lot to do with it. Yet the foundations were there, strong brands on board as sponsors and a good television deal with Fox, – although of course some would like to see games free to air.

One question that has to be asked with the benefit of hindsight is, was the Hyundai A league trying to market itself as Premier League when it most definitely is not? Did such an initial marketing and packaging approach ultimately harm the game? Fans were being sold one thing but by turning on their televisions they could soon see they were buying something different.

Did John O’Neill and his team pass on to Ben Buckley a foundation that was rock solid? It would appear that that was not the case at all. O’Neill left while he was on top, as he had done with Rugby Union before, and to be fair it is not a bad management strategy, to know when to get out.

One has to wonder if the structure of the clubs was the right approach right from the very start. As UK journalist Phil Vasili wrote back in 2000 about the English league, “If wealthy individuals can buy clubs and use them as extensions of their ego, the most important people in those clubs, the players and the fans, will always be subject to the arbitrary whim of an individual under little or no constraint.”

This could so easily have been written about the Hyundai A league. We have seen players brought in that maybe not have been the coach/manager’s choice, heard of owners questioning player selections, we have seen owners opinions becoming bigger than the club’s which can never be good. But the most disappointing thing in the current structure is we have seen fans treated with contempt. Sadly the FFA and many of the club’s management have failed to see that without the fans they have nothing, and they have continued to take their money but have failed to listen to them.

If football in Australia is to succeed, yes we still need big money to help bankroll it, but the fans and the people need a voice. Maybe we should have looked at the lower divisions in England and started there when building our league. Looking at how smaller clubs, not made up of superstars, manage to stay alive season after season. Clubs like Bournemouth which is run as a trust with power distributed among a committee rather than by one man.

Northampton Town was sent into administration yet the fans’ trust pulled it out. They raised sixty thousand pounds for an 8 per cent share in the club. They demanded and managed to have a re-constituted club that saw an elected supporter on its board. They then renegotiated the lease agreement with the council, and crowds rose from just over 2000 to just over 6000.

Football in Australia does not have history on its side, Perth Glory is the only side with any history when the A League commenced. So the culture of sons going to watch their team because they went with their father when they were young is not there. The loyalty factor takes years of nurturing and currently in Australia there are other distractions that pull all but the hard core fan away from A league games.

The fans are not members of the clubs even though they may buy memberships. They have no say in the way the club is run, all they have is a ticket, they are merely ‘season ticket holders’ and the sooner people wake up to that fact and start verbalizing their dismay, then we may see some changes.

Again to quote Phil Vasili, “At present football is a plutocracy with monied people shouting the odds. It is not the aggregation of a little money in a lot of hands that carries weight, but a lot of money in one hand.”

Clubs for the community run by the community is undoubtedly a pipedream, but the community needs to have more say and the current structure needs to be rethought. Surely Gold Coast United is a prime case in point. At least with a more democratic approach if mistakes are made they are made by the group. Being community based the team becomes a focus for community, a meeting place; it would stimulate community interest and pride as well as community involvement.

Rugby League and the AFL have the benefit of history on their side. Their clubs are well established and have been built on community – albeit a very different community to the one we live in today – and now they enjoy historical support.

Football is still a mere babe and as a child needs it family to help nurture it as it grows so too does football need the community.

By the time next season comes around let us hope that they have given the matter some thought.

What is Plan B?
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