An "affordable and feasible" national second tier that sits below the Australian A-League could be up and running as soon as 2022, a report commissioned by a group of aspiring clubs has found.
The Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) -- a representative body of clubs outside the A-League that includes former National Soccer League champions such as Marconi Stallions, Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne, Sydney United, Adelaide City, Brisbane City and Wollongong Wolves -- envisions a 12-team national second division made up of existing National Premier League (NPL) clubs.
Expansion to 16 teams occurring via promotion from the NPL -- on condition of minimum standards being met -- would preferably occur in the first four years and full promotion and relegation between a national second division and existing NPL competitions would commence once a 16-team competition had been reached.
"We've got the clubs, we don't imagine there will be an appetite for a substantial number of startups to join a second division," AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas told journalists on Monday. "This is going to come from our existing resources. This [report] is a representative sample of our existing resources and the report is a progress statement of where we've got to, the preferred model and what can be delivered and when it can be delivered.
"We want to kick off this discussion, we want to collaborate further with Football Australia and other stakeholders to finalise it by March, April next year with a view to hopefully it being received favourably and, with some work from the governing bodies, it being established."
The AAFC's vision estimates that the costs of running the league would reach up to $3.3 million, and that participating clubs would, on top of paying a participation fee of $200,000 a season, require an operating budget of between $850,000 and $1.6m.
To begin with, competing players would be semi-professional; the AAFC estimating that the rise in standards associated with the jump from the NPL to a NSD would add $150,000 to $250,000 in football operations costs for clubs as part of the additional $550,000 to $850,000 in expenses that would be added to existing NPL club's budgets. An intention would then be to transition into a fully professional competition as soon as viable.
"In terms of players, yes semi-professional to start and professional hopefully later and as soon as possible," Galatas said. "But we're trying to professionalise the environment and make sure that we're developing footballers and we're playing within a very professional, regulated, well-governed environment.
"We don't think it's the right thing to do to start with professional footballers, full-time from the beginning because we are mindful of kicking it off in a financially viable and responsible way. Given where we know, with where our game is, including the A-League, with COVID and all the economy, we want to be realistic. We haven't had a second division until now.
"We think this can start in the way we've set out, very strongly, financially viable with young players predominantly earning good money with a view to getting to a professional stage as soon as possible."
The league, though, would not feature any caps on spending at its outset that would prevent sides operating professionally immediately should they be able to do so.
'[It's] up to the clubs," said Galatas. "It's a criteria driven model. We've set out some minimum standards we'd require clubs to meet.
"How they do that is a matter for them. There's no cap. [We're] mindful of our geographic differences in Australia -- our different imperatives and factors that apply across the states -- so clubs can do it differently.
"If we're going to achieve a geographic spread as we'd hope and really tap most of Australia, if not all of Australia, we want to make it so that different regions can do it in different ways so they can all participate."
The newly formed Australian second-tier, under the AAFC's template, would be overseen by an advisory board consisting of members from Football Australia, the AAFC, participatory clubs and an independent chair. Standing committees with responsibility for areas such as marketing, player and coach development, women's football and league standards would also be formed. Branding, marketing and commercial matters would be managed centrally by Football Australia.
It is envisioned that the national second division's season would align with the A-League's as part of Football Australia's preference for a unified football calendar, however no preference is made between a winter or summer staging.
Promotion and relegation between the A-League and a national second division, one of Australian football's most controversial topics, is not a formal feature of the proposal, but remains a medium to long term goal of the AAFC.
Under the group's plans, participatory second-tier clubs would have to possess stadium facilities that can accommodate a minimum of 3,000 fans and meet criteria surrounding their existing teams and youth development to gain access to the competition. Coaching -- coaching staffs would require, at minimum, A-license accreditation -- and governance, finance, facility, organisational structure, member protection, medical and reporting benchmarks would also need to be met.
A comprehensive women's and girl's program with a focus on development would also be a prerequisite for any club seeking to participate in the proposed competition, with the AAFC also targeting the introduction of a women's national second division in 2025.
With a single, national league preferred over a conference-based alternative, travel is foreseen as the single biggest cost associated with the running of a national second division, with a 12-team, 22-round national competition estimated to hold approximately $1.45m in transportation costs (approx. $120,000 per club) and a 16-team, 30-round competition estimated to require approximately $2.62m (Approx $165,000 per club).
The AAFC believes that the commercial benefits that come with the interest in a national league with more marquee matchups, "we want the biggest clubs playing each other as much as possible", will help offset the costs of a national model.
Although it has promised widespread consultation will all relevant stakeholders, ultimately, it is Football Australia that retains control over the introduction of a potential national second division.
CEO James Johnson has signalled his openness to the concept of such a competition in the past and highlighted the now completed process of unbundling Australia's professional leagues from his organisation as one of the key yard posts on the journey to its introduction.
The AAFC's report ostensibly now enables further conversations between it and the federation to continue surrounding a key aspect of Football Australia's reservations surrounding the competition's introduction, with Johnson telling ESPN in August 2020 that he had "not seen a document, yet, from any stakeholder, that talks about the real practicalities of having a second tier. In particular, talking about the financial sustainability of having such a competition."
A finalised version of the AAFC's findings is anticipated for arrival on April 2.