After spelling out the harsh realities of competing in a national second division to its prospective entrants, Football Australia says it will forge ahead with the commencement of a formal expression of interest (EOI) process that will identify the competition's inaugural clubs by mid-2023.
Revealing to ESPN in June that "detailed financial work" on the requirements that entrants would need to meet to compete in a variety of possible second division frameworks had been completed, Football Australia undertook a series of meetings with potential entrants across Australia in recent months.
The purpose of the talks were twofold. One, to deliver aspirant clubs some home truths around the costs of entering into Australia's first attempt to establish a national second tier; and, two, to source feedback from these entities surrounding practicalities and preferences surrounding the competition format, season timings, costs, and more.
Coming towards the end of the process, Johnson admitted there were now some clubs that "weren't as interested in participating when they [saw] what it really takes," but said the federation nonetheless was satisfied there was enough genuine, tangible interest, to advance to the next stage of the process with introducing a long-agitated for second tier.
"There is sufficient interest at a level I would be comfortable setting up a second tier, as a result of the roadshow," Johnson revealed to ESPN. "Where we go from here is the next stage in this process. And that is the EOI stage.
"So, our people right now are preparing EOI documents that will include what sort of standards the clubs will need to meet; whether it be stadia, financial, governance, in order to meet the standards that we would require to participate in that competition. We're moving into that next stage and we would expect the EOI to be set up and finalised by the middle of 2023.
"By that point, we will know who will be in the second tier and who will participate in the first edition of the second tier by the middle of 2023.
"We're very excited, it's going to happen."
Ostensibly, moving towards an EOI process -- which Johnson said would commence as soon as the documents were finalised -- would indicate the federation had begun to zero in on the details of the who, the what, the when, and the where of their new competition, which will become the federation's major domestic property after the APL took control of the A-Leagues.
This information is critical for aspirant clubs wanting to enter, who are already putting in place strategies surrounding revenue generation and professionalism in anticipation of a second tier and performing due diligence to ensure they insulate as much as possible themselves from potential risk.
"If the numbers don't stack up, you can't just sacrifice clubs just to have an NSD," Wollongong Wolves chief executive Strebre Delovski told ESPN.
Johnson declined to provide specifics on what direction Football Australia was pursuing when asked by ESPN, instead offering potential hints as to what will be revealed at a later date.
"We've got some tinkering still to do with what the model and start date would look like," he said. "We've got some ideas that are pretty well defined now. We're not ready to announce what they look like yet but we will be soon.
"We're looking at models that we think can be set up, can be established, and we also think the model that we'll come up with will be very well received by the Australian football community.
"The first thing for us is not so much the speed of the start of the season, it's getting the calendar right. For me, it's the most strategic discussion. Is it a summer competition or is it a winter competition? That's something we haven't settled on yet.
"I see it as a winter competition. But that's something that we still have to test because it's not the view of everyone and there are different views on if it's a summer or winter competition. But we'll be addressing that very soon."
Nonetheless, according to PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch, any model the competition ultimately adopts needs to have been arrived at with the Australian football collective in mind.
"In recent weeks we have seen, once again, the quality of players, coaches and clubs in the NPL, and the importance of those clubs within our national football community," Busch told ESPN.
"If we are to improve, enhance and elevate those clubs and leagues, then any proposed NSD must form part of a broader strategy for the professional game in this country. How an NSD interacts and locks with the A-Leagues, forms part of an effective talent development pathway and addresses current barriers, such as the cost of access to elite programs for kids, will be fundamental.
"We can't reverse engineer this process to make Australian football fit a national second division; rather, we need any proposed competition to demonstrably serve Australian football's collective interests."
While existing clubs currently competing in the NPL shape as the most obvious contenders to fill whatever model is put forth by the EOI process -- possessing existing fanbases, infrastructure and history to build on -- they aren't the only options.
Merged or new entities in markets that are underserved or unable to support an existing club are possible, and APL chief executive Danny Townsend has told ESPN that the conversation surrounding youth sides in a second tier should be had.
Nick Galatas, chair of the Australian Association of Football Clubs, however, has said that the federation has "unequivocally confirmed in its ongoing consultation with AAFC and clubs... that [youth sides] won't be in the competition.
Reference is made to AL youth teams taking part in the NSD. To be clear, FA has unequivocally confirmed in its ongoing consultation with AAFC and clubs, and James Johnson does again here, that they won't. And they won't. NSD clubs will accommodate the best non AL young players.— Nick Galatas (@NickGalatas) August 31, 2022
"We'll have objectives," Johnson said of the competition's make-up. "One of the objectives that we'll have is that we want to see clubs that have historical importance to Australian football. We want to see clubs that are financially secure and we don't have to worry about them not being able to pay bills.
"We want to be able to see clubs that are interested in moving into a second tier and moving out of, say, the NPL. We want to see clubs that are interested in player development. Most of our objectives, should they have been met, will place any club in a position to enter."
Speaking to ESPN, South Melbourne president Nicholas Maikousis, who also voiced his objection to youth sides being made a foundational and protected part of any second-tier, has said that his club is willing to put in the hard yards to help establish an national second division but that the competition would need to evolve as it matured.
"The beauty of this is that [an NSD's] a competition that will be owned by the FA and they similarly have to put resources in to make sure that the commercial aspect of it, at some point, can contribute back to the clubs," he said.
"I'm not for one moment suggesting that they need to be funding us from day one, not at all. This is an investment that we're all making.
"But at some point, they also have to make sure that they've got the appropriate resources to make sure that this competition also gives back to the clubs. As most competitions in the world do."
Busch, meanwhile, told ESPN that he wanted to see an expanded role for the PFA in discussions.
"Following the publication of the White Paper for an NSD in 2019, the players and the PFA have had little involvement in formal discussions, despite the fact that development of any proposed league would significantly benefit from the players' involvement," he said.
Ultimately, while Johnson is quick to declare that his organisation will have undertaken the reforms anyway, changes that the organisation has made to transfer and loan regulations, dispute resolution, and club licensing, among others, have also helped to lay the foundations of a regulatory framework for an NSD.
"When we introduce a second tier it's not an interstate NPL," the executive explained. "There's an A-League, and we know what the standards are at the A-League, there is the NPL, and there needs to be a space in between the A-League and the NPL where clubs need to get to in order to compete at that level.
"Something we haven't done well as a sport in our history is that we haven't focused enough on club development. If we strip back what we're trying to do with this second tier there are a lot of objectives, but one is that we want to help clubs grow, help clubs develop and really incentivize them to grow.
"There are absolutely enough clubs that are willing to do what it takes and pay what it takes to be playing in a second tier in Australian football."