To hear Football Australia chief executive James Johnson describe it, the guiding principles of the proposed national second tier could easily be summarised as that long-co-opted environmentalist creed of "think global, act local."
They're why the executive believes football can introduce an Australia-wide competition that bridges the gap between the elite and the community where its rival codes have not. It's also why he believes that the game has what it takes to take another significant step towards aligning itself under one, unified pyramid. If the money adds up.
After years of preliminary work and promises that, yes, it's still coming, Football Australia formally completed an expression of interest phase for a national second division on Monday, with 32 submissions officially lodged from around the country. Pending an analysis from a team led by head of professional football and competitions Natalie Lutz, a minimum of 16 of these 32 parties will soon be invited to submit detailed proposals for their inclusion in a second tier, as well as be provided detailed information about the costs associated with participation.
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That process has targeted a June completion, while finalisation of a preferred model and recommendation as to which clubs will make up its new second tier is earmarked for the end of August. The federation's first choice is for the new competition -- which is without a formal name but, it is understood, likely to look to capitalise on the established National Premier Leagues branding -- to feature between 10 and 16 teams playing in a home and away format, with finals bringing the total number of games to between 24 to 36. Should this prove financially infeasible, the federation has not ruled out introducing a cheaper, but also less popular, Champions League-style model on top of the existing NPLs.
It's here where the links to the existing football community -- the "act local" -- become readily apparent. Of the EOIs received by the federation, 28 were submitted by clubs playing in local state-based competitions, entities with existing fanbases, histories, traditions, infrastructure, and legacies to build upon. Three others were joint bids from multiple clubs, while one was a partnership between NRL side Cronulla Sharks and NPL outfit Sutherland.
It's in stark contrast to, and perhaps a lesson learned from, the last round of A-League Men expansion run by FA just before the leagues' unbundling, which tapped two newly created entities -- Western United and Macarthur FC -- that have struggled to capture hearts and minds within the rapidly growing regions that they were birthed into.
"We want to have confidence that this competition means something to the community," said Johnson. "If a club has history, it will be connected to the community, it means that the community care about the club.
"That's what we think will be the DNA of this competition. It has to be community centred and rooted in community."
Thirty-two football clubs from eight states and territories want to be part of Football Australia's national second-tier competition.— ESPN Australia & NZ (@ESPNAusNZ) March 6, 2023
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It's an ambitious project. One that, if executed properly, will forever change the nature of Australian football.
In an idealised world where nothing ever goes wrong and Australian football hasn't mastered the art of taking aim at its shoes and pulling the trigger, the list of the benefits that a national second division can bring is long. That includes, but is not limited to, more minutes at a higher level for predominantly young and local footballers; a new market for clubs to buy and sell players, as well as for A-League clubs to send players on loan; opportunities for lapsed and new fans to be brought in by the colour and passion of a new league; more content to offer broadcasters and market; and more pathways for players, administrators, referees, coaches and media alike.
And it's important to note -- to reiterate -- that despite the local game's love of a culture war and a bit of fear and loathing, the national second division isn't being positioned as a competitor to the A-Leagues. Johnson was vociferous that the competition would be complementary to the A-Leagues -- part of the reasoning behind a winter rather than summer competition -- and that, in Johnson's words, "we don't want it competing with the A-League. It's not meant to."
Promotion and relegation and the full linking of the pyramid remain a long-term goal but, in the league's early stages, a focus will be placed upon connecting the national second division with the NPLs below it; possibly as part of a road map that initially governs expansion and then, once the groundwork is laid, implementing movement between the second, and now third, tiers.
It all sounds great, something that should have happened a long time ago. But whereas multiple tiers might be considered benign on a global scale, there has never actually been a second tier in Australia for a reason. The two behemoths of the local sporting scene, the AFL and NRL, have never moved to formally introduce a nationwide second tier in their sports or even administered a whole-of-competition reserve league since their national expansions.
If they can't do it, the logic goes, with all their resources, institutional power, connections within the government and the corporate sectors, favourable media coverage, and larger fanbases, then how can perennially underachieving football?
"We've got to be who we are," Johnson said. "To me, this is an identity question. We are not a local Australian sport. We're an Australian sport that plays in a global environment.
"I think that we need to go back to who we are and our identity as a sport. And I think in our code, it's quite normal to have tiered football. And I know that differs from AFL and NRL but we're not AFL and we're not NRL. We're football and it does work in football."
But high-minded rallying cries on identity and the global preeminence of football don't pay the bills. How clubs and the federation will be able to not just afford to pay for a national second division but fund its ongoing operations at a standard justifying its ongoing existence remains one of the biggest questions facing the competition. Not to harp on about it, but one of the main reasons a second tier hasn't been established across any of Australia's major footballing codes is that, quite simply, they haven't been able to justify the cost or find a way to make it sustainable.
This is why for all the talk of community and history, one of the key areas that Lutz highlighted as being under the spotlight during the selection process are the governance models and administrations of the prospective entrants. Why Johnson reiterated on several occasions that the principal factor that would be considered during adjudications over which teams entered the national second division would be sustainability and the ability to fund this new competition -- detailed modelling has already been conducted to gauge the cost, down to the last dollar says Johnson, of the various models being considered.
"If we don't have comfort that an applicant is going to be able to spend at the level required for a second tier, they won't end up in the second tier," Johnson bluntly said, adding that no prospective sides would be shocked by the numbers presented to them after talks in 2022 with the Association of Australian Football Clubs.
Perhaps appropriate given this untried nature of a national second division, then, Johnson spoke of approaching the coming months with something akin to a start-up mindset. At its launch, the competition's administration is envisioned as being primarily funded by an annual licence fee paid by its clubs, with the federation also picking up some of the tab. Once the league is established, moves to establish a commercial program and commercialise will occur and, when the point is reached where the league reaches a point wherein it is generating enough revenue, the licence fee will begin to decrease over time.
A "big believer" in the build it and they will come approach, he believes that sponsorship and partnerships that will allow for this process to take place will naturally flow once the competition is initially established and demonstrated to be viable, engaging and sustainable; pointing to the money that has flowed towards the Matildas in the wake of the investment in the squad that has accompanied their ascent to global and local prominence as an example of this principle in action.
Elsewhere, Lutz has commenced the process of recruiting a general manager for the competition and assembling a staff to run it, and, in addition, Football Australia will include the national second division, either as a standalone offering or as part of a package with the national teams and the Australia Cup when it returns to the broadcast market in August or September this year in preparation for its deal with Network Ten and Paramount expiring at the end of 2024.
"If we can create a competition that is meaningful, and is very rooted in community and is, I think, aligned with the community season, which is where our numbers are, I think we have a good chance of being able to commercialise it, otherwise we wouldn't be doing it," said Johnson.