APL staff cuts leaves A-League at a crossroads, again

Graham Arnold on national second tier & Australia's trajectory (3:31)

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold discusses the need for connectivity between state federations and the FA, and the benefits of a national second tier. (3:31)

Just over three years after the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) took over control of the A-Leagues from Football Australia, it has reportedly axed around 50% of its workforce, making approximately 40 of its staff redundant. At a time of change and missed revenue projections, it's a move designed to fortify its short-term outlook and, ESPN has been told, refocus its business around a core strategy of football. But inevitably, it heightens what feels like the constantly simmering concerns about the ongoing viability of top-flight football in Australia.

The APL wouldn't confirm the number of people that had lost their jobs on Tuesday but acknowledged that a "planned full strategic and commercial review," had been undertaken. Cuts are coming across various departments, but reports indicate the league's media arm KEEPUP will be amongst the casualties, seemingly a tacit admission that one of the key foundations of the APL's strategy since inception -- and the subject of significant investment -- has not achieved its goals and will not be a part of its vision moving forward.

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This "strategic shift" puts focus on an APL board made up largely of A-League club figures that insisted that it was they who had the ability to unlock the game's potential, but have yet to demonstrate it. It's a board that only belatedly appointed its first independent chair in former parliamentarian Stephen Conroy last September, a month before former chief executive Danny Townsend departed and was replaced by a combination of Nick Garcia and former DAZN boss James Rushton. That this transition took place around the same time a review determining the league needed to sharply change its focus began is notable.

The Australian football landscape is a curious one. The Matildas and Socceroos are beloved, and more people play football at a grassroots level than any other sport but -- yet again -- it is the professional game that stands at a crossroads.

Perhaps not an existential crossroads -- this week's staff cuts ostensibly bought time on that front -- but certainly an ideological one. At a time of loss, uncertainty, and mistrust, where does the APL go from here? What does the A-League want to be, and what does it need to be? More importantly, what does it do well?

Firstly, it's worth noting that keeping the league afloat during COVID and delivering full seasons for its men's and women's competitions -- with the help of Football Australia -- was a significant achievement. So was locking in a long-term collective bargaining agreement with the player's union and making sure players got paid even when clubs ran into financial difficulties. Given that the APL was forced to go to market after being undermined and then dumped by Fox Sports, securing significant investment through a new broadcasting deal with Paramount was notable, even if the subsequent execution has got fans offside. Securing an owner with the resourcing of American billionaire Bill Foley for the Auckland expansion side was also surprisingly positive.

Elsewhere, expanding the A-League Women to a full home-and-away format and investing in increasing professionalism is one of the better achievements of any footballing administration in this country's history. Last offseason saw a new record set for transfer revenue coming into the leagues and the record for the most expensive outbound transfer from the Australian top-flight broken twice through Jordy Bos and then Marco Tilio, to say nothing of Garang Kuol's and Nestory Irankunda's respective moves to two of Europe's most elite clubs.

And, perhaps most importantly, those that watch the competition are largely in agreement that it is entertaining; views on quality may differ but for the most part the games provide distraction, community, and enjoyment.

So what's the common thread? Those achievements are largely all in line with what one would expect from a well-run footballing competition. It may be boring, but it's the foundation from which the planet's most popular sport has been built.

Contrast that with some of the biggest missteps that can be reasonably laid at the APL's feet, highlighted by the disastrous deal to break with established tradition and sell hosting rights to the Grand Finals to Sydney, the damage of which is still raw. Short-term dollar chasing, poor communication with stakeholders, and treatment of fans as customers -- rather than the league's backbone -- have added further insult to injury.

While "evolution" and "disruption" don't have to be naughty words, the APL was caught tinkering with long-established global standards of the game -- like the bizarre A-League ladder furore earlier this month -- giving the impression of a lack of trust in the core footballing product that, as mentioned above, most observers are actually quite enjoying.

Ambitious projects have been launched without the ability to maintain them, teasing a vision of genuinely exciting potential before a shaky foundation and mission creep forced their paring back or outright abandonment.

Caught up in the strategic miscalculations, a large number of people -- good people that wanted the best for the game -- are now out of work. For all its faults, KEEPUP's discontinuation is a blow to the league and the game's visibility in an Australian media landscape in which football's presence is already fleeting, particularly day-to-day coverage of the actual teams and games. The platform was one of the few remaining outlets providing employment opportunities for journalists and content creators who cared about football and wanted to tell its stories. With so few opportunities existing elsewhere, there's a not-insignificant risk that some made redundant will be lost to the game. Football never sleeps, but there's a real human element to recent events.

Senior sources, speaking to ESPN on condition of anonymity, said an all-staff meeting was called on Monday afternoon, in which workers expecting to be thanked for their work in delivering Unite Round were told of the coming job losses and that individual meetings would be organised to inform those affected. While many spoken to by ESPN anticipated cuts were coming and there was even a begrudging acknowledgment of their necessity, they believed the manner they were announced was mismanaged and poorly communicated, and there were concerns surrounding a lack of Australian football IP that would be left at the organisation. As news of the job losses began to spread, multiple A-League clubs, who have games to organise this weekend, told ESPN they were left uncertain as to who at head office remained and who was no longer employed.

And those games have now taken on an extra level of importance. For all of the APL's intentions to create, as former FIFA and AFC executive James Kitching put it, "sport and media entertainment," really most of its major achievements can be traced back to just being a football league -- developing the game, fans, clubs and players.

There's no reason that, in time, the A-League can't grow beyond those things and accomplish more lofty goals, but this week's contraction would indicate that the new administration has determined it has inherited an organisation with limited scope right now. Rather than developing a media arm, placing fans in appropriate stadiums with raucous atmospheres highlighted by active support, developing and selling players overseas for profit (the league still hasn't re-introduced a youth competition), and putting out a good product that fans enjoy will ostensibly be the aim. In time and with work, it should also mean greater integration with the rest of the Australian pyramid, leveraging football's unique ability to be both local and global.

Perhaps a turn to this base strategy was the only conclusion the APL could have reached in the current environment. Maybe it's the only one they should have. But the great tragedy is that it has arrived here at the expense of so many good people, of workers who believe in the game and want the best for it, the ones who were tasked with delivering on the bountiful promises made by others. They're the ones that bear the brunt and, as is almost always the case, it's harder for them to land on their feet, to figure out where their next mortgage payment or electricity bill is coming from, than those that made the decisions above them.

Yet again, Australian football finds itself at a crossroads. Infuriatingly, it does so having left behind the very people that want to help it find its way.