The road towards the opening up of the Australian football system reached a major landmark on Thursday, as Football Federation Australia (FFA) released its highly anticipated white paper detailing a road map for the implantation of a national second division by 2021-22.
Made up of representatives from the FFA, the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC), Professional Footballers Australia, (PFA) and countries Member Federations, the working group had been chaired by FFA Board Member Remo Nogarotto and commenced its work in late February.
Whilst its authors were at pains to clarify that the resulting white paper was not intended to “be definitive on the structure and operational aspects of any National Second Division,” it does offer the most definitive insight yet into the possible direction of the game in Australia.
It will now pass to a steering committee made up of FFA Chairman Chris Nikou, two Member Federations representatives, two representatives of the AAFC, one from the PFA and a representative from an A-League Club to identify a roadmap for the delivery of the second tier.
First addressing matters of financial sustainability – including the securing of commercial and broadcast arrangements as well as start-up capital – the steering committee will seek to present plans to the FFA Board by late November, with the aim to open up expressions of interest for the league in the first half of 2020.
On the commercial front, the paper acknowledged both AAFC research that flagged a required annual budget of $2.5 million dollars with a $150,000 annual licence fee for teams competing in the second tier and PFA research that suggested a required budget of $5.4 million dollars.
In a conference call with journalists, Nogarotto expressed a belief that a meeting somewhere between the two numbers would be met during the steering committee process.
The exploration of traditional broadcasting, as well as newer streaming methods, as a means of ensuring commercial viability, were also raised.
Recognising that “the HAL (A-League) does not sufficiently activate, nor provide pathways, within all of Australia’s major population centres,” the white paper opined that the introduction of the highly anticipated national second tier would serve to aid in the proliferation of football as a truly national game, whilst linking the NPL with the A-League and serving to “heal some divisions that have held the game back.”
With a review of player development in Australia launched on Wednesday, the opportunity for a second division to serve as an incubator of Australian talent was also highlighted, as well as new opportunities for investment in football and the creation of competition that supports and challenges the A-League.
Indeed, the provision of opportunities for young Australian players makes up a large portion of the white paper, which acknowledges that the A-League is “failing to provide a sufficient pathway for Australian players into professional football.”
Declaring that a second division should not “be a retirement league for former HAL players,” amidst comparisons of playing time young players in Australia compared to overseas, the prospect of the new competition having aged based targets was raised by the document as well as floating the possibility of a two visa player limit.
Loans and transfer fees between A-League and second tier clubs was also an area identified as needing exploration.
Of perhaps most interest to footballing purists, the issue of promotion and relegation was also detailed.
The White Paper raises the prospect of an “incubation period” of up to five years in which clubs within the second division would adjust to the requirements of their new home which would then, in turn, make them eligible for future rounds of A-League expansion.
This period would not feature promotion and relegation between the A-League and second tier.
Two years into that incubatory period, though, the paper suggests that the second tier contemplate adding extra sides into the competition; with promotion from the tiers below one option for doing so.
At five years, the paper states the goal would be to synchronise promotion and relegation between the second division and the NPL, with promotion and relegation between the second tier and A-League to be achieved at “the appropriate point” between the fifth and tenth year of the second tier’s existence.
On the makeup of the new competition, the White Paper referred back to lessons learnt during the expansion of the A-League; writing that the quality of bids was strong and suggesting that “there could be some existing NPL clubs and new teams that could feasibly step up to the standards required to deliver a National Second Division at a higher standard than the current NPL.”
The identification of large geographic areas without a professional side was flagged by the paper as was the incorporation of existing Y-League, A-League academy and A-League squad players in the system.
With most of those players under contract, it was suggested that they could help serve to underwrite the cost of the second division.
“The development of a blueprint for a National Second Division which all stakeholders are aligned with is critical to better connect the various levels and pathways throughout the Australian football ecosystem,” FFA Chairman Chris Nikou said on the paper’s release.
“There is general consensus between the stakeholders involved in this process, the Association of Australian Football Clubs, Professional Footballers Australia, Member Federations and FFA that a sustainable National Second Division would be a significant step forward for football.
“It is not intended to be definitive on the structure and operational aspects of any National Second Division, but rather to reflect the discussions that have taken place and consolidate a vast body of work that has already been done.”
Working group leader Nogarotto struck an evangelical tone.
“Once established, we believe a National Second Division would provide an opportunity for football to broaden its reach to be a truly national game,” he said
“It also has the potential to build a bridge between state-based NPLs and the A-League and W-League and heal some divisions that have held the game back.
“Over the last 15 years, football has made great progress, however, there remain strong elements within our sport that feel marginalised. For Australian football to reach its potential, all elements of the game must pull in a single direction.
“For the top of the pyramid to be successful internationally, its professional footprint needs to grow and providing a pathway for Australian players is vitally important to enable national teams of the future to be successful.
“If a second-tier competition in the purist form is the objective – one that not only opens up a new pathway for talented footballers but also differentiates our game from other football codes – then a system of promotion and relegation should be considered over the longer term.”