When New Zealand Football (NZF) announced their plans to change the ASB Premiership into a 10-team competition beginning in 2018, it showed a clear intention to prioritise growth of the league.
With the licenses of the current sides running out at the end of this current season, NZF have allowed several clubs from across the country to apply for consideration and this is a smart move. Although they have noted that initially it will be limited to teams that can field both a first team and an under-19 side which will act as a feeder, the idea echoes the move by the FFA to make the top league in Australia franchise based back at the start of the A-League.
However, it must be noted that this move is nothing new for New Zealand. With the top league being franchise-based since 2004, many critics have questioned what New Zealand is attempting to achieve with this new plan. However, herein lies the difference between what NZF are attempting to achieve and what the FFA are aiming to achieve at similar stages of their leagues’ histories. With this new plan, NZF have already noted the issues in the league and has put out this plan in an attempt to fix them. Holding workshops earlier in 2015, NZF found that many people involved with the league were worried about the low broadcast coverage and crowds as well as the cultural disconnect between the franchises and other clubs.
It is fair to compare this with the A-League and how the FFA are currently attempting to progress the league. While the A-League may draw a considerable number of fans more, the FFA have pushed the issue of expansion away until the next TV deal comes into place in 2017. However, even this is an issue as we are now roughly less than two years away from this deal beginning and there is no suggestion that there will be any more clubs added. The last time expansion occurred was back in 2012 with the Western Sydney Wanderers announced as a new club, made some four months before the season began and if it was not for extreme luck and timing, the effort could have easily been underprepared and failed on first try.
However, NZF is doing the right thing here, already planning for expansion to a 10-team league and allocating the licenses at the end of this year for the 2016-17 season. This allows more than enough time for the teams to prepare in terms of upgrades to players, staff and facilities. The FFA can learn from this move and apply it to our own league, allowing prospective clubs to at least get in the conversation by implementing a clear plan as to when expansion would occur, rather than the rumors and suggestions we currently have now.
Yet that is not to say NZF have perfected how to structure their league nor the FFA should copy them directly. NZF still have no real way of creating a competitive competition with this move. Although it can be seen as an attempt to make the league more competitive, there still needs to be something done to stop the two-horse race between Auckland City and Waitakere United the league currently is. Contrast this with the A-League, which has had over half the league take home honors at some stage over the last 10 seasons and while some may view this as there being no consistency in the league, it is much more arguable that the league is a lot more competitive, which will do nothing but improve crowds and fan enjoyment.
There is also a distinct difference between the leagues in terms of dederation alone. With Australia being part of the AFC, they have a much wider access not only to players but to continental competition and this naturally allows for a much higher playing standard in the A-League than the ASB Premiership could hope to attain while in the OFC. Due to the standard of other clubs in the OFC, New Zealand clubs are always going to have a tough time and will not be challenged by the other clubs. This is clear with Auckland City winning six of the last seven Oceanic Champions League titles (the one in 2009-10 was won by Papua New Guinean side Hekari United who beat Waitakere United in the final in what was considered a major upset) and it is more of a question of when New Zealand wants to join the AFC in order to have a higher playing standard.
With all that said and done, New Zealand Football should still be applauded for the plan they have put in motion. One only needs to contrast it with the FFA’s ‘Whole of Football’ plan, released earlier in 2015 to see how the associations differ in their approaches to their major leagues. While NZF identified the problems and are attempting to fix them through this new plan, the FFA rather vaguely suggested guidelines for future expansion which may or may not occur at any point down the line. NZF know where they are going and how to get there with their plan while the FFA are merely feeling around in the dark, having an idea of where they want to go, but no real idea how to get there.
This is not to suggest the A-League should become more like the ASB Premiership. One feels as though there is value in looking at our neighbours and seeing where our shortcomings are in regards to our own plans. Although New Zealand still have a long way to go in regards to their own national league, it is clear that they are making the right steps forward in terms of planning out a clear schedule for the immediate future and this is something the FFA should be picking up and implementing towards the A-League.