By Nicholas Paul Griffin
As the overarching governing body for Australian football, regulating both the Socceroos and the A-League, the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) is solely responsible for overseeing the global expansion of the Australian game. The Australian Business Executive recently secured an exclusive interview with the body’s CEO David Gallop, getting his thoughts on the forthcoming eleventh season of the A-League and the continued development of the national game.
What a Difference a Decade Makes
“The A-League is a story of phenomenal growth,” Mr. Gallop tells us. “To think that the competition has only been in place for ten years, and to see the growth that has occurred over those ten years—it’s a real success story.”
Naturally, there remain significant challenges within this fledgling enterprise. The main priority remains to make sure the competition is financially sustainable and continues to grow at the steady rate it has achieved over the last decade.
Paramount to the continuing success of the league is television rights, an area of sports commerce that is becoming increasingly vital in terms of making sure a sport reaches its maximum capacity of regular followers.
“The A-League, and football generally, has gone from a very low base in terms of the value of our television rights. We’re currently halfway through our current deal, which is a $40m a year deal.”
Mr. Gallop is confident that the next time the broadcast rights are sold, at the end of this current deal, the league will receive a significant boost, due to the growing stature of the competition and of live sport in the country as a whole.
“The successful sports in this country have looked for a mix of free-to-air coverage and a relationship with Foxtel and Fox Sports as well. Free-to-air obviously gives you a wider coverage, but it’s about getting the balance right.”
The free-to-air deal put in place a couple of years ago, showing live A-League football on TV for the first time on Friday nights, was a significant breakthrough for the sport, heralding a spate of new broadcasting opportunities.
“Since that time we’ve seen interest from all the commercial networks in the game, and coverage of games involving our clubs and overseas clubs. There has been a good sign of the potential of the sport to develop relationships with commercial networks.”
The league’s relationship with Foxtel operates a little differently to the free-to-air networks, but Mr. Gallop believes these networks still offer significant opportunities for the league.
“It is an opportunity to get coverage in every television in the country,” he explains, “and although it’s had some hiccoughs, by and large it’s still been a breakthrough moment for the sport.”
SBS coverage in particular has had some challenges, most notably changing from SBS1 to SBS2, something recognised by both the network and the FFA as potentially harming the promotion of the game, but an issue that has since been rectified.
In addition to TV rights, there is no doubt that the popularity of the sport on the live stage has likewise increased, with clubs going into the eleventh season expecting to see a significant rise in matchday attendance.
“One of the great growth stories of the A-League has been the growth in membership, so we now have nearly 110,000 members across our clubs, and membership is such a critical part of Australian sport with the competitive market we work in.”
In contrast to simple matchday attendance, a rise in club membership is an indication that people are making a full commitment to their team, and is a vital element of the financial model for both the league and the clubs.
In recent years, more international clubs have been appearing Down Under, stemming for the most part from the continuing popularity of the big European leagues in Australia, a popularity that has traditionally eclipsed that of the domestic game.
“One of the opportunities for Australian football is to make sure that, while people are enjoying European leagues, including the EPL, they are also taking an opportunity to come to an A-League game… then hopefully they become fans of both competitions.”
Mr. Gallop and the FFA do not expect A-League fans to become exclusive, but the hope is that more people will start to follow the league alongside La Liga or the English Premier League, and to begin to commit to the sport in Australia.
Managing the League
Despite being only a short way into its journey, the A-League has long been the subject of rumour about its modest size, the indication being that expansion is vital to continue to push the league’s success.
The FFA’s current position, in terms of the depth of teams, is that ten teams is not enough in the long term to match the ambitions of the competition. Mr. Gallop insists, however, that the organisation is moving cautiously when it comes to expansion.
“We continue to look to consolidate the financial position of the ten clubs that we’ve got,” he explains, “so I don’t see it as necessarily on the short term agenda of the business, but it’s something that we continue to keep an eye on.”
The FFA will continue to conduct significant research into various areas of the game in preparation for the time when expansion is fully on the agenda, which Mr. Gallop insists is a day that will certainly arrive.
However, there are still issues in the league that need to be ironed out, as the 2014/15 season of the competition saw a new set of challenges arise for those at the head of the league.
Most notable was the punishment of Perth Glory for breaching the salary cap, which involved the club missing the finals as well as receiving a hefty fine. In addition, there were significant financial issues arising at both Newcastle Jets and Brisbane Roar.
“Each of those situations has been challenging,” Mr. Gallop explains. “The way that we deal with those unpredictable situations is an important part of administering the sport.”
“In relation to Perth Glory, we had little alternative than to take the steps we took, and we now look forward to the Glory moving into a new phase. We’ve appreciated their acknowledgement that their corporate governance was not up to par.”
In relation to the Jets, things have also stabilised considerably, and the FFA is looking to sell the franchise as soon as possible. Although Brisbane Roar still faces some challenges, Mr. Gallop is certain the club will soon be back on the path to recovery.
The forthcoming season will see the second year of the FFA Cup, a competition incorporating Australia’s lower league teams into the football set up, and featuring teams from the National Premier Leagues (NPL) and other state-based leagues.
“It’s been somewhat of a revelation for the sport,” Mr. Gallop says proudly, “and indeed for Australian sport generally. It creates David & Goliath-type fairytales, and it’s been something that Australian football waited for, for a long time.”
“It’s a concept that only football can really carry through with, and the important connection points that it’s created between the professional level of the game and the grass roots of the game is delivering benefits in spades.”
The FFA has been overwhelmed by the level of interest in the competition, with crowds coming out in their thousands to see the teams, as well as the general good feeling it has created in and around the sport.
“We’ve been delighted with how that’s gone,” Mr. Gallop adds, “and think it can build into something that’s not only an important part of the sport, but a valuable part of the sport’s content proposition when we go to broadcasters in the future.”
That is not to say that the competition has been without its problems, and last season there were questions raised about the inability of Foxtel to screen FFA Cup matches, though Mr. Gallop insists there is no problem with the service going forward.
“I think Fox Sports have done a fantastic job to embrace this competition and recognise its importance to the football community,” he says, “and the way that they have had coverage of a main game and then single camera coverage of other games on the same night has been unique in Australian sport.”
With Australia being such a vast country, and the FFA recognising the need to grow the A-League to fulfil the demands of that size, questions have arisen about whether there should be a switch to a tiered league system, as seen in Europe.
Mr. Gallop believes a league model that embraces promotion and relegation is still some way down the track for Australian football: “It may come in one day,” he says, well aware of the issues faced because of the size of the country.
“The economics and the geography don’t make sense at the moment. There has been an enormous amount of work done in recent years to create the NPL across the states, and to develop the skill level of football.”
The FFA has been heavily involved in pushing the worldwide appeal of the game, which has been done through the encouragement of international exhibition matches as well as the allowance of some marquee international signings for the A-League.
“It’s a reminder of the global nature of the game,” Mr. Gallop says, “of the 365-days-a-year nature of the game; it’s provided football fans with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to see teams that they have grown up watching only on television.”
The events put on by clubs and the FFA have already proved extremely successful, but Mr. Gallop admits that the challenge is to make sure those fans who have experienced these events are converted in the long term to the A-League.
The fact remains that, despite the overwhelming dominance of other Australian sports in the past, football is now considered the number two sport in every state in Australia, an extremely encouraging statistic the FFA must look to capitalise upon.
“The competitive nature of the environment is something that you’re reminded about on a daily basis, but we firmly believe that, although its decades away, the sport’s mission to become the largest and most popular sport in the country is achievable.”
It’s the FFA’s job to get to that point as quickly as possible, and Mr. Gallop believes football’s advantage is that it offers a safe, skillful and simple opportunity for all people—boys and girls, men and women—to be involved in sport.
“That huge base of the pyramid needs to be converted into fans for the game to unlock its potential,” he says, “and that’s something that we talk about in terms of our strategic direction every day.”
There is no doubt that the growth of the sport has been further strengthened by the recent success of the Socceroos, who defied expectations in early 2015 by winning the Asian Cup. Mr. Gallop is under no illusions about the importance of this victory.
“The whole tournament was a massive success. Obviously to win the tournament was a huge achievement for [Socceroos head coach] Ange [Postecoglou] and the boys, and importantly it demonstrated that football can be a bridge to Asia for the nation.”
“Politically, economically, socially,” he adds, “it was a reminder of the multi-culturalism of the country, and that the future of the country is that diversity, and it’s only football that truly represents that diversity in Australia.”
The Australian success at the Asian Cup has served to bolster the belief in and around the FFA that the future is bright for the sport in the country, and is likely to become a barometer for the measure of all future success.
“We will be pointing back to the Asian Cup in January 2015,” Mr. Gallop explains, “as a moment when a lot of people realised that football and its links to Asia are an important part of building the country.”
Likewise, the Asian Champions League is becoming more and more important to A-League teams, not only in terms of individual club success, but also as a means of promoting the league and Australian football in general across the world.
This fact was highlighted by the success of Western Sydney Wanderers in last year’s competition, a significant achievement for a brand new member of a league formed only a few years after the AFC Champions League itself.
“To have had a team win [the Asian Champions League] was an important moment in Australian football. It’s still a competition that requires work, and we’re relative newcomers to Asian football and therefore the Champions League.”
“Having been in Riyadh for the final, in Saudi Arabia, and seen 65,000 people and only 15 of them Wanderers fans, you again get a sense of just how big football is in Asia, and the importance of Australia being in the Asian Football Confederation.”
It was only ten years ago that Australia as a nation broke into the Asian football network, and this has undoubtedly been a huge factor in the growing stature of the A-league and the Australian national squad.
Western Sydney Wanderers is an interesting success story. Formed as an expansion team just three years ago, the club’s rise to winning the AFC and performing consistently well in the A-League is best described as ‘meteoric.’
“It’s a great textbook study in the old adage… if you get the team into the community, the community gets into the team. Fans were asked to give their input into what they wanted their club to look like, and that’s why there was an immediate success.”
The club’s ability to unite the tribes of football fans out in the western suburbs was paramount to its quick on-field success, and to the achievement of a quite incredible level of growth in a very short period of time.
Further to this domestic success, the very fact that the Socceroos have qualified for the last three world cups, returning to the biggest stage for the first time since 1974, is testament to the success of the FFA’s recent Whole of Football plan.
“The Whole of Football plan was an exercise in getting all of the game’s stakeholders to set a vision for the future, “ Mr. Gallop explains. “What do we want the sport to look like in twenty years’ time, and how are we going to get there?”
It was an important exercise in terms of the overall vision that was arrived at, but also in the journey towards that vision, the way a variety of people were able to give input into the direction the sport is heading.
“It’s an example of how much potential there is in this sport,” Mr. Gallop stresses, concluding our interview in no doubt at all that Australian football will continue to grow into the future, “if you get everybody going in the one direction.”