As one of the A-League’s marquee clubs, Sydney FC has been instrumental in the steady growth in popularity of Australian football since the inception of the league ten years ago. With recent on-field results giving the Sky Blues’ fans much to cheer about, and a new enthusiasm about the league and Australian football in particular permeating the entire country, Club Chairman Scott Barlow has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the forthcoming eleventh season of the league.
Growing the A-League
“Expansion for the A-League in the future will be very important,” Mr. Barlow tells us, when asked about his thoughts on the league ten years in. “We need to go from ten teams to twelve teams, and to one day fourteen teams. No question about that.”
It is critically important however that potential expansion teams are well located in the country. It is still a matter for debate amongst teams and officials of the league as to exactly where those teams should be based.
“The A-League has a unique opportunity that no other football code in this country has. We have the opportunity to create a truly national competition with an Australia-wide footprint.”
“It’s very important that we don’t overlook this opportunity and end up with a competition with a bias towards one or two states. This is a real competitive advantage for our sport over rival football codes.”
Unlike some of the other major Australian sports, the A-League does not currently have a concentration of teams in certain states or regions. Mr. Barlow believes work needs to be done to make sure this remains the case moving into the future.
The inevitable question then in terms of Sydney FC, as one of the league’s founding, marquee clubs, and based out of a major east coast city, is what the effect of more teams coming into the Sydney area would be.
“My view on that is pretty clear,” says Mr. Barlow, when asked about his thoughts on this possibility. “Another team in Sydney would be a mistake. We already have four of the ten A-League teams located in New South Wales.”
The relatively recent introduction of the Western Sydney Wanderers was undoubtedly a positive move for the league, but Mr. Barlow believes further dissection of the Sydney market would prove to be the wrong decision.
“I’m very clear that would be a mistake,” he stresses. “There are still large population centres around Australia that aren’t yet represented, with passionate football fans, and I think that’s where the focus should be.”
There is a perception that the Wanderers have pulled in significant attendance figures since joining the league three years ago, taking some local support from the Sky Blues, but in truth Sydney FC has had greater attendance across those three years than its rivals, averaging around 18,000 fans per home game.
“I’m proud of the role Sydney FC has played over the last ten years in the growth of the A-League, and more generally in football in Australia. There’s no doubt we’ve taken a leading role.”
The investment the club has made to bring in high profile foreign players has not only proved to be excellent business for the club and its on-field ambitions, but also for the league as a whole.
“I’d go further and say,” Mr. Barlow adds, “there isn’t a club that has done more for the growth of the A-League than Sydney FC. There’s no question that the marquee players that we’ve brought to the league over the course of the ten years have really brought international focus to the A-League.”
“The most obvious example of that was the signing of [ex-Italy international forward Alessandro] Del Piero. Many wouldn’t have thought it possible to bring a player of his profile to the A-League, but we did, and it brought a whole new level of attention to Sydney FC and the A-League from around the world.”
Mr. Barlow remembers fondly being on holiday in Italy and finding a small market stall selling fake Sydney FC jerseys with Del Piero printed on the back. “It was a clear sign to me that the football world was taking notice of what we were doing.”
Another key happening in the A-League in the last few years was the re-branding of Melbourne Heart to Melbourne City, after being acquired by Anglo-Arab holding company City Football Group under the aegis of EPL club Manchester City.
City Football Group is also the owner and founder of newly-formed MLS outfit New York City, and boasts an astonishing capability for cross-continental club synergy and the power to share players across leagues.
“They’ve been a great addition to the A-League owners group” Mr. Barlow says. “They are growing their club and making a very positive contribution to the league.”
Growing the Club
“I’ve been on the board of Sydney FC since day one,” Mr. Barlow tells us. “And the last three years I’ve been chairman. In the early years we had an incredibly challenging financial situation; we were losing large amounts of money.”
In the last few years the club has managed to turn this concerning situation around, something Mr. Barlow is incredibly proud of. Over three seasons the club’s revenue has nearly tripled, showing just how the fortunes of the club and league have changed.
“That’s been through membership numbers going from 6,000 to 13,000; that’s from average crowds going from 8,000 to 19,000.
The club has experienced growth across all major revenue lines, resulting in this significant rise in total revenue, something that has been absolutely vital to the continuing success of the club both on and off the field.
“Today the club is in better financial shape than ever before and I’m confident we will continue to grow, but what is concerning is that even though we’ve been able to triple our revenues in that period, we as a club are still losing money.”
Most worrying for the league in general is that many A-League clubs have found themselves in a similar fiscal position in recent years, meaning as they head into the eleventh season of the league, most clubs will be in danger of losing money.
“That’s something that needs to be addressed, because if the A-League is going to continue to grow and prosper into the future, we need financially sound and stable clubs, and to see what’s happening with a couple of clubs at the moment is particularly concerning.”
The tough economic situation at Brisbane Roar is a perfect example of the difficulties surrounding running an A-League club in the current climate, as it was last season with Newcastle, where there were problems paying player wages.
“The fact that most A-League clubs lost money last year, and will lose money this year, just highlights how challenging it is,” Mr. Barlow says.
“It’s very disappointing to see what‘s happening in Brisbane, very disappointing to see what happened at Newcastle, and that’s why I keep highlighting that financial sustainability of clubs is critically important if this league is going to continue to grow and realise its huge potential.”
With a dearth of big-city clubs available to the league, these financial issues will no doubt persist, and the reliance on small market clubs to continue expansion of the league will likely create its own financial problems.
“The A-League clubs need to work very closely with the FFA to find solutions to these ongoing financial challenges. The situation today is better than it was five years ago, but we still have a long way to go if we’re going to have stable clubs across the board.”
Although an advocate of league expansion in the long term, Mr. Barlow doesn’t believe it should happen until there is more financial maturation across the league. The club is currently in dialogue with the FFA about to how to achieve this.
Another discussion point is the decision of some A-League clubs to update their brand by changing the club crest, something Sydney FC has been rumored to consider. But Mr. Barlow isn’t entirely convinced of the worth of such a move.
“We considered a change in design a couple of years ago, but decided to stay with our original crest. Our club has a proud and successful history and our crest has been a part of that history from the very beginning. It would be a shame to lose that.”
“Sydney FC has a unique opportunity,” Mr. Barlow tells us, “unlike any other A-League club, in that we are the club that represents Sydney, Australia’s largest and most iconic city.”
Mr. Barlow believes there are only a dozen truly iconic cities in the world, and that Sydney’s strength is as one of those few cities, putting the club in a very fortunate position as the team representing it.
“Whilst we don’t model ourselves on any particular club, I think there are some interesting case studies around the world, that maybe there is some learning for us [to do] as a club.”
One such example is French club Paris St Germain, which in the last 2-3 years has truly elevated itself in the footballing community with some lucrative commercial moves, making good use of its location within the iconic city of Paris.
Similarly, the allure of the English Premier League remains global, and the opportunity to be involved with and play matches against EPL teams is of paramount importance to A-League clubs.
In British pre-season 2015, EPL champions Chelsea came to Sydney to play an exhibition match, as did fellow Londoners Tottenham Hotspur. It was a chance for the Sydney FC players to pit their wits against some global superstars of the game, and they did not disappoint.
“Both games were fantastic events,” Mr. Barlow says, “and [we attracted] huge crowds for both games, in excess of 150,000 people over the course of those two games, just four days apart.”
“We as a club did ourselves very proud with our on-field performances in both of those games, particularly in the Chelsea game, and in the last ten minutes of that game there was every chance we were going to score an equalizer.”
Both matches finished with Sydney on the end of a narrow 1-0 loss, and they were by no means turned over by the opposition, proving that the standard of A-League football is improving at an impressive rate.
“I was very proud of the way we played, and I think we convinced a lot of people that night that, whilst there is certainly a gap between a Premier League team and an A-League team, that perhaps the gap isn’t as big as some people think it is.”
It remains a problem however encouraging ordinary Australian football fans to pay the same amount of attention to domestic football as they do the EPL, a league that still boasts huge support in the country.
“I think that tide is turning,” Mr. Barlow says. “I definitely think more and more people in Australia are starting to recognise the quality of the football being played in the A-League, but no doubt there are still people that are passionate about other leagues around the world that haven’t yet fully engaged with the A-League.”
Exhibition games like those staged in pre-season have a big role to play in helping to attract some of these fans to the A-League, and provide clubs like Sydney with an unmissable opportunity to put its football on display in the global sporting window.
“This coming season we’ve got an incredibly exciting season ahead of us, including two Sydney derbies at home, which are guaranteed sell-outs, and provide the best sporting atmosphere that you will find anywhere in Australia, in any code.”
In addition to the upcoming A-League campaign, this year Sydney FC will be competing for the third time in the Asian Champions League, just one of many events for the club’s fans and corporate partners to get excited about.
“Our clubs vision is very clear, to be the number one football club in Australia at everything we do. Clearly an important part of achieving that is to be regularly qualifying for the Asian Champions League.”
In order to truly push forward however, the club will need to be not just qualifying regularly for the tournament, but once there it must begin competing at a high level and start to bring some success.
“Every year [the Asian Champions League] grows,” Mr. Barlow tells us. “It grows in importance, it grows in prestige, and the rest of the footballing world increasingly is taking notice.”
The primary focus for the club has been and will always be the domestic league, as it is for any club team across the world. The priority remains to achieve domestic success, growth and continuing to build a solid fan base in Sydney.
“First and foremost our focus is on achieving domestic success, and continuing to build our fan base here in Sydney. Beyond that there’s an opportunity for our club to have a significant profile outside of Australia, and to represent this iconic city of Sydney to the football world.”
Looking to the Future
“Over the last eighteen months,” Mr. Barlow explains, “the introduction of the Sydney FC junior academy has been our number one strategic initiative. It really has been the missing link for all A-League clubs.”
“Our goal is to introduce the best junior football academy that Australia has ever had, and we want the most talented young footballers across Sydney to dream of playing for Sydney FC.”
The academy’s aim therefore is to provide the best possible opportunity for Sydney youngsters to develop as players, with the intention of one day turning them into professional footballers.
“We’re making sure that we have the best structure, the best coaches, and the best football program in place to provide our young players with the best possible development pathway to professional football.”
The initiatives the club is putting in place are all being helped by Sydney’s continuing growth as a national sports team, a growth highlighted by the shift in matchday attendance numbers between tenants at Sydney Football Stadium.
“Ten years ago we were the smallest tenant at Allianz Stadium, today we’re the largest. We’ve gone past the Roosters in the NRL, and we’ve gone past the Waratahs in rugby, in terms of total crowd attendance over the course of the season.”
“It’s a really good example of just how far Sydney FC has come in ten years,” Mr. Barlow adds. “I think that’s a great achievement in a short period of time and something we’re proud of.”
The club’s long-term vision is to streamline all its facilities at Moore Park, aiming to eventually have all of its activities—including the stadium, first team training, administration and junior academy—located in the one precinct.
It was recently announced that a brand new AFL TV deal is for the first time set to eclipse the NRL in terms of financial benefits. With TV rights now such an important part of football, the A-League remains a little behind.
The current financial climate of the A-League is very challenging, meaning the next broadcast rights deal for football will be critically important in terms of establishing financial stability for its clubs, which is in turn vital to the future of the league.
“The recent announcements of the new NRL and AFL broadcast deals have involved impressive headline numbers and big increases on the previous deals. The next A-League broadcast deal marks a critical moment in the history of the A-League.”
“The right deal will deliver a sustainable future for clubs, which is critical if the A-League is going to continue to grow and reach its potential.”
For Sydney in particular, broadcast deals are essential to increasing an already growing audience, both those attending in person at Allianz Stadium and those watching at home on TV.
“For the last three seasons,” Mr. Barlow proudly declares, “Sydney FC has been the number one rated A-League club on Fox Sports, tipping out Melbourne Victory in second place.”
It is certainly a time of much optimism and excitement around the football club, and the A-League in general. When the eleventh season begins for Sydney FC on October 10th, there will no doubt be more eyes than ever before on the competition.
Sydney FC Women’s Squad
The recent success of the Women’s World Cup in Canada has had an effect on the overall appeal of the club as a franchise, as it is becoming increasingly commonplace for big clubs to run a women’s team.
“The Matildas’ performances were outstanding,” Mr. Barlow says, “[they] did the country proud. I enjoyed watching it, and a number of Sydney FC players from our W-League team were in that squad and did very well.”
“We see our W-League team as a central part of our club and will continue to be in the future. It’s great to see the profile and the professionalism of the W-League lifting every year and our club will be there, as we have been from the beginning, to support that growth.”
Sydney FC is in fact one of only a handful of A-League clubs which pays for the management of its own women’s team, as many other clubs in the league have outsourced W-League commitments to state associations.
Successful corporate partnerships in the W-League have continued its growth and exposure, including support from PCC Lawyers. Director Helen Carter believes the league can only go upwards. “As sports lovers, we have seen the A-League grow in popularity along with football in Australia generally. We hope to see an increase in support for the W League. As elite female athletes they haven’t had the recognition they deserve in the past but we feel the tide is changing.”
To read and download the full profile click on the cover image below. To view this editorial as it appeared originally in The Australian Business Executive magazine, click here.
Interview by Jesse Landry
Editorial by Nicholas Paul Griffin