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Time for the A-League to start a-new

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As Football Federation Australia was trying to sell Newcastle Jets, Melbourne City’s owner City Football Group was in talks with Chinese investors.Desperate to sell the Jets after seizing control from cash-strapped cowboy owner Nathan Tinkler last May, talks over an estimated $3m sale collapsed last month.

Weeks later CFG sold a 13 per cent stake to China Media Group (CMG) for $553.3m, valuing City’s owners at $4.15 billion. Melbourne City’s true value is hard to quantify, but it’s more than the $11.25m they paid in January 2014.

Global investment in football is out of control, but the A-League has stagnated. How does the A-League tap into the serious football wealth abroad rather than scrapping for a few million dollars to stay afloat?

A-League instability is hardly fertile for new investment, and as the ink was drying on the CFG/China deal, a FFA chief executive David Gallop’s bumbling press conference led to a series of events that saw stakeholder tensions reach boiling point.

Coupled with FFA’s financial struggles with no assets and no A-League vision (except pouring cold water on expansion and a second division), the current model is flawed.

Independence has been dismissed as fanciful by Frank Lowy and the FFA, but Japan’s J. League, USA’s MLS (Major League Soccer) and even Germany’s Bundesliga — which only turned independent in 2001 and has played a key role in transforming the fortunes of its national team — prove that the model can work spectacularly if done correctly.

“The A-League has to breakaway, it’s unworkable,’’ former head of A-League Archie Fraser said.

“There are smart entrepreneurial owners working daily to make the game better and a central admin that simply doesn’t add any value.

“I saw it from the inside and people are seeing it because nothing has changed, there hasn’t been progress other than on the park.’’

David Beckham helped kick off the MLS revival.

At a time when the MLS, which shares many ‘soccer’ synergies with Australia, is plotting expansion to 28 teams and the Japan’s J. League has added a third division, the FFA has threatened to axe another club, refusing to extend Wellington Phoenix’s license beyond this season.

How can Australia learn from other fledgling competitions?

Independence has been a dirty word regarding the A-League, maybe because it’s been championed by maverick A-League owners with no meat on the bone. Today that could change when the owners discuss independent model proposals in their first meeting with new FFA chairman Steven Lowy.

Independence does not necessarily mean a Super League-style breakaway, as various “football” models around the world demonstrate.

The J. League and MLS are the most pertinent models to the A-League. Both started in the 1990s with 10 teams but hit turmoil within years.

The MLS lost over $400m ($350m US) in its first eight years, played in front of empty NFL stadiums, had companies owning multiple clubs (AEG had six clubs at one stage) and three clubs (Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion and Chivas USA) are extinct.

The J. League started with a bang in 1993 but by ’96 attendances halved to a 10,100 average.

Both competitions _ though independently run _ together with their national federations admitted there was a crisis, worked strenuously to find solutions and have exploded since.

The J. League announced a 100-year vision, with a goal to have 100 professional clubs by 2092 while the Japan Football Association (JFA) demanded clubs run academies from 12 up, field satellite teams and tip money into development and align closely with local councils.

The J. League now has 53 clubs after a third division was introduced in 2014.

The A-League has added four teams since starting with eight in 2005 _ North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United have come and gone, Western Sydney _ though a success _ sprung up in reaction to the Clive Palmer/Gold Coast fiasco, while Melbourne Heart (City) received no strategic assistance from FFA when entering in 2010.

The USA’s stellar 2002 World Cup was coupled with a strategic push to built soccer-specific stadiums (six were built between 2003-08) and expansion, including into Canada (Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact).

Rapid growth was turbo-charged with the introduction of the ‘Designated Player Rule’, nicknamed ‘the Beckham rule’, in 2007, the first of his five years at LA Galaxy.

Since Robbie Keane, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, David Villa, Kaka, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Sebastian Giovinco and Didier Drogba have been DPR signings.

Spanish star David Villa, who played four games in the A-League, is at New York City in the MLS.

Like expansion, A-League marquee signings were more reactionary than tactical with bold club owners willing to spend. But the lack of strategy has meant that Alessandro Del Piero and Harry Kewell came and left, frustrated and without a trace or tangible legacy.

Meanwhile two years after retiring, David Beckham’s is on the verge of creating a new Miami team, with the MLS approving a site for his franchise’s stadium last Monday.

“I’m getting the Miami franchise up. It’s something I dreamed of as an 11-year-old and going and it’s looking very positive,’’ Beckham said.

“It takes time, building a stadium and bringing a brand new team into the league, so we’re being very patient but that’s exciting. It’s moving along, we’ve got a lot of support in Miami.’’

Breaking points triggered Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League’s transition to independence.

The DFB (German football association) sanctioned an independent Bundesliga in 2001 after poor performances from its ageing national teams at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 and disgruntled English clubs formed a breakaway from the Football League in 1991.

With the exception of England, the aforementioned national teams have flourished, with top flight clubs not obliged to tip a cent into grassroots, while the EPL recently celebrated a $16.8 billion global three-year TV deal.

Germany’s collaborative approach has been witnessed domestically and internationally, with the Bundesliga crowd average of 43,532 the best in the world, while the 2014 World Cup team was a by-product of the Bundesliga’s investment into development as part of their independence agreement.

So who says an independent A-League must involve bloodletting, hostility and risk?

An independent league can be mutually beneficial and serve the greater interest of the sport.

The FFA battles year on year, unhealthily reliant on the annual $40m TV purse and Federal government handouts, stumbling from one crisis and disgruntled owner to the next.

“In the last 10 years had AFL and NRL massively grown their asset base by growing content with additional teams into new markets and securing stadia and investment,’’ Fraser said.

“FFA has not acquired one single asset in that time. Nothing has been built, no stadium management rights and no TV money has gone into a future fund or war chest.

“Owners have lost in excess of $200m since the A-League started, while FFA spends over $100m a year and their net is about a $4m loss, either balanced by a government handout or by taking back a club from an owner that’s spent roughly $25m, then they try and sell it off again.’’

How does FFA tap into international rivers of gold? Swallowing its pride, accepting that it’s in need of a circuit-breaker and opening dialogue on the sale of the A-League is the best way forward, with local and foreign investors interested.

Independence can be carved up several ways, but the most logical may be a joint ownership model between A-League owners and private equity (ie. A marketing company).

The FFA could sell rights and focus on national teams, grassroots amongst other briefs.

Over 10 years after an independent A-League was recommended by the Crawford Report and the players’ association’s well-researched proposal, it’s time for independence and there are no shortage of examples to follow.

© 2015 Herald Sun | This article was written by David Davutovic and first appeared on the Herald Sun Website on 8 December 2015.

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