World Cup qualification is the engine of financial growth for Australian soccer, with the national team’s success on the world stage underpinning every aspect of the game’s growth.
FFA chief executive David Gallop acknowledges that the A-League is the sport’s bread and butter and the competition which sustains long-term interest, and TV rights fees, for the sport.
But World Cup qualification for Ange Postecoglou’s men is more than just the icing on the cake.
It is essential not just for the feel-good factor that participation in the world’s biggest sports event brings, but for building the game’s brand in a market place that is not always as receptive as it could be.
The Socceroos got off to a flying start with a 2-0 win over Iraq on Thursday night as they look to qualify for a fourth World Cup in a row. Asked how much qualification is worth, Gallop stressed the importance of Australia being one of the teams that makes it to Russia in 2018.
“It’s hard to put a precise number on it, but there’s no doubt it impacts on every aspect of Australian football,” the CEO said.
“While the A-League is the 30-week engine room underpinning everything, the Socceroos’ success or otherwise impacts on sponsorship dollars, broadcast dollars, grassroots participation, six-year-old boys and girls deciding to play – all of that is impacted by the opportunity to be one of the 32 teams at the World Cup.
“I am always cautiously optimistic. There’s a lot of challenges … you come to appreciate what a huge challenge it is to bring everyone in from all corners of the globe and try and get them ready to play with just a few days preparation.
“Ange has put faith in some of the young guys but also got the experienced heads there too. It’s exciting to see Aaron Mooy and Tommy Rogic who have such an exciting start to their European seasons.
“Making it to Russia is a critical part of the game’s growth in the next few years.”
Under Postecoglou the game’s governing body have been prepared to spend more heavily on preparation than at any other time, all too aware of the halo effect that success in competitions like the Asian Cup – which Australia won in 2015 – and the World Cup can bring.
That is not to say that the famously demanding coach gets things all his own way. The Socceroos might be the rainmakers with the corporate sector, but that doesn’t mean there is a blank chequebook.
“We have a tussle from time to time over the cost of the campaign, but we’re believers in his adage, which is that we might not be a top five team in the world, but we will provide the off-field support at a world-class level to give us every chance.”
Essential to those revenue streams is the money generated from the sport’s broadcast deal.
The current contract – which yields around $40 million a year – expires at the end of this A-League season, and negotiations over a new arrangement which would feature soccer on a free-to-air commercial network have been the biggest issue Gallop has faced for the past year and a half.
Current broadcaster Fox Sports – which has just lost its English Premier League rights to Optus – is still in a period of exclusivity (where it alone can negotiate) until the end of September.
FFA is desperate to lift its revenue rights significantly to underwrite growth and development of the game at grass roots and to increase the dividend paid to the 10 A-League clubs. But it will be a hard task in persuading broadcast companies to shell out the $80 million-a-year figure that has been touted in the past as FFA’s desired total.
It is unlikely that Fox will do a deal before that window runs out, but Gallop remains guarded as to what will transpire.
“We’re in constructive dialogue with them [Fox] on a daily/weekly basis. There’s obviously a window about coverage next season, the upcoming season, but it’s very narrow now and its difficult to say where we will end up on that front. But contractually that’s where we are at.
“As we understand it all the FTA [free to air] networks are interested, and those conversations are happening as well. Those conversations are happening between the FTA’s and Fox.”
While one option is for Fox to buy the rights and then onsell them, Gallop also believes that rival Optus could be a player.
“They have made a massive investment in EPL and their focus is on football content so of course we can’t actively talk to them during this period [of exclusivity] but they have indicated a strong appetite for the A-League.
“I am saying content in the context of their business model and they compare themselves to Telstra and Vodafone, it’s to acquire video content as part of their offering to subscribers.”
Gallop said improving profitability and stemming the millions of dollars of losses that club owners have haemorrhaged in the A-League’s 11-year history was the key priority.
“Driving commercial growth and helping the owners stick their hands in their pockets less is a key part of our strategy. We have a new head of the A-League [Greg O’Rourke] who comes from a serious corporate background and certainly his No.1 priorities are to make the competition run smoothly but to help our clubs grow their commercial revenue.
“Expansion will come, and it will be an important moment in the A-League’s growth. But like most sports in Australia we’ve made mistakes with expansion in the past and we need to make sure this time it’s as much a guaranteed success as we can make it.
“For the club itself, and the division of the pie more than 10 ways, we can’t afford to make expansion mistakes.
“It’s not currently pinpointed as a thing to happen in the next four years but it’s not impossible either. Certainly I would expect during the next few years we will have a more precise timetable of when expansion will happen and where.”
© 2016 The Sunday Morning Herald | This Article was first written by Michael Lynch and first appeared on the Sunday Morning Herald Website on 2 September 2016