Friday, 21 October 2016

The A-League can't afford the folly of a second division

In the last few weeks, there's been a surge of support for expanding the A-League, and in particular calls for promotion and relegation to and from a second division. The arguments range from "we're bored with the current teams", "there's no punishment for poor performers", through to "overseas leagues all do it" and even "it's a football (soccer) thing".

The A-League simply can't afford a second division; the impact of distance, low population and football's competition in this country with other codes and other sports simply rule it infeasible.

People talk wistfully of the days of the old National Soccer League (NSL), which expanded at one stage to two conferences and 24 teams. I remember those days well - relative to today's A-League, games were played in poor stadiums, with sub-standard amenities, often located well away from convenient transport, and the standard of play was poor, by comparison. The vast majority of teams had a strong ethnic base - good for atmosphere, but marked by occasional unwanted tensions, and hardly conducive to attracting new supporters without a team.

So where will the money come from? The A-League, which transformed club football in this country and which represented a clean, fresh start in 2005, still can't sustain ten clubs without propping them up financially. So how would we manage with another division?

Our geography kills us. Across Europe, there are some leagues where the longest road trip is akin to travelling from Melbourne to Shepparton. There are few examples where clubs in Europe are forced to travel by air to participate in their domestic leagues, whereas it is simply a way of life for us. For this reason, it's no coincidence that none of  the major Australian national leagues, the  AFL, NRL or the A-League, prop up second tier competitions. It's not a cultural thing - it's purely economic.

From where would the clubs to form a new division be drawn? From which population centres? Football's competition with other codes and other sports in this country simply means they can't count on the same level of support compared with similar sized European cities. Geelong may have a similar population to a city like Mainz in Germany, but where the latter can count on solid support and occupy a place in the Bundesliga, simply not the same proportion of Geelong's population can be counted on to provide critical mass of support for an A-League club, being drawn to alternatives such as Geelong's massive AFL club, or in summer to Big Bash cricket.

The failure of North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast in recent times, and going back further into NSL days, the demise of clubs from Canberra (twice), Gippsland, Adelaide, Brisbane, even the perennially strong Sydney City and other examples show that the critical mass of support required to sustain a club can be tenuous.

If regional centres such as Canberra, Townsville and Geelong can't be counted on to support a sustainable A-League club, then can Melbourne and Sydney be relied upon to fill out a second division? The most expedient solution would be the reintroduction of "old" football clubs like South Melbourne Hellas and Melbourne Knights in Melbourne, and the likes of Sydney Croatia and others further north. While these clubs have proud traditions, loyal supporters and have developed some of our country's greatest footballers, many would see this as a retrograde step.  The alternative is to invent new "neutral" clubs in the manner of Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City. And yet could Melbourne for example sustain a third such club without the benefit of ready-made "ethnic" support? I don't think so - even the cash-rich Melbourne City, parading one of the most star-studded and attractive A-League squads ever assembled, could only attract 8,000 to its first home match this season.

Is promotion and relegation simply a "football" thing? Absolutely not. There are a myriad of domestic Aussie football leagues with promotion and relegation. The Victorian Amateur Football Association has seven divisions which has had annual ups and downs as part of its DNA for decades.

In following national club football in this country every season since the inception of the NSL in 1977, I've seen too many ill-conceived wanderings off the path, which have continually served to hold back progression and consolidation, We simply can't afford the folly of a second division.