Damien de Bohun: one-on-one part 2

Head of the Hyundai A-League Damien de Bohun sat down with FFA Managing Editor of Digital Aidan Ormond to discuss some of the pressing issues around Australia’s domestic competition.

Click here to see part one with Damien de Bohun

In part two, de Bohun addresses

·         The merits of professional referees 

·         TV innovations for A-League broadcasts

·         Integrating Westfield W-League

·         Leveraging Asian Cup 

·         A-League in another ten years

Referees? Where do you stand on the argument they should be full-time?

I’m a qualified referee myself and I’ve done a lot of games. So first let me say it’s arguably the toughest job in the game. Especially assistant referees who are watching two players running in opposition directions at full speed, and listening and watching for when the ball’s been kicked to determine whether a player is offside or not.

It’s difficult. And the reality is being part of FIFA means video technology is not an option as yet. That will change in time I’m sure, but right now giving our match officials the opportunity to make the best decisions [is what] we’re really focused on.

I think it’s important to put on the record that by professionalising doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes [in the future].

We need to be real about that but there is something to be said about the fact that our coaches and players and administrators get to focus on football full-time.

Our referees are currently working and doing other things in the day, so it’s inevitable we will get to professional refereeing.

It’s just a question of getting the timing right and it does come at a fair investment which we’d need to work through.

But we’re committed to making sure the referees have every opportunity.

It’s the business of sport and it’s getting bigger and bigger, so making decisions and a lot of coaches talk about how livelihoods depend on it. So we need to give them the best chance of making the best decisions.

With the amount of commentary on them [referees] this year, quite frankly I think they’ve done a good job this year.

There have been some big decisions that haven’t been right, and that’s what people have focussed on but they can continue to get better. And let’s not forget our referees are held in such high regard in Asia and worldwide.

There’s a lot of demand on their time to referee overseas. I think we have seven match referees who are FIFA refs. One, Ben Williams, has done a World Cup quarter-final and a Club World Cup semi-final. I think seven match officials in Asian Cup matches.

So they’re doing well on the world scene and they continue to do better and we need to try find the right way to facilitate that in the future.

Would allowing referees to explain decision-making help?

That’s a really good question. Broadcast is such an important part of what we do. And bringing people who are not at the game but into the game is a real focus.

Whether or not we can go as far as letting referees explain their decisions after the game needs to be worked through.

One of the challenges is there is so much forensic analysis of decisions in slow motion, and super slow-mo. And of course they [referees] have a split second to make their decisions.

It’s difficult if they haven’t had a chance to reflect and see what’s happened in the vision to get them to talk about what happened.

It’s something we’ll continue to look at, we’re not in that space as yet but at the end of the day, if it helps the perspective of refereeing and improves the game of football, then it’s something we’ll contemplate.

So after they’ve had time to reflect on any key decisions?

Maybe. And last year with Strebre Delovski in the semi-final in Brisbane he did a lot of media the week after the game when he had a chance to see the footage and not awarding a penalty.

So referees are allowed to speak publicly about their decisions?

Yeah, after the game we’ve no issues [with that]. And we’ve put up referees at different times to talk about their decisions.

And in Strebre’s case he put his hand up and said, ‘after seeing the footage I’ve got to acknowledge I’d have made a different decision, but I don’t have that luxury in the game and so I made the decision I thought was right at the time.’

And there was a lot of positive feedback about our sport taking a stance to let referees do that when other sports mightn’t be so keen. So we’re not against it, and we’ve done it a couple of times.

The timing’s critical. And sticking a microphone in front of a referee just after it’s happened not having the chance to see what’s transpired is difficult.

But players and coaches are being interviewed more regularly at matches. And in the case of the Westfield FFA Cup in 2014, during the game a number of coaches were very happy to be miked up. And it was fantastic.

Those insights were gold nuggets, so it’s part of what we need to explore and we won’t rest till we’ve turned over every stone.

And if giving referees more of a say is deemed to be right for the game then we’ll do that.

You touched on TV innovations: where do you stand on facilitating new broadcast innovations in the A-League moving forward?

Innovation in broadcasting is critical.

In the end it will have a massive bearing on the extent to which we can commercialise football in this country and how big it becomes.

Because in reality broadcast in reality is what drives a lot of the revenues into the game directly through broadcasters but indirectly through sponsors being associated with it, fans and members coming through the turnstiles.

So broadcast is essential to our future and innovating in broadcasting is critical.

Like in the US, and we do study them - they do have some incredible innovations in broadcast and in match. You don’t have to go too far past the NBA, NFL or NHL. They are doing some incredible things.

We are restrained in reality by FIFA but there are a whole range of things we can do that we are doing more of, and again we need to stay focused on our market here in Australia.

Every different sport and entertainment proposition is looking for the edge and an advantage, and I think some sports played predominantly in Australia can make their own rules. And really push the boundaries.

But we’ll continue to drive innovations and bring the fan closer to the game. And that’s what it’s all about.

Broadcasters would have to foot the bill for any such technology?

Yes, some of it. For example, the introduction of goal-line technology is very expensive and is cost-prohibitive for us. But different arrangements and agreements can be made in terms of how those costs are met. Stadia are involved in this too.

But it’s fair to say we’re doing a lot more now than we were two or three years ago and we need to continue – particularly to work with coaches and players who are doing a good job and are getting more comfortable in the environment that says, ‘yes I’m a footballer first and foremost and I’m more than that and people want to know what we’re doing whether we like it or not’. So doing more at matches is obviously part of our future.

Westfield W-League integration with the Hyundai A-League? How do you see that moving forward and what’s the situation with the broadcast arrangements?

Women’s football is critical to us. It’s a genuine and significant strategic advantage to football. We are a sport that can authentically embrace and have a genuine role for women in our sport.

Other sports are trying and that’s great because it’s important. And on the field having a semi-professional league gives young girls the chance to feel they can become part of something very special.

At the same it’ll impact on female fans and having more female fans in the mix there’s no doubt about that.

Practically speaking there’s no doubt that A-League club brands are growing, [and] to associate W-League teams with that is critical.

We saw the best example was playing Melbourne Victory women against Canberra United before the Melbourne Derby this year. At the time we normally take the crowd number there was 14,000 fans watching a really good game of women’s football.

You’ll see more of that, more double-headers. Certainly in terms of broadcast there’s been some challenges around ABC TV and what they can do but we haven’t given up on that.

We certainly have a view that we will pursue every avenue to make sure Westfield W-League is broadcast [next season]. And connect that with the Hyundai A-League as well as we possibly can.

There are a whole lot of things we’re doing with the Westfield W-League to more formally integrate it with the Hyundai A-League over time.

Overall, how would you assess the health of the Hyundai A-League so far in Season 10?

It’s been a great season. The league continues to grow. But we’re not getting ahead of ourselves though, let’s not forget, the league is ten years young.

So it is still early days but we’ve seen across the competition crowds and broadcast ratings continue to increase, as well as the quality of the competition and play.

And the tightness of the competition especially at the top of the table augers exceptionally well for a great finish to the season.

Given it’s been going for such a relatively short time is it hard to compare the A-League to other codes?

You can’t but we need to. One thing I’ve been really focused on is understanding our market in Australia. And football is two things: it’s the most competitive sport in the world with more people playing and watching it. And we are also in the most competitive sporting market in the world here in Australia.

Bringing those two worlds together is a massive challenge.

But the growth here [in football] over the last three years in particular has been fantastic. Crowds have gone from an average of around 8,000 to around 14,000. Obviously broadcast numbers have increased but also memberships, in particular, at clubs have grown by around 15-16% this year.

So, so many of the building blocks have been put in place to build sustainable growth. And having some real stability of having the same 10 teams has been a big part of that [growth] too.

Broadly speaking how do we build for the next ten years?

The first responsibility for all of us is to make sure the existing ten teams are strong and vibrant and aren’t just surviving but thriving. This year we’ve seen that shift and more and more clubs are heading towards a break-even point financially. And some are going to do slightly better than that this year.

But for us it is a matter of consistently getting better and we’ve seen a couple of big marquee players, but a ‘marquee’ story this year is the City Group purchasing Melbourne Heart to create Melbourne City. Their new facilities are world class.

Some of those things happening behind the scenes to build sustainable growth are really important, but we need to also focus on what the fans want. And making sure the league continues to deliver on that so the growth continues at the speed it has.

So the fans will always have a chance to express their opinion on aspects of the league’s development?

No question about that. And one advantage we have of being ten years young is that the fans are at the centre of our decision-making. From active fans to members, right through to first-timer fans sampling the league.

I guess with such great numbers of participants in the game, the challenge is to convert them into fans. It’s starting to happen; it’s that generational change that’s starting to take hold. And we saw that with some of the crowds in the Asian Cup. The organisers did a lot of work beneath surface with community leaders.

And we’re getting into that space where the people in Australia who are so diverse culturally are starting to understand that football is their sport and it can bring the country together and unite them in a way no-one can.

That’s not an immediate fix but a slow burn and we’re setting up a 20-year-plan, where our vision is for football to be our biggest, largest and most popular sport.

In practical reality it’s now become a question of not if but when.

So how can we leverage that community model in the Hyundai A-League, one that the Asian Cup managed to do so well?

In a practical way a lot of data from these communities has been captured and we’re sharing that with Hyundai A-League clubs so they can deal with community leaders. But also market their clubs directly to the communities. So there’s a real strategy around engaging more deeply with Asia.

And with players from overseas, they tell me what a great league this is to be part of. And how fortunate they feel to be part of a competition where the conditions are fantastic, the country is wonderful and the crowds are getting bigger and better and they know they’ll receive everything that’s due to them each week.

The league is growing in reputation; broadcasting to around 154 countries so there are a whole lot more eyeballs focusing on the league. And look at the calibre of players being recruited, such as national team captains like Marc Janko.

The Asian Cup break? How do you feel about that in the future?

Our reflection on the break is that it does stop the momentum for the weekly fans that attend or watch on Fox Sports or SBS, they do stop that. The fact that the Socceroos did well helped, but practically speaking breaking the momentum in any season is really not the preferred option. From our perspective it was necessary but it’s not something we’re contemplating in the future.

Though you might be forced into it in 2022 if the Socceroos qualify for Qatar...

[Laughs] we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!

We’re in Season 10. What will the Hyundai A-League look like in another ten years when we kick off Season 20 in 2024?

A really good question… I think practically we will have more teams in the competition. I’ve no doubt that by then football will be well and truly on its journey to be Australia’s largest and most popular sport in another ten years.

You’ve got to remember, kids who are ten or 11 years old right now, there was no A-League when they were born.

So to give them another ten years of Dads and Mums taking their kids to games and actually creating this sort of cycle where it becomes a family tradition that you go to games... it’ll change the landscape dramatically.

So you’ll get to a point of more teams but also the Hyundai A-League grand final will be, if not the biggest day on the Australian sporting calendar, then certainly in the top two or three.

The other thing that’s critical is we’ll have a bigger and stronger presence in Asia and globally. And you’ll see many more countries beaming in to watch our fantastic Australian players. And some of our better Australian players will be retained in the league and we’ll continue to see global superstars coming to play here.

The future’s bright and it’s an exciting time to be involved in the game and I’m sure the next ten years will build on what’s been a really solid base over the first ten years.