Hyundai A-League - Crises or growing pains?

FFA director Joseph Healy is confident the league is on track, despite some off-field dramas.

There is no doubt that recent events surrounding football and the Hyundai A-League in particular have provoked a wide variety of views.

At times like this an important leadership quality is the ability to move from the dance floor to the balcony and look at what is really happening. We need to focus on the opportunity that is in front of us so we can unlock the huge potential that the game has, sitting alongside the other great sporting codes we are fortunate to have in Australia.

From my perspective, what we have seen in the A-League is broadly what we should expect at this stage in the evolution of the competition. Remember - the A-League is only seven years old!

When l reflect on the current state of the game, I am generally encouraged and very confident about its future. We have just witnessed the best ever A-League season, with average attendance up 23% on the previous season, and our national team the Qantas Socceroos are well positioned amongst the top 20 football nations.

While we have made great progress it-s important to reflect on the many lessons from recent times and build on those lessons in crafting the future of the game. The professional administration of the game, as with any business, has to continue to learn, adapt and particularly listen to those with constructive contributions to make.

We know that the future sustainable success of our national team is heavily dependent on the growth and success of the A-League.

I also believe the strength of football in Australia has real economic value to our nation, particularly in a football-crazy Asia, where this common link and passion for the world game creates the basis for developing relationships. No other sport in Australia has the same regional or global ability to build bridges across cultures and languages.

The basis for my confidence is found in the comparisons between our game and the development of football in the USA. The parallels are highly informative as are some similarities in the cultural developments of both nations reflecting a significant immigration history, particularly from a football-dominated sports culture in Europe

Like the USA, in general terms the game is less well attended in Australia than other forms of football and in the case of the USA, baseball. This is in contrast to the vast majority of nations around the world where football is the major sport.

The progress of the Major League Soccer (MLS) in the USA however provides a useful roadmap for thinking about the A-League.

MLS has had a rocky modern history since its inception in 1996, with the game really taking off in terms of public interest in the late 1990s following the hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 1994. The Americans also saw the potential to develop the women's game as a significant driver of growth of football-s popularity. That popularity was also greatly assisted by television coverage of domestic and global matches being complimented by news and other media coverage, which promoted greater public interest.

An important development in the MLS has been careful cost controls, including player and stadium costs, but it took over a decade before some clubs became profitable.

While there are some material differences between the two markets, there-s enough in common to see the MLS as a useful model for the development of the A-League.

The comparisons also extend to the fact that both national leagues embraced teams from neighboring countries, New Zealand in the case of the A-League and Canada in the case of the USA. Both nations have football as the most active team sport, with over three million participants in the USA and an impressive 1.7 million here in Australia. Given the population difference, our progress is remarkable.

While the A-League is making great progress on the field, changes to the business and economic model are needed and owners do need greater say in the league-s strategic direction. In my experience there is always more that can be done, with stakeholders working together for the benefit of the game.

Sport, as with business, needs thoughtful, passionate leadership at all levels. Leaders understand the importance of occasionally getting off the dance floor and onto the balcony to see what is really happening and what needs to be done.

Real leaders know that building something worth having, worth the full support of all in the community, is not easily achieved. But they also know that staying the course and listening to constructive advice from key stakeholders along the way is critical.

I-m very confident that despite current growing pains, we are making good progress and are on track to build a strong A-League, which is critical to having a strong national team. The 1.7 million Australians who participate in the game want football to grow and prosper. This vision is what unites us as a football community, and what will make us stronger.

Joseph Healy is an FFA Director and Group Executive, Business Banking and National Australia Bank