National Premier Leagues ooze potential
We're not even one season into the NPL evolution, but already it's proved to be a resounding success.
We're not even one season into the NPL evolution, but already it's proved to be a resounding success. While bitter experience, and the lessons of history, teach you to take nothing for granted, I can see the NPL changing the face of our game beyond recognition. Finally we address the missing link in the pyramid - between the commercial end (Hyundai A-League/Socceroos) and the grassroots - and look what we reveal. Potential.
That potential was illuminated by record crowds in Brisbane (4,000) and Newcastle (5,200) for their recent grand finals. Hopefully we'll see another bumper gate for the NSW grand final in Penrith this weekend.
Two years ago I was at Belmore Sportsground when more than 10,000 showed up for the title-decider between Sydney Olympic and Sydney United, and thousands more fans gave up waiting to buy tickets and walked away.
I'm not sure if that was the moment the policy-makers at the FFA finally decided they needed to give some love to the semi-pro level of our game, but what it did prove is that it could no longer be ignored. Fast forward to 2013 and we have the NPL blueprint rolled out in five states, and the response has been little short of startling. By most of the key indicators - crowds, facilities, coaching and media coverage - the NPL has delivered above expectations. I can't see why the other major KPI - sponsorship dollars - won't eventually follow.
That's not to say the NPL rollout has been perfect. There are legitimate gripes about the Player Points System (PPS), which effectively discriminates against players above the age of 25. And I remain disappointed that NSW, ACT and South Australia haven't seized the opportunity to widen their embrace the way Queensland and Tasmania have. If the NPL is to truly fulfill it's charter, then regional areas like Bathurst/Orange, Griffith, Wagga, Albury and Mount Gambier must be engaged. Sadly, Northern NSW - by ignoring the huge catchment north of the Hunter River - and Western Australia - who for reasons best known to themselves have cut the Peel region and Bunbury out of the reckoning - have opted to compound those mistakes when they join the NPL next season. Hopefully, in the passage of time, all our states will come to appreciate that regional football is a significant part of the equation.
Which brings me to Victoria, the problem child of the NPL reform processs. With mediation and potentially court action on the agenda, I don't intend to take sides. What I can say is that the interest shown by regional towns such as Ballarat, Geelong, Torquay, Bendigo and Shepparton is encouraging. When the dust settles, hopefully they'll be in the mix.
Less encouraging, of course, is that with the state body and more than 50 of its leading clubs still at odds over the terms of reference, time is running out. With any luck communication, and compromise, can resolve the issues and Victoria will complete the set in 2014. It goes without saying that the NPL won't be what it could be without one of the game's biggest states.
Truth is, it was always going to be difficult, emotional, adversarial and exhausting to bring the lower tiers of football back into the fold. These are the clubs with history, and knowledge, and football culture, ingrained in their DNA. On their sweat and toil - literally - the game built more than a century of achievement, and tradition, before the Hyundai A-League came along and swept them to the margins. Re-uniting 'Old Soccer' with 'New Football' was always going to be a challenge, and it's a tribute to all those involved that, with any luck, we'll have all our states signed on for the NPL in 2014.
That's not to say the job will then be over. Far from it. My guess is it will take at least five years before the NPL even starts to fulfill its potential. But already we've seen how exciting that potential is, and I've got no doubt this level of football will become the envy of those rival codes who've had a head start but will eventually be left in the wake.