My third anniversary in the job as FFA CEO arrived on Thursday 12 November, which was very nice timing. I was back in my home town of Canberra and had the chance to mingle with the Socceroos fans at the FIFA World Cup qualifier against Kyrgyzstan.
Taking World Cup qualification matches outside the main metro cities has been a deliberate strategy following the Socceroos’ AFC Asian Cup success. We believe the Socceroos and the Westfield Matildas are the national teams that truly reflect Australia in all its diversity.
The fact that the Socceroos have fans everywhere means the team needs to hit the road. An Asian Cup Semi in Newcastle in January, the opening home game in Perth in September and this month’s qualifier in Canberra shows the plan is coming to life.
In the past 12 months the Socceroos have also played in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, driving national interest in the national team.
In every city, we make sure we make time for fan days when the Socceroo players and coaches meet the people. The joy I see in the faces of the fans reminds about the power of football to unite and inspire Australians, and I know the Socceroos really enjoy these opportunities as well. Once upon a time, they too were youngsters with dreams.
My football friends in Canberra are always very polite, but insistent about pushing for a bigger place on the national stage. The near 20,000 crowd showed the football community will get behind our national teams. The wonderful community support of Canberra United in the Westfield W-League is another example.
Talk of a Hyundai A-League club is never far from the top of the list, but I think everyone understands FFA’s current position. In the first instance, our strategy is all about the stability and sustainability of the current 10-club competition.
We firmly believe that any new clubs should be located in markets where there are millions not just a few hundred thousand in population.
I was a teenager in the ACT in the heady days when the late Johnny Warren kick-started Canberra City in the inaugural season the National Soccer League. At the Socceroos game I had a walk down memory lane with Danny Moulis, one of the young tyros of the Warren era.
Danny was an overnight sensation in 1977, literally going from an unknown schoolboy to the national stage. You might recall that the Ten Network covered the first few seasons of the NSL and the local paper the Canberra Times gave the new football club a huge run.
As a schoolboy myself a few years behind Danny, I was in awe of this local hero and his new-found stardom and subsequent selection for the Socceroos. I will have more chances to reminisce after Danny was last week elected to the Board of FFA.
Putting nostalgia aside, the fact is that Canberra City struggled against bigger clubs for 10 years before getting relegated to the local competition in 1987. That’s nothing against the city, the coaches, the players or the passionate fans. It’s a product of simple economics and the size of the market.
In FFA’s Whole of Football Plan, we’ve set an aspirational target of having 1 million Australians directly connected to the Hyundai A-League clubs by 2034. That is the quantum we realistically need to achieve it we want to be the largest and most popular sport in Australia.
If we count the collective club membership today, our 10 clubs have around 105,000 members.
To grow the membership base 10 fold in 20 years, football will need lots of things to fall our way. We need to put fans first. We need to work hard on fan engagement, improve match day experience and have digital channels that connect with fans everywhere, every day.
Our clubs will need to live up to the mantra that a club exists because of fans, not the other way around. Above all, the Hyundai A-League needs to be an authentic and entertaining competition.
Where are the 1 million members going to come from?
Today, around 70% of Hyundai A-League members live in Sydney and Melbourne, the nation’s two biggest cities and home to four of our 10 clubs.
Urban density in Australia is expected to continue rising over the next 20 years. Given that you need fans before you have a club, any strategy to achieve 1 million club members needs to take a view about where football fans are living.
Of course, having multiple clubs in a market gives us derby football. It’s hard to imagine where the Hyundai A-League would be today with the Sydney and Melbourne derby games.
There are other major population centres that fit the criteria of having millions, not just hundreds of thousands. South-east Queensland and Perth are the two that are top of mind.
Providing this insight to FFA’s thinking is timely. Early next year the national body will release a Strategic Plan for 2016-19. It’s the first instalment in setting firm objectives that will carry the game toward the ambitious vision in the Whole of Football Plan.
A new chairman Steven Lowy and a reinvigorated Board were elected last week. They bring impressive skills and experience from across the sporting and corporate sectors. The new Board has already made it clear that growth is the top objective.
No doubt, there will be a lot of energetic and passionate debate among fans on these topics. That’s a good thing. We all want what’s best for the game. We want to put fans first.
We Are Football.