It has been some time since the APL’s decision to move the A-Leagues Grand Finals to Sydney was confirmed and despite the continued protests by supporter groups regarding the decision, the governing body has remained strongly committed to its decision.
Much has already been said on this website and by other commentators on why A-League fans have reacted angrily to this decision. To briefly summarise, supporters are angry about the Sydney-centric thinking displayed by the APL and are outraged by the lack of consultation prior to the decision being made.
Concerns by interstate fans have also been raised regarding travel costs for a hypothetical Grand Final which would leave many fans unable to attend. This would no doubt result in lower crowd attendances for the biggest game in the A-Leagues calendar.
The messaging from the APL regarding their motivations behind the move has remained inconsistent. Initially, the motivation was to “build a new tradition”, however recent commentary suggests that it was primarily a financial decision to find new sources of revenue after key broadcast metrics where not met in the Paramount+ deal.
The supporter groups released a collective statement a few weeks ago.
As part of their demands, they called for an establishment of an A-Leagues Supporters Committee that is consulted by the APL on decisions, an apology by the APL, for the board to have independence from any club’s involvement and a reversal of the decision to sell the Grand Finals.
Some supporter groups have met with Townsend. Although information regarding these meetings is scarce, on December 23, Roar Supporters Federation put out a press release confirming they met with Townsend which provides some promise for dialogue between the supporters and the APL.
However, the past few weeks have been nothing short of a crisis for the A-Leagues. From protests at games damaging attendances and a general feeling of disillusionment from the supporters, it would not be dramatic to suggest that the APL is at a ‘make or break’ moment.
If the A-Leagues cannot recover from this crisis, then it is difficult to see where the leagues will be able to get the additional funding required to keep the league alive in the future. How the APL resolves this crisis is therefore of critical importance.
We do not know how the APL is planning to address the demands of the supporter groups, if at all. However, one thing is almost certain: the Grand Final is not being moved from Sydney for the foreseeable future. Any decision by the APL to renege on the contract could lead to them being sued for breach of contract, potentially resulting in a hefty payout to Destination NSW.
It is clear that the APL is struggling for funds presently, so it is in no one’s interests for the Grand Finals to be moved despite the clear disapproval by the supporters.
Despite this, the A-Leagues is at risk of losing more money than they would have gained from the Destination NSW deal if they do not handle this decision correctly. There are a number of ways that the APL can resolve this which can largely be grouped based on issues relating to governance and issues relating to the Grand Final event itself.
Firstly on matters of governance: the structure of the board needs to change to become more democratic. Although Townsend claimed that the board members are not affected by self-interest and make decisions on behalf of all 13 clubs, this does not appear to be the case.
The A-League board consists of Townsend, a representative of Football Australia, a representative from private equity group Silver Lake, plus representatives of Brisbane Roar, Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers, Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory. The personal incentives for these board members to move the Grand Finals to Sydney is clear.
Townsend, Football Federation Australia and Silver Lake have a clear motivation, to maximise revenue for the league. As such, who hosts the Grand Final is largely irrelevant to them so they would have voted in favour of the move. Melbourne City is partly owned by Silver Lake, so they would have been expected to vote alongside them despite being in a position to host a decider themselves.
There is largely no disincentive for Wanderers or Sydney FC to vote against this decision.
For Brisbane Roar, it is possible that the decision to approve the deal largely came down to this question: is Brisbane Roar in a position to host a Grand Final in the next three years, and if we are, are we prepared to give this up for some much-needed investment?
Brisbane have struggled in the league in recent seasons, and are still struggling as of now to make the finals let alone finish in a high enough spot to earn hosting rights. This, combined with the financial mismanagement of the club by their owners, made the deal obvious.
Considering recent information showing record financial losses at Victory this also made the decision to approve the deal more appealing.
Based on this and how clearly the motivations of the clubs and board members lined up with approving the deal, Townsend cannot claim that there is no conflict of interest in board members. The board needs to be opened up such that every club gets a decision in matters that affect them personally.
When the A-Leagues became independent from Football Australia, most fans would have expected greater control of the league by their own clubs. The English Premier League was often cited as an example of a successful competition that is independent of its organising authority (the Football Association).
What is ignored, however, is that in the Premier League, each member club has one vote on decisions and that there is a requirement of a two-thirds majority out of 20 clubs to approve a decision.
The importance of this one member one vote principle was observed only a few years ago when Manchester United and Liverpool pushed ‘Project Big Picture’, a plan to give teams in the lower tier of the English Football League a share of Premier League television rights in exchange for cutting the number of clubs in the Premier League and giving bigger clubs greater voting rights.
Unsurprisingly, the plan was denounced and rejected by the rest of the league and did not eventuate.
‘Project Big Picture’ and the Destination NSW deal are very similar: they involve giving benefits to certain clubs at the expense of others. However, the Premier League’s model prevents such a situation from occurring, unlike the board of the APL. Unless the board becomes more democratic, there will always exist a possibility of such one-sided decisions arising.
We have the Destination NSW deal today, could we see a ‘Project Big Picture’ situation in the A-Leagues in the future, where some clubs keep a greater proportion of revenue because they bring more into the league? Under the current model in the APL this is a possibility.
However, although a democratic board is a necessary component to resolve this dispute, that alone is not going to be enough to get the fans onside.
A supporters committee that is consulted is a start, but greater effects could be observed if members are given voting rights on certain club issues.
Unlike other club members of other codes in Australia (such as the AFL) a club membership does not grant access to voting rights. A-League members are effectively just season ticket holders. With ticket prices already quite expensive, lack of voting rights does nothing to stop the belief in supporters that they are just seen as ‘cash cows’ for the APL.
This is not to suggest that supporters should get a vote in every decision the club makes, but there are some decisions which should be painstakingly obvious to club directors that it is necessary for fan consultation. Where the Grand Final is played is one of them, sponsorship deals maybe less so.
Under this model, it is the members who communicate the position that the club’s directors take to the board. If such a change cannot be made, then at least regularly hold the club’s directors accountable to the members by giving members the opportunity to vote for them.
By giving fans greater authority in how the club is run by purchasing memberships, you encourage more supporters to do so. This in turn drives attendances and revenues which is what the APL had been seeking to do in the first place.
The recommendations I have made so far are proactive in nature in that they seek to prevent another situation such as the Destination NSW deal arising again. However, as I have already stated in the beginning of this article, the Grand Finals are likely to be held in Sydney for the foreseeable future.
The APL is promoting the Grand Final as a part of a “festival of football”. It is likely that this would involve an A-League All Stars Game, plus a couple of European teams touring Sydney to play some post-season friendlies.
The APL’s hope is that casual supporters will fly up from interstate for those friendlies and also attend the Grand Final because it is being shown. Such thinking is unrealistic. The people who fly interstate for those friendlies are predominantly fans of the team that is playing there. You would not see, for example, a Liverpool fan fly in from Sydney to Melbourne last year to watch Crystal Palace play despite the individual liking football.
In a similar analysis, you would not expect a Perth Glory fan to fly into Sydney for a final between Melbourne City and Adelaide United. In addition, you would also not expect casual football supporters in Sydney to attend a Grand Final without their team playing.
The other problem with a Sydney final consisting of interstate teams is that historically, non-members out number members at Grand Finals significantly. Adelaide United does not have 50,000 members for example, yet the attendance at their Grand Final in 2016 was around this number at the Adelaide Oval.
It is a given that members be subsidised for travelling interstate. An appropriate model could be something along the lines that Western United did last season for their game against Adelaide in the last round of the season, offering fans $100 cash back and a free match day ticket to encourage members to travel to the City of Churches.
Considering the rising cost of plane tickets, this subsidy would need to be much larger for the Sydney Grand Final but this could be an option to encourage members to attend.
The problem, however, is encouraging non-members who are still causal supporters of the club to attend the Grand Final considering that casual supporters are typically the ones who attend the Grand Final. One solution could be to offer drastically reduced memberships in Grand Final week so that the club increases its membership base and is able to offer subsidies at the same time.
Alternatively, the APL could offer a larger travel subsidy based to travellers by postcode rather than membership. Flight subsidies are not perfect, and I do not deny that this will not address issues with accomodation, but it would be better than nothing at all.
The APL must consider ways to make the Grand Final affordable for casual supporters and members of teams lucky enough to have made it. It is clear that this would be an additional financial burden for the APL to bear, but you would expect that some part of the rumoured $15 million from the Destination NSW deal would have been allocated for subsidies for fans.
The APL may have already come up with these strategies regarding subsidies, but there has been largely radio silence from them since the decision with no official commentary regarding valid criticisms.
If the APL were to also put out a detailed statement explaining how they have learnt from the mistake of the Destination NSW deal, how fans will be given a greater voice moving forward, combined with evidence of how they intend to make the governance of the A-Leagues more democratic and affordable for fans then there is the possibility of this crisis being resolved.
This is a critical moment for the APL and Townsend. For the future of the A-Leagues, reform must be made to the governance of the sport to give the fans greater voice and to make the Sydney Grand Final as affordable as possible.