Can a national second tier be the answer to Australian football’s problems?

<span>Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP

It is remarkable that Australian football will see a national second division launched this time next year. Long perceived as a pie-in-the-sky notion backed only by romantic types on the fringes, a planned introduction in March 2024 has crept up in a similar fashion to Sir Lancelot’s attack on Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – much beating of drums and running on the spot resulting in seemingly little progress until, all of a sudden, it crashes the party.

Since a national presence was established in 1977, Australian football has not had a second tier, and the creation of one now would create a seismic shift for the game. Given the long, often rancorous process that has led to this point, the competition has become somewhat of a Rorschach test for its public at this point.

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For proponents of the idea, it represents an important missing link on the domestic scene, offering benefits that can flow not just to those within it but also up and down the pyramid, and an important step towards uniting and growing the game.

Sceptics say it is a hubristic bridge too far for a sport already teetering on the edge in Australia. They claim the game has far greater priorities to address within its existing framework; it is a distraction from the very real problems that exist everywhere from the elite to grassroots level.

Both contentions have some validity.

So, can it fix Australian football? Is it the silver bullet that will deliver the game to a hitherto unknown land of milk and honey? Of course, the simple answer is no. But it doesn’t need to. To hold it to that standard is to allow administrators, coaches and officials to abdicate their responsibilities elsewhere.

Amongst other things, Football Australia and state federations have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leverage a Women’s World Cup this year. The independent A-Leagues, meanwhile, fought a bitter battle to take control of their own commercial and operational fate.

The premise of the question in and of itself is faulty, anyway, given that it presupposes a binary outlook in which the local game can only exist in a state of disrepair or plenty. In reality, some areas are strong and others are in need of repair. Schrödinger’s soccer, if you will.

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How does a national second tier fit into this, then? In the unlikely event of a perfectly implemented scenario, a successful competition would from the outset offer an important middle ground between the A-Leagues and the state-based NPL system; supplementing, not replacing, the existing framework and helping to provide a pathway to further reform.

It is a league that gives players, most of them young, more opportunities at a higher level of competition – extending careers, giving players longer to develop and providing greater opportunities to unearth diamonds in the rough. Given the standards that will need to be met, it provides aspirant clubs with an inducement and framework to grow their administration, infrastructure and community footprint. This, in turn, broadens the off-field talent pool by providing development and a pathway for administrators, referees, coaches, media and more. It also offers the chance to re-engage or attract new supporters.

An FFA Cup match between APIA Leichhardt FC and the Central Coast Mariners in 2021.
An FFA Cup match between APIA Leichhardt FC and the Central Coast Mariners in 2021. Photograph: Jason McCawley/Getty Images

Inevitably it presents more content and sponsorship opportunities for FA to take to market and, ultimately, is a necessity for CEO James Johnson’s stated ambition of aligning and connecting the pyramid. That final point, though, puts the cart before the horse – introducing promotion and relegation is unthinkable until there is a viable home for relegated teams.

Earlier this month, the federation announced that 32 teams from every state and territory bar the Northern Territory had formally submitted expressions of interest. These candidates are now being assessed across a series of performance indicators before a select group are invited to formally submit a bid to become one of 10 to 16 teams that will make up the inaugural second division.

The list of criteria to be met is lengthy. Is a club unable or unwilling to modernise its operations and grow its administration? Hesitant to meet the costs of the various potential models a national second tier might take or provide sufficient facilities? Does a club lack a connection and foundation of support within the community? Does it want to raise junior fees to help cover the cost? Is it incapable of appealing to a sufficient base of support and sponsorship to fund ongoing operations at a higher standard?

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There’s a certain level of irony surrounding this process. Matters of geographic footprint, legacy, fan bases and financial viability are largely in contrast to the sporting merit and traditional football values that have long been hallmarks of the rhetoric used to advocate for a national second tier.

Beyond the corporate habit of never letting a good process go to waste, this is largely down to it needing it to be done this way, lest a botched or ill-conceived implementation poison the well for a generation.

A national second tier is a risk. It is a risk, however, that Football Australia and the clubs that will be fronting up a significant portion of funding, believe is worth making. Even if it’s not the silver bullet some might declare it needs to be.