The fledgling Australian Professional Leagues (APL) faced a baptism of fire last season, announcing their landmark uncoupling from Football Australia on the eve of an A-League season that would be dominated by the global pandemic.
Despite the challenges, the 2020/21 A-League season proved to be one of the most exciting in the league’s relatively short history, with records broken, exciting new Australian talents emerging and a new champions standing tall.
On the back of the thrilling domestic campaign and an historic Olympic Games, there are strong foundations on which the APL can build their vision for football in Australia.
In this very special edition of Beyond the Dugout, Sydney FC CEO and APL’s Managing Director Danny Townsend joined Kick360 to outline the APL ’s strategy for a new era for the World’s Game in Australia.
“It was definitely a challenging one” says Townsend, reflecting on last season.
“We sort of had the clouds of Covid overhanging us for the whole season and Greg O’Rourke, the commissioner of the league was always vigilant around having to look at border closures and all the various things that come up as function of living the Covid experience but in the main, through good management and a bit of good luck, we managed to get through it without too much disruption.
“Even coming down to the Grand Final, we had to make a call the week of the Grand Final on whether to move it to Sydney or leave it in Melbourne… fortunately we made the right call there and got the Grand Final away with at least a 50% crowd capacity, which if we had moved it to Sydney we would have, in hindsight, been hit with no fans.
“With all these things it’s about planning, and making quick decisions and being nimble. You’re not always going to make the right decision, but you’ve got to be willing to make the decisions and do so at speed. I think in the main, we mainly made the right decisions over the course of the year.”
Decisions are certainly not something the APL will shy away from.
“We’re here to innovate. I think one of the big things about football in this country is that we’re a challenger professional code. We’re the biggest code in Australia for participation but a bit like the US where you have established domestic codes that have been around for over a 100 years in some cases, we’re dealing in an environment where we’re only 16 years old here in the A-League.
“Yes our sport is really strong in Australia, it’s probably been the most over delivered promise in Australian sport that football will one day be the biggest sport at professional level [but] we genuinely believe that the process of unbundling from the FA will be the catalyst for that change and us realising that potential.
“With APL now in charge and this first season of ours where we will be leading the sport from the inception of the season, will give us our first look at what we’re all about.
“There will be some exciting components to that first and foremost getting our broadcast deal done with Viacom CBS and Network 10 is a huge step in the right direction for the APL, but there are a bunch of other things which we will be launching over the next three months which will really demonstrate the change in the way we go about positioning our sport in this country.”
These changes represent the first steps towards re-engaging with a disenfranchised fan base.
“First and foremost, the way you engage people is through great content. Whether that be digital content, live content, at the end of the day people want to be entertained. We are in the entertainment business and we’ve got to think about our fans as our customers in the sense that the more we can entertain them, the more we can engage them and the more likely that they will be to engage with us on a more frequent basis.
“That will ensure we drive the consumption of our broadcast product but as you point out, more importantly, get them in to our stadiums loving our live product and putting on a show. That’s what football fans do.”
Interest in the A-League has certainly wained in recent years, something that has been reflected in dwindling attendances which slumped to a new record low of 990 last season.
Townsend reiterates the importance of not just getting fans engaged with the product again, not just new supporters but those who have fallen, or in the case of active support felt pushed, away from the sport.
“They are very much part of our entertainment proposition when you harness that passion that football fans uniquely deliver in a stadium environment. Active fans have always been something for me that I’ve felt is critically important to our sport. It’s a unique part of what our sport delivers in the Australian sporting landscape. You only have to go to a Sydney derby to realise the noise and the passion that comes from 30, 40,000 fans.
“Our challenge as a code is that we’ve never really organised our fans in an appropriate manner. We’ve never had a digital first strategy which we are deploying now with the APL and launching our digital transformation in October is going to allow us to deliver great content, serve that content to our fans and really get them behind our leagues.”
Despite the dwindling numbers, something undoubtedly compounded by the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, the on-field product was arguably more engaging than it has been in years.
“When you look at the quality of the season, people talk about Covid being the reason a lot of young players got more opportunity, but I disagree with that.
“I think what we’re starting to see is six or seven years of investment A-League clubs have been making in their youth academies really starting to bear fruit and some real exciting young players coming through that we’ve all had significant influence over their entire football tuition getting to that age where they are able to start influencing the A-League.”
Despite a rumoured introduction of an MLS style designated player rule, Townsend insists that the APL must build on the domestic successes shown last season.
“Playing talent is always a key part of your marketing strategy, and APL is no different. We’ve already got the two marquee player spots and we’re in the process of looking to introduce a couple more to really change the landscape and enable clubs to invest in talent but it’s got to be a balance.
“You’ve got to look at the fantastic results we’ve got from giving young talent a shot like we saw last season, but mixing that with some older foreign talent to provide different playing styles and cultures in to our sport.
“We’re lucky that we play in a global sporting economy that not many of the other sports in Australia enjoy, so we can bring in players from all over the world with different styles and different capabilities that will enhance the overall product, but it’s about finding that balance and we’re really focused on ensuring the quality on the pitch, both for the 90 minutes but also the time around the 90 minutes is really enhanced by any talent we bring in to the league.”
While the APL aim to bring innovate and improve the domestic product, this does not equate to making changes for change’s sake.
“All these things need to be done in a measured way. APL have been in business now for five months so it’s not like we are going to go in and turn things on its head within the first 12 months. That’s not practical and that will end it tears.
“We’ve got a real clear strategy. We’ve got to go about moving at speed but we also have to move in a sensible timeline that ensures you make progress, but that you make that progress in a timeline that the game can sustain economically.”