Following an off-season of hard work behind the scenes, the 2021-22 A-League Men’s season is set to commence this week; A-Leagues commissioner Greg O’Rourke can’t wait to get started.
Heading a team of eight people, O’Rourke is in charge of liaising with multiple stakeholders to put together a schedule and keep the season running, a monumental task over the last couple of years.
Speaking exclusively to Kick360, O’Rourke detailed the various groups that had to be considered and catered for when planning the fixture list.
“The first thing that you need to solve for is when are you going to start the season?” O’Rourke said.
“Other codes including ours delayed starts, so in that with stakeholder management, is first and foremost broadcaster because they’re paying for a product and there’s an expectation of date, so that’s a primary stakeholder consultation.
“The second thing is working with the state governments, and there’s a small amount of work with the federal governments to do with Border Force and the Wellington Phoenix team but then there’s Queensland government, New South Wales, Victoria, ACT, South Australia and WA that you’ve got to work with as well.
“That’s the primary body of external stakeholders and then internally you’ve got the clubs and ultimately the players. The clubs have got to manage their own fans because they’ve got to sell memberships. The fans want to know when the season is starting and finishing and are the home games accessible via crowds.
“Then their sponsors as well want to know whether they’ll get airtime and when they will get airtime, so that’s important.
“It’s multi-layered and it’s not always consistent, but what we found via Covid is the willingness of the broadcaster, the governments and the commercial sponsors, the clubs, CEOs, players and the Player’s Association has never been more aligned, because everyone has this common goal of finding a way.
“That’s really been helpful and without that we might not have been able to get to where we got to.”
O’Rourke is particularly complimentary of the newest stakeholder group, 10 Viacom CBS; the leagues’ new TV broadcaster partners following the end of FoxSports’ contract.
“The first thing I would say is that I respect the investment by Fox in our game for fifteen years.
“But like a lot of relationships, business and personal, when you’re in a new relationship there’s a lot more effort from all parties to make it work.
“You can see with Channel 10 and Viacom, and the A-Leagues, that it’s freshened up, there’s a lot more appetite to listen to each other and to innovate and importantly there’s a lot more appetite to invest in the things we believe are important to get our game into the public domain as a major sport.
“What are we going to do with the fans? What are we going to do on a match day? What are we going to do about integration into their other programmes?
“All those sorts of things are important and some of the other codes have been able to enjoy, but we are now able to bring to life.”
Throw things back nearly two years however and O’Rourke faced near impossible tasks when trying to firstly complete the 2019/20 season, and then begin the 2020/21 campaign.
“We were about three-quarters of the way through the season when Covid came and we had to shut down.
“Then it became about decision making. Should we restart? Should we finish the season? If so, how so?
“At the same time, organisations such as the broadcaster were breaching sports for not being able to deliver product, so there was a real sense of crisis management.
“In the following season it was a bit more of a known, but without a vaccinated population, so you didn’t have the ability to anchor your decision-making on government policy.
“The compounding difficulty that we found that every other code found as well was that nearly every jurisdiction in Australia and New Zealand from a state-based government acted differently.
“Some borders were open, some borders were closed. Some had crowds, some didn’t have crowds. Some required different measures like with masks.
O’Rourke’s biggest challenge came when trying to move the Victoria clubs out of the state as New South Wales’ stance on their localised outbreak changed by the hour.
“At the time whilst Covid was in it’s very early stages, we were trying to plan, with planes booked for tomorrow, and then borders had closed within hours of booking the plane.
“Those sort of things made it really difficult because the broader community at the time didn’t see that as for challenges that they were.
“They just felt that we had not been able to get the players across a border and that was because we were sitting on your hands, when really the plans that had been signed off by governments and airlines and others only on the same day had changed before the end of the day.
“That was the most difficult time because we were sending players to airports and then things would change and they would disembark and return home.”
Furthermore, a unique challenge O’Rourke faced was getting the Wellington Phoenix team out of New Zealand and into a base in Australia, as travelling across the Tasman required a quarantine.
“The challenges we have with our code are a little bit different compared to other codes, around New Zealand and the other state governments.
“Other codes are only really popular in one state, whereas we had to accommodate seven jurisdictions.”
But O’Rourke and his team knew that in the extraordinary circumstances, all they could do was rise to the challenges and do the best they could with what they had.
“All those things created the competency within a small team of half a dozen people, it was a new muscle that they had to develop.
“By the time you get to this season and in an environment with vaccination milestones and clarity starting to come from those different governments about opening times, masks and crowds, it has become easier to anchor your decision-making because there are parameters and guidelines you can head towards.”
“It was not easy but I’m pretty proud of the small team we had that we were able to close out the season, we made the right decision to finish off that season and then we navigated all last season without missing any other games, and here we are again ready to start again on Friday night.”
The A-League Men’s season kicks off on Friday, November 19, as Melbourne City host Brisbane Roar and O’Rourke is looking forward to seeing the fruits of his efforts.
“I’m looking forward to kicking off on Friday in front of crowds all across Australia.”
Image Source: Australian Professional Leagues