Last year’s grand final was the best-attended in A-League history and the buzz around the event breathed new life into football in Western Australia. In the days preceding the match headlines celebrated the demand for tickets as Optus Stadium turned Perth Glory purple in preparation for the domestic game’s marquee fixture.
The contrast with the corresponding weekend this season could not be starker. The A-League, like sporting competitions around the world, is waiting for its opportunity to return to action amid the Covid-19 pandemic. There is nothing to hype. Fans are not flocking anywhere and there are no heated debates about premiers-elect Sydney FC squatting in Western Sydney Wanderers’ home for the day. On the plus side there can be no VAR catastrophe.
Compared with many other major sporting events in Australia the A-League grand final is neither blessed nor burdened by symbolism; it doesn’t command a fixed date or time in the diary, nor does it occupy a permanent home that welcomes an annual pilgrimage. Consequently its absence has not created heightened levels of introspection or angst. Right now, that suits Football Federation Australia and the game’s leaders just fine as they quietly try to plot a course through troubled waters.
Little has been said on the record about the process to resume the A-League campaign, and football’s powerbrokers are keen not to draw attention to the topic. This is a marker of how delicate negotiations are proving to be, especially with broadcast partner Fox Sports. The competition’s hiatus has provided an opportunity for a reconsideration of the $57m per year relationship between league and broadcaster. The outcome of that process will have knock-on effects for the rest of the football pyramid.
The stakes are raised further by longstanding sponsors drifting away from the game, most concerningly Hyundai, with the A-League’s naming rights partner reportedly on the verge of ending its 15-year association. The economic climate could hardly be less conducive to finding swift replacements at commensurate levels.
Meanwhile the governance process that sparked years of upheaval has still to be resolved and the A-League yet to decouple from FFA almost 12 months since recommendations were approved for an alternative operating model for the professional leagues.
Despite this dystopian scene there isn’t the whiff of panic that has accompanied similar pinch points in Australian football’s chequered past. For now at least, there is a working alignment between administrators, clubs and players about the way forward. Little is leaking from confidential negotiations. Dissenting voices are not speaking out loudly. Collective self-interest appears to be having the desired effect.
Behind the scenes, much of the credit for the consensus is being directed towards FFA chief executive James Johnson. Despite being in post just six months he is earning praise for steering the governing body through the crisis while coordinating the heavyweights of the professional game. As previous football administrators would be only too quick to attest, that is no mean feat. His leadership was considered crucial in securing the most recent $12m tranche of broadcast money, a sum that arrived late and was feared may never be released.
Johnson’s honeymoon period has him in the public’s good books too, for the time being. Already in the black for being a “football person”, the announcement at the end of April of the Starting XI advisory panel that belatedly brings Socceroo legend Mark Viduka back into the fold generated a truckload of goodwill just as lockdown threatened to spiral into endless online handwringing. It also demonstrated the current iteration of FFA was alert to open PR goals, all the while keeping rubberneckers at arm’s length from the main event.
As that main event progresses and plans for all eventualities are modelled there remains confidence at the top of the game, however the dice may fall. This is enabled in part by the sense of liberation accompanying the widely acknowledged need for a system reboot. With such a mindset an emergency can provide fertile ground for change. Or, as Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff to Barack Obama, put it: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste… it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
As with all attempts at reading the tea leaves during this unprecedented crisis there is only so much to glean before circumstances take over. There will doubtless be speedbumps further down the road once revenues – unavoidably diminished – come to be redistributed, testing the relationships between current allies. But while there is alignment at the highest level (however temporary that may prove) the well-practiced urge to despair about the state of Australian football can hold off, for now. For a game no stranger to anguish, it’s no toilet seat, but it’s a grand final victory of sorts.