By David Shilovsky (@dshilo2)
Today’s announcement that the Australian Professional Leagues has sold the next three A-Leagues Grand Finals to the NSW government came as a huge shock to all Australian football fans.
In completing this exclusive arrangement with Destination NSW, Danny Townsend and the whole of the APL have let down their key stakeholders: the fans.
Sure, APL have secured a decent payday but ‘eight figures’ won’t really go as far as people may think. The exact value of the agreement has not been disclosed yet it has been reported to be north of $15 million. The investment from American firm Silver Lake – that bought them a 33.33 per cent stake in the body that runs the A-Leagues – was valued at $140 million, a significant cash injection.
But putting aside any potential positive spin on this, it is a disaster for equity among A-League fans. I live within an hour’s drive of both Accor Stadium and Allianz Stadium and I’m just as shocked and upset as a Glory fan living in suburban Perth.
The right to host the Grand Final has traditionally been bestowed upon the competing team who finished highest on the ladder after the regular season. It’s one major factor that set us apart from the NRL and AFL who, despite grand proclamations that they represent the whole country, always host their decider at the same venue (the COVID-interrupted seasons a very clear outlier, of course).
This system was always based on merit and rewarded regular season excellence, the type of which every other football league on planet Earth reveres. The premiers would always be guaranteed to host the big dance if they qualified, as it should be.
Now, even if, say, Adelaide United accomplish an unbeaten season, win the Premiers Plate in a canter and make the Grand Final, instead of their usual journey to Adelaide Oval, their supporters will be forced to fly to a city thousands of kilometres away. It just does not pass the pub test.
It punishes the players too, who will swap seeing their families and sleeping in their own bed the night before the game for a hotel room. And if the other grand finalist isn’t from NSW, then there’s a distinct chance of a lowly crowd figure.
There are also big question marks over how the process to sell the next three Grand Finals actually worked. Tony Sage, owner of Perth Glory, said on Perth station 6PR earlier today that he woke to the news despite his understand that the clubs would be voting on the proposal on Thursday.
In an email, APL board member Chris Fong had the following to say: “We were not happy with the recommendation, voiced this position, and were surprised by today’s announcement and had no representatives in Sydney.
“We expected broader consultation before a final decision was made, and will be raising this at a shareholders meeting on Thursday.”
In addressing my central point, where was the fan consultation?
Townsend did a magnificent job as Sydney FC CEO and despite the sub-optimal transition to chief executive of the APL, has been an excellent corporate face of the A-Leagues. Yet the decision making employed within this case is questionable at best, and interviews conducted today don’t exactly aid the cause.
I won’t go so far as to say this should be Townsend’s downfall, but for all the good moves he’s made this is a misstep into uncomfortable territory. You can never take too much from the corporate doublespeak that pervades press conferences, but suggesting the trip to Sydney will be akin to journeying to Wembley Stadium for an FA Cup final is absolute nonsense.
Strong statements from active support groups around the country today are proof of that. Melbourne Victory’s active support group “Original Style Melbourne” will be staging a walkout 20 minutes into the Melbourne derby this weekend.
This decision is highly unlikely to be reversed, and we can only hope the result won’t be three straight Grand Finals played in front of sub-20,000 attendances.
But make no mistake: this is shaping up to be an indelible stain on the APL’s legacy and nullifies a lot of the previously built up goodwill.
The views expressed within the article are those of the writer
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images for APL