Why the A-Leagues need promotion and relegation

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With the rebrand of the A-Leagues there is no time like the present for Australian football to take the step towards a promotion and relegation system.

Advocates for a national second-tier in Australia have been campaigning for the better part of two decades to introduce what is, at this point, a global footballing standard. 

It is undeniable that the A-Leagues have been on a steady decline in recent times.

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Fan engagement has weaned over the past 10 years with the average A-League Men crowd attendances falling from over 11,000 a match in 2009/10 down to around 7,000 in 2021/22.

With clubs like the Brisbane Roar moving to smaller stadiums, Suncorp Stadium (52,000 seats) to Moreton Daily Stadium (11,500), in the hope of a greater home game atmosphere. 

In turn, this has caused a downturn in A-Leagues club revenue year on year. 

This can be attributed to the lack of real stakes that exist within the A-Leagues landscape.

For fans, if their club starts a season poorly and looks ‘dead in the water’ there is no incentive to buy tickets and attend games; they may as well wait for the start of next season in the hope of a better squad and better results. 

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Implementing a National Second Division (NSD) would give fans a reason to support their club in ‘avoiding the drop’.

In a report released at the beginning of this year (2021) the Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) presented their framework for the proposed NSD that could be up and running as early as 2022. 

The year 2022 may be an optimistic target, however.

With Football Australia CEO James Johnson pointing to the pandemic as a buffer to the NSD’s unavoidable progresion. 

The NSD would feature 12 foundation clubs with plans to expand up to 16 within the first four years.

Current NPL sides with clear positive performance indicators are the most likely candidates for the NSD. 

Former National Super League heavyweights: Marconi Stallions, Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne, Adelaide City, Brisbane City, Preston Lions and Wollongong Wolves have all been suggested for the competition. 

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Some of the key features of the AAFC report include:

  • All participating clubs having grounds that can accommodate a minimum of 3,000 fans
  • Teams to be included based on meeting stringent criteria as the basis for entry, followed by promotion and relegation from lower tiers
  • A $200,000 participation fee from each club
  • A requirement for participating clubs to have a comprehensive women’s programme in place as a prerequisite for participation in the NSD
  • No preference for a winter or summer season, but alignment with the ‘Whole of Football’ calendar

Although this plan is ambitious there is still no major talk about the implementation of promotion and relegation between the A-Leagues and the NSD in the report. 

Being a divisive issue between the leaders of ‘top-level’ clubs based on the assets these clubs exist as in an economic sense it may prove to be a hard bridge to cross until current NPL and future NSD teams can prove their worth. 

In saying this, the licences the A-League clubs hold do not omit them from relegation were the proper framework to be introduced. 

During his time as Football Federation Australia (now the FA) chairman, between 2003 and 2015, Frank Lowy spoke about the “inevitability” of the concept (of promotion and relegation). 

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More recently current FA chairman Chris Nikou suggested the effective implementation of promotion and relegation to the A-League is as far off as the mid 2030s.

For many Australian football fans they will hope this is a case of ‘underpromissing to underdeliver’ from the FA.

Because without adding real incentive other than a grand-final win and the newly introduced ‘club-champions’ trophy for the best performing combined mens and womens A-League club the A-Leagues threaten to lose more of an already dwidinkling supporter base.

Bringing high stakes and real pressure to every team and every game over the course of an A-League and NSD season would undoubtedly revitalise the fan culture around Australian football. 

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Creating bigger and better revenue streams for all clubs; community and professional.

The future of the Australian football leagues is set out; it is now in the hands of club, league and federation administrators to effectively implement and market it to the masses.

Promotion and relegation needs to be a part of that package to cement the relationship between the NSD and the A-Leagues.

Feature image credit: Cameron McIntosh

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Bill Hedley
Bill Hedley
Journalism under graduate at the University of Queensland. I have been a die-hard football player and fan for the past 16 years and am now a passionate multimedia Journalist, covering Brisbane Roar for the 2021/22 A-League season.

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