Australian football prepares for mammoth off-season

Football never sleeps. It's simultaneously one of the game's greatest gifts and its greatest curses; it's a sport in which everything is happening all at once. The A-Leagues may feature one of the longest offseasons on the planet but in recent years each has been a hive of activity that transcends speculation surrounding player movement and coaching appointments. Invariably, every contemporary off-season seems to shape as a potential existential turning point.

This is especially true now, as the mercifully concluded 2021-22 A-Leagues campaign will likely be remembered as the competition's worst. Not so much for the moments that defined it on the field -- although there is value in a discussion of good football, entertaining football, and the differences between the two -- but more because of the paroxysm of pain that was the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately half of the leagues' games had to be rescheduled after the virus finally penetrated the clubs' locker rooms, and players faced the exhausting task of managing the effects of COVID and the subsequent fixture crunch. No club averaged more than 10,000 attending supporters by season's end as fans increasingly gave up attempting to keep pace with the upheaval, albeit that must be considered in the context of falling attendances across all sports in Australia. Broadcast coverage provide a poor user experience and advertisement breaks in previously sacrosanct play, and ratings plummeted and fan sentiment fell to what felt like all-time lows. By the end, exhaustion was near universal.

"The impact of COVID has just been massive," Australian Professional Leagues (APL) chief commercial officer Ant Hearne told ESPN. "Our metrics have not been going in the right direction for quite a few years. It's been the first year of the APL running this, and obviously, we had expectations to start turning those metrics around. Those metrics have not turned around. In many cases, they've gotten worse. But we can't use that as an excuse, we need to keep focused on the plan and that plan is pretty clear."

Recognising the fixturing chaos had an enormous impact on fans' ability to connect and remain invested with teams and the league, the APL intends to release a schedule as soon as possible, with its commissioner, Greg O'Rourke, previously stating that the A-League Women is targeting a November start date. Improvements to the broadcasting experience for those unable to attend, though the domain of Paramount and not the APL, have also been promised.

"It's not for me to commit to Paramount's product roadmap, but [the ability to pause and rewind] are 100% front and centre in the discussions that we've been having," Hearne said.

"Bums on seats" marquees have already been targeted as potential recruits, and an emphasis on active support and improving the matchday experience, have also reiterated to ESPN; tentpole events such as the Sydney Derby have also been mentioned as being key in spreading the A-Leagues gospel. An increase in the quality and volume of content, endeavours such as fantasy football and the E-League, and marquee events such as Barcelona's fixture against an A-Leagues All-Stars team, are all areas of planned growth.

- Jukic: A-League triumph, Socceroos' woes are intrinsically linked
- Lynch: ALM title win shocked everyone except Western United
- Lordanic: How will Ellie Carpenter's injury impact the Matildas?

In the women's space, Hearne told ESPN that the APL was seeking to differentiate ALW communication and strategy from its male equivalent by observing and sourcing the views of the different fans who attend the games, and tailoring their messaging and approach as a result.

"The biggest thing we're focusing on is delivering a season next year where people know when games are on," Hearne said. "We have time to plan, we have time to execute. [What] needs to be our focus over the next two years is really focusing on those core fans and those casual fans that have maybe lapsed. Ensuring that we're giving them all the reasons that we can to get back into the game."

On a more practical level, there remains a desperate need to continue to professionalise and grow the ALW competition, and a need to re-introduce a youth league that has been absent for almost three years. Commitments on both have been made alongside a recognition that the latter's model was fundamentally broken even before COVID.

Yet, in the same way that Australian football wasn't invented in 2005, the coming months loom as significant for much more than Australia's professional tier. The national teams, the National Premier Leagues (NPL), and the community ecosystem that underpins the entire endeavour, also face 'sliding doors' moments that have the potential to reshape the way the game is administered and perceived. Indeed, the NPL isn't even in its off-season, as its winter staging contrasts with the summer A-Leagues.

Next Wednesday morning, the Socceroos will play the United Arab Emirates on the next stage of their World Cup qualification route. Win and they face a single win-and-you're-in playoff against Peru. Lose and Australia will not be present at the World Cup for the first time since 2002.

Football Australia believes it can likely ride out such an absence with minimal financial discomfort, but, still, such a scenario is not ideal.

The Socceroos and Matildas transcend allegiances to club, state, or code, and they remain the prism through which the vast majority of the Australian public engages with football. An absence from the men's World Cup for the first time in 20 years will have obvious flow-on effects on perceptions of quality and worthiness of the entire game -- especially the A-Leagues -- among a broader community whose sole point of reference for football is often the play of the national teams.

To a lesser extent, this is what makes looming Matildas' friendlies against Spain and Portugal important in more than just a preparatory sense. And it's what makes the Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023 such a gigantic opportunity or potential curse. In one way or another, the Matildas' form will leave a long-lasting impression on a newly engaged public that, for the most part, will care little for the friends made along the way.

Despite serving different masters, it's inaccurate to say the A-Leagues can't do their bit to impact national teams that still serve as their greatest ambassadors. The Socceroos, for instance, represent the ultimate realisation of the way that ALM clubs approach football, with the prevailing schools of thought that dominate the latter darkly reflected in the former.

The need for a period of introspection on the way the game is approached and understood has been at least paid lip service, but the impact of such soul-searching will take years, if not decades, to truly be seen and felt. And it isn't something that can just be observed at the elite level of the game, harkening to another major touchpoint of the coming months.

Football Australia has been insistent that a national second division is coming, and the next step along that journey will soon be taken when chief executive James Johnson takes a series of proposed models for the competition to the board and, assuming there are no objectives from chairman Chris Nikou and his team, potential participants. This will combine with a further rollout of new club licensing regulations, previously only in effect for ALM and ALW clubs, throughout the pyramid.

But perhaps the biggest problem facing the game, long term and across all its various stakeholders, is a deceptively simple one: What are we doing? Why are we doing it?

In the aftermath of 70,174 fans watching the All-Stars play Barcelona, for instance, talk of how to turn these theatregoers into supporters of Australian football immediately began. Ignoring the intellectual inconsistency of some that chastised these fans as 'Eurosnobs' while simultaneously coveting their eyeballs, this raises the philosophical debate of exactly what it means to support Australian football.

Are some ways of supporting Australian football better than others? Is there a tier list that sorts the various means of engaging with the community, elite, and international levels? And are the right endeavours and alignments being in place between the various stakeholders to ensure that it doesn't matter, and that it all serves a greater purpose? If not, why not?

On the field, what does Australian football want to achieve?

Is there a willingness to engage with the game on an analytical level beyond effort, spirit and fight, and undertake a period of proper soul-searching? Who will lead those conversations? And who will be responsible for guiding the proposed solutions? What matters to Australia as a footballing country, and how do we get there?

Is everyone speaking to each other? Or are shadow turf wars ascendant? Is the game being moved forward? If not, how do we get that fixed?

So many questions that need answers ...