Though optimistic about the future, Australian Professional Leagues (APL) chief Danny Townsend has admitted to ESPN that the A-Leagues need to better engage the Australian footballing public on their purpose and direction.
Riding a wave of momentum, the APL was the beneficiary of significant goodwill heading into the 2021-22 A-League Men's and A-League Women's seasons -- their first in charge following independence from Football Australia.
However, as it has with most things, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the competitions. Games were postponed in the face of the Omicron variant, the fixture crunched, and the APL's plans were devastated. The insertion of drinks breaks into live play to allow for advertisements and an poor user experience on new steaming partner Paramount+ -- own goals that can't be attributed to the pandemic -- only served to accelerate the end of the APL's honeymoon period.
A familiar sense of cynicism, something that has long been endemic in Australian football, began to creep back. After, perhaps unrealistic, expectations of a new dawn failed to materialise, existential questions of purpose and direction that had been suppressed by hype began to be asked once again.
"We've got to communicate a bit better there," Townsend told ESPN's Beyond the Lead podcast.
"We've been communicating our strategy to a lot of stakeholders internally. To get buy-in from our broadcaster, our private equity partner, our sponsors. But I think we'll probably do a better job talking about our strategy to our fans and have them really understand where we're spending the money that we've raised and where we're building the future.
"As we move through the next couple of months you'll start to see us be a bit more transparent in the public around what that strategy is and how it's going to benefit the fan.
"There's this myth out there that APL is sitting, looking after itself at the top and that's not true. Our focus is on unification. We want to work with all the stakeholders in the game because we genuinely see ourselves as contributors to the football community and the football economy with that.
"Ultimately our customer is our fans, our participants, our volunteers, our coaches, our administrators, anyone that has an involvement in the game, we want to bring value to."
Fuelled by statements such as Western Sydney Wanderers' owner Paul Lederer declaring that "the handbrake would be off," and promises of significant investment, the Australian football public certainly had high expectations for the APL as they assumed control.
But despite the early challenges in their tenure, Townsend believes that there remains significant reason for optimism amongst fans despite the malaise the game has fallen into.
"We're in a situation now where there shouldn't be any concern around the game going forward," Townsend said. "We've gone through the well-publicized capital raising with [investment firm] Silver Lake, we're well-capitalized and we're here for the long haul.
"We're going to build. We're not going to turn a [league] around that's been there 16 years -- probably in a suppression mode for the last four or five -- in three months.
"We've got to remind ourselves that we're 12 weeks into a season that's been heavily ravaged by COVID and other things that were possibly part of our own doing. It's going to take time to turn that around and fans should be confident that their clubs are going to be here for the long term, our league is going to be here for the long term. It's going to grow, we're investing in it. And that should give them excitement, that the future's bright."
Indeed, if Townsend and the APL have their way, the future for the A-Leagues is bright; to the extent that it would put the likes of the AFL and NRL in the shade.
"The A-League Men competition is about being the No. 1 men's competition in Australia -- of any code -- by 2030," Townsend said. "That's what we've set our task as. We believe that we can get there.
"Our game has so many strengths. Our professional game has never taken advantage of those historically. Other codes would give anything for the foundational strengths that we have, we've just never capitalised on them. We've given ourselves until 2030 to do that. Our goal is to speed that up, but we genuinely believe we can get there by then.
"But we also want to be a respected league around the world. That means servicing and working with the FA around having successful national teams.
"We want to perform in the ACL [Asian Champions League]. We want our clubs to be there competing for that championship every year. We haven't done that. With respect to the Wanderers and a great performance by Adelaide in one season, the rest of the teams have struggled over many years and that's not good for our domestic league on the Asian stage."
The APL has also acknowledged the need to capitalise on the momentum of the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Wellington Phoenix entered the competition this season and Central Coast Mariners and Western United have been tapped for 2022-23 -- although Townsend added that that had yet to be fully confirmed.
Long the major priority of players, coaches, and fans, calls for extension of the season and full professionalism have also only grown louder as the 2021-22 season has progressed, with current Golden Boot winner Fiona Worts now infamously revealed to be working at McDonalds to supplement her ALW commitments.
But with COVID playing havoc, Townsend said that a road-map to the league's next evolution would need to wait for the offseason.
"We've got a plan that we've got to implement. It's not fully baked at the moment on the men's and the women's expansion and future [home and away and professionalism]," he said.
"Our focus was on getting the first season away. We've had the keys to the car for a year but we've really only had 12 weeks of the competition under our guidance. Our view is let's get through this season, do the work.
"You can't change the parameters quickly, you've got to give a roadmap, you've got to demonstrate what's happening. Give [players] time to organise their lives appropriately.
"We're working on that at the moment and what we will do, when it's ready, we'll make it very clear, and it will be a staged process that everyone can start to get behind.
"We've got to take a breath, we've got to finish the season. It's been a complex season. We've had displaced teams. Perth's team has been really compromised, Wellington has been compromised. Our focus this year has been getting through it.
"The work's being done concurrently but we'll start to get into the reeds of it in the offseason and we'll make some really clear plans public."
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