When Football Federation Australia CEO James Johnson said on Tuesday that "mission difficult, had become mission impossible," he was talking about the desire to complete the 2019-20 A-League season. But he could have just as easily have been summarising the game's attempts to stay afloat in its current model.
If reports circulating on Wednesday are to be believed, the suspension of the current A-League season has presented the opportunity for Fox Sports, the local broadcaster, to tear up their $57m-a-year deal, midway through it's six-year term. This would come as no surprise to many, after a year of cost cutting and staff redundancies that have decimated coverage of sports like rugby union and football.
In simple terms, without the Fox money, the A-League in its current form is unsustainable. The competition as we know it, would change -- and change dramatically. Some clubs may be able to adapt and survive, but others could simply disappear -- mainly due to the current A-League ownership model of private investors, many of whom have a chequered history when it comes to investment. The planned separation of the league for the FFA, would be in tatters.
But for Johnson, a football man to his bootstraps, and only two months into one of the most challenging jobs in Australian sport, there lies an opportunity to do the very thing that many across the nation crave: The chance to bring the whole game together.
Putting aside the very real human impacts of COVID-19, the coming months for football are likely to be incredibly painful, as the financial impacts hit home. Good people will be lost to the game, some temporarily, some for good. We'll lose players who have thrilled and delighted, and maybe even whole clubs and fan groups with it. However the silver lining in all of this is the prospect of a whole new start, a blank piece of paper on which to create the future. A future that must be fully inclusive and build upon the solid foundations of the game. It's community.
The clamour for a second tier has been building for some time, and in the event of a reset of the professional game, simply cannot be ignored. Any new future must include every club in the country. A genuine pathway needs to be developed that allows every player at every club to have the ambition of getting to the very top, regardless of the ability to pay. And every club must be allowed to have ambition. The ambition to rise to the highest level, just as we see across the world.
The argument against this has always been: "Australia is different. It can't work here. Who is going to pay?"
Well you know what is different now? Everything. We may have an NRL just before Christmas. The AFL may finish a season on shorten quarters playing out of suburban venues. Super Rugby may be finished in its current form. Sports with billion dollar rights deals are laying off staff by the thousands.
The tried and tested sporting models, the broadcast deals, even the way sport is produced. It's all going to change in the wake of this unprecedented shutdown. There is likely to be a serious rights recession, and even if Fox remain on board, the likelihood of a new deal even in the ballpark of the current number is remote at best. Change is coming, and the sports that are willing to adapt, willing to challenge the norms, they are the ones who will be best equipped to survive. This is where football can act.
The popularity of the game is undeniable. While the A-League has huffed and puffed through its boom and bust popularity cycles, the on-field product has improved incrementally year on year. Maybe not across the board with some clubs taking the pragmatic route with coaching and playing decisions, but it's a general upward curve. And of course at grassroots, the game, despite often prohibitive costs, is still booming. It is the sport of choice for the vast majority of Australian kids.
At the current semi-professional level, states are already mobilising for the future, with live streaming of games, social strategies, even OTT dedicated services for the National Premier Leagues launching before the shutdown. These are the self-sustaining clubs. The ones that rely on the local sponsors, player registrations, the odd bit of cash from a good FFA Cup run, the club merchandise and the canteen. These are clubs that, on the whole, know how to live within their means. They are the also the clubs doing it tough now, with money outlayed for season 2020 kit, and coaches, but in the same limbo as everyone else, not knowing how serious the impact will be on the balance sheet.
They are also the clubs who will be back next year, regardless. Because that's what being a football club is about. And being a football country. A true pyramid of clubs, where the opportunity exists to get to the top, and when you are there, you fight to stay there.
Football belongs to the people who play the game, the people who go to the games, the people who give up huge chunks of their life for the game. When we emerge from the shadow that is the coronavirus, it's these people that must be the first consideration as football moves forward together.
The future is a competition that brings A-League clubs and the NPL clubs together. A future that is scalable, and can grow as we move forward. A future that is developed and run within our means. No more boom or bust cycles, or total reliance on a sole income source. A future where clubs and administrators make decisions solely for the good of the game. A future that excites and inspires.
Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, one thing is true: The game itself will survive, but the opportunity is there to set course on a direction that will also see it thrive.