Giving the A-League Wings

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One thing that I have noticed this off-season is that there are not enough teams in the A-League to offer places not only to locally-based players but also Aussies who are open to coming home. I used to think that the clubs were not interested enough in giving young Aussies a chance. I assumed they were more interested in giving places to recycled journeymen or foreign players. Yet, this I now realise is too simplistic.

After one looks more closely at the situation it is clear that the timing of the off-season with that of Europe and lack of positions available in a squad are what tie clubs hands when it comes to filling their rosters.

The main turnover of players for most A-League clubs is with their visa spots as the number of transfers overseas of Aussie players, while on the rise, is still not enough to be considered a drain. It is natural that teams want to fill these vacant spots left by outgoing imports with other foreign players because apart from returning Socceroos, imports get fans excited. Also, it is less of a punt on a foreigner with some runs on the board than a young Aussie who has been playing mostly reserve or youth football abroad, especially as visa players are easier to get rid of if they fail.

More of an issue though is that small squads of 23 are filled up easily and quickly after a season concludes. By the time that most European clubs release their players in the beginning of July, A-League clubs have just about filled their rosters for the next season. So you have maybe one or two non-visa spots to fill at each club.

One solution is more clubs. In the 27 year history of the NSL, the league saw 42 clubs come and go. In the final season of the competition it finished with 13 teams. Thirteen teams seems almost right but 12 is probably the better number as having a bye should be avoided and 14 teams is too far off. People might ague that the crowds at NSL games were abysmal especially in that final year with the exceptions of Adelaide United and Perth Glory. While this is true, today the A-League attendances of all clubs are respectable and on the improve. This is mainly down to the spread of teams across the nation being more even and an increase in media attention given to football.

Therefore if there is to be any expansion it must be in areas that will not encroach on current teams existing markets. Sydney and Melbourne have been able to accommodate a new team each due to population size and the creation of a local rivalry sparking more interest although this is quite presumptuous in Sydney’s case as the Wanderers haven’t kicked a ball in the A-League yet. However, it is unlikely that any other capital city is ready for a local rival yet. All things being equal, the two best possible areas to consider for expansion are Tasmania and Canberra. I say this because it would make it a more national competition if these two were included.

The main concerns here though are raising the finances and crowds. Will these regions be able to draw enough interest to fill stadiums or attract investment? . First, the obsession with crowd numbers is one that is understandable but really irrelevant. There are teams in many top flight competitions around the world that average low attendances, even lower than Gold Coast United. Money from TV rights, sponsorship, player transfers, investment and good management are more than enough to offset any shortages in gate takings. Not to say that high attendances are not a great thing just that it is not necessary for the survival of a club.

As for raising the revenue through sponsorship and investment well this is the hardest part for most clubs and Canberra and Tasmania are hardly “sexy” markets to invest in “no disrespect”. This is why we need to think globally. The A-League needs to become more attractive to other markets. The kids who follow Liverpool in Thailand don’t really give a hoot about the demographics or cultural sites of the city of Liverpool. Most Manchester United supporters will never step foot in Manchester, let alone England.

This is where an international  company like Red Bull come into play as their global and recognisable brand can open doors that otherwise would be difficult. Instantly, the A-League club that were backed by Red Bull would have connections to clubs across four continents, as well as the financial backing to break new ground in Asia. Not that the A-League is anywhere near the standard of the EPL but what gave the EPL team their foothold in far off regions was their community engagement through tours and media coverage via TV rights and commercials of big names, like Beckham and Owen. A marquee player could have the same effect for an A-League club provided it is the right kind of player.

Red Bull since 2005 have invested heavily into football around the globe from Europe, North and South America to Africa. Asia is as yet an untapped market for the Red Bull football network with Red Bull establishing clubs and academies in all these regions bar Asia. Why can’t the A-League be the launching pad for Red Bull’s move into this burgeoning football region?

The Canberra and Tasmania bids are very much in keeping with Red Bull’s initiative. They seem to look to take teams who haven’t had major success and turn them into the best. This includes New York Red Bulls who as Metrostars had never won an MLS title and Red Bull Salzburg who had only 3 titles in their 77 year history. They have also virtually started teams from scratch in Germany, Brazil, and Ghana with the view of lifting them as high as possible. Taking a team from Tasmania to the top of the A-League and Asia would fit perfectly with their famous slogan “Red Bull gives you wings.”

People might complain that a commercial entity creating a team will lack the heart and soul required for fostering the passion to build a real club for fans. But this would be to ignore the roots of a lot of clubs today. Every club starts from somewhere and usually they evolve from this to a point where a lot of fans probably have no idea about their club’s beginnings and even less care. Manchester United, when the were known as Newton Heath were established by the workers of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways, who attracted players by offering them good jobs. Using industries and corporations to fund amateur clubs happened all across Britain at the time. You look now at the clubs like Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers and this industrial beginning is the last thing on your mind. It could also be argued that there are few clubs left today that haven’t in some way become corporate entities in their own right.

In Japan and Korea, almost every club is owned by or started from a company some with and some without the companies name or logo attached; from Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Jeonbuk Motors (Hyundai), FC Seoul (GS Group) in Korea to Urawa Red Diamonds (Mitsubishi means Red Diamonds), Gamba Osaka (Panasonic)  and Nagoya Grampus (Toyota) to name just a few.  These clubs are amongst the largest supported clubs in their respective leagues with their corporate origins being accepted as just part of their history just like a team created by a social club or political party. Like they say “it’s not where you’ve been but where you are going.” History isn’t something you get at the beginning, it is something that is cultivated over time so a Red Bull backed A-League team can still write it’s own history through performances on and off the pitch.

One thing that Red Bull has shown in all its football ventures is that it is ambitious and not afraid of investing in infrastructure and grassroots.

Let’s take a look at the current Red Bull teams around the globe:

Red Bull Salzburg

  • Red Bull took over SV Austria Slazburg in 2005.
  • They attracted a high profile coaching team in Giovanni Trappatoni and Lothar Matthaus
  • They won the league in their first season and 4 times since becoming Red Bull.
  • They won their first Austrian Cup in 2012

New York Red Bull

  • Metrostars were taken over by Red Bull in 2006.
  • Have attracted international talents such as Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, and most recently Australia’s very own, Tim Cahill.
  • They built their own purpose-built, 25,000 capacity stadium, called Red Bull Arena
  • They have made the playoffs every year but one, including their only appearance in the finals.

Red Bull Brasil

  • Created by Red Bull virtually from scratch in 2007. Started in the fourth tier of the Sao Paulo State competition.
  • Won promotion two years running in 2009 and 2010 to now be in Campeonato Paulista A2, the second tier of Sao Paulo football

RB Leipzig

  • The most recent club team established by Red Bull in 2009. They bought the licence of the 5th division team SSV Makranstadt.
  • Due to German Football League statutes they are only allowed a maximum of 49% ownership and can not have the their name in the club’s name, hence the RB.
  • They dominated their first season and won immediate promotion to the fourth tier. Finished 4th and 3rd in their last two seasons respectively.
  • Have won the Saxony Cup. A regional cup competition.
  • Expected to invest 100 million Euros in the next 10 years with the goal of reaching the Bundesliga and winning a championship for the town. It would be the first top flight championship for Leipzig in over 100 years.

Red Bull Ghana

  • Red Bull Ghana are a football club and academy originally started as a feeder club to Red Bull Salzburg.
  • They compete in Zone 3B of the Division One League.
  • The focus is on player development with coaches from Austria and Germany providing expertise.

 

This is just one possibility for A-League expansion which may or may not work. For all we know Red Bull might have absolutely no interest in investing in Australian football. Ultimately though  the A-League needs at least limited expansion and all avenues for pursuing this should be explored. After all, the more teams, the more pathways for our next generation.

Adam Howard

Adam is one of the founders of Football Central and the creator of OSAussies.com.  He has followed the career paths of Australian footballers playing in leagues all over the world.  Born in Adelaide and currently residing in Hiroshima, Adam brings a unique perspective to Australian football.  He is an ardent supporter of Australia's domestic competition and national team.

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