History as a Roadblock

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The Australian football community has waited with anticipation for the release of the Joe Gorman tome looking at the history of the national league in Australia from the National Soccer League to the current A-League. The book, “Death and Life of Australian Soccer” has received high praise since early copies began to make their way into the public domain. It is no surprise, as Gorman is arguably the most gifted writer of his generation in the realm of sports. Anyone familiar with his work, would know that reading one of his offerings is a journey. His gift of being able to transport you into the subject’s time and space so you can empathise and understand their experience, is rare and precious.

Recently, an excerpt of his book was released which touched on promotion and relegation. It’s been a topic of discussion for decades but no more than now, thanks to social media allowing opinions and ideas to be discussed and shared easily. Gorman’s book is a look at the whole history of national league football and not a book dedicated to the structure of the system so it is to no surprise the excerpt on promotion and relegation isn’t given the attention to detail one would expect from a focused Gorman piece. However, the topic is hot right now so that’s why it was selected as an excerpt.

The excerpt gave a brief run down of the short history of promotion and relegation with a basic conclusion that despite it being the fairest and most democratic system that it couldn’t work within the Australian framework. Naturally with such a topic, the reactions from those for and against the open tier system responded passionately. Gorman himself made his position clear in a tweet declaring promotion and relegation “insane” which provoked even more reactions.

Anti-pro/rel people took the excerpt to be an irrefutable revelation that they could hang their hats on as to why pro/rel couldn’t work in Australia; pro-pro/rel people took it as an attack on the principles of promotion and relegation and their fight for a more egalitarian system. Anyone who knows their history could see that aspects of the time that there was a pro/rel system were omitted and there was little or no context given. Anyone that knows about the sporting landscape and history of football administration, knows that nothing is easy especially reforms as massive as opening the football pyramid. Gorman never meant to cover everything on this topic in detail because the pro/rel period had been such a small footnote in the history of the game and so he appears to have treated it as such.

It is important given the current situation involving the FFA, FIFA,PFA, State federations, Australian Professional Football Clubs Association, and the Association of Australian Football Clubs (NPL) that the excerpt is looked at more closely and given more context. Moves are underway to give more of a voice to the various stakeholders in the game and FIFA and the AFC are watching closely. The AAFC are particularly interested in the formation of a second division with eventual pro/rel, so it is important that the information we have out there is as accurate as possible so the discussion can be had from a more informed perspective.

Let’s take a look at sections of the excerpt and analyse what was said beyond what Gorman himself was able to do given the restrictive  circumstances he was working with.

He stated the demand  for promotion/relegation “has come from many of the soccer journalists, spectators and, especially, the exiled former NSL clubs.” Joe admits widespread support from the media and football fans for promotion/relegation which is a good start for it to work. Without the support on the ground, almost any system will be doomed to failure.

His claims are supported by polls run by Fox Football on social media (as seen below) as well as other outlets and general discussion. He is correct that many former NSL clubs would like the opportunity to earn their way back to the national league, it doesn’t stop there though with the AAFC having around 120 member clubs from NPL competitions around Australia. A driving force for them is to see the formation of a second division with eventual promotion and relegation.


Having such widespread support from all sectors, especially the national broadcaster of the game is something that gives the right model a chance of working. Goodwill isn’t enough for anything to work and the AAFC as well as the PFA are looking into models for a second division with eventual promotion and relegation.

In the NSL it was mostly a managed process, with clubs such as Canberra, Newcastle, Wollongong and South Melbourne all deemed too important to be relegated, at least at one point in time.

When that advice was ignored, the 1980s proceeded as the most democratic and open decade in national league history. It was also the decade when attendances dipped as low as the hundreds and soccer all but died as a commercial product.

In the above, Gorman once again correctly points out that the “promotion and relegation” process was a managed one which had exemptions and conditions that one generally wouldn’t find in other examples of open models.

“Most years, 1978 to the early 90s had some form of promotion/relegation but teams only dropped if there were clear candidates for promotion that passed financial and/or playing strength criteria,” Australian football historian and statician Andrew Howe explained.

The process was used more of a way to build the commercial viability of the league by picking and choosing who participated in it rather than as a reward or penalty for clubs depending on how they performed on and off the pitch. When a process is perverted and manipulated away from it’s natural purpose it will become corrupted and messy.

This is a problem that Australian football still faces today with it’s administration. Much of the game at the top is controlled and manufactured so that it doesn’t allow “nature to take it’s course”.  There is an intrinsic fear of allowing the game or clubs to grow beyond the control of our leadership who routinely choose the ownership over guardianship of the game route.

“The late 80s/early 90s was the most ‘traditional’ pro/rel system,” said Howe.

“The bottom two NSL clubs dropped, replaced by champions of NSW (NSW, Northern NSW and the ACT) and champions of Victoria, Queensland and South Australia (in a playoff) provided they met financial criteria and of course wanted to be promoted.

“It was always very messy.”

There has never been a national second division in Australia which is a crucial aspect to most promotion/relegation systems around the world as it makes it very clear to all involved where trams are heading and how they get there. The system employed by ASF was more an expansion policy the likes of which we see when new A-League teams have been admitted and expelled.

Attendances were also touched on. This is always an interesting topic because really only in Australia and the US is such importance placed on attendances from a league standpoint. Attendances are the issues of individual clubs to worry about rather than as a league issue. The attendance of Inter Monaro shouldn’t have an impact on South Melbourne, just as AFC Bournemouth don’t benefit from the attendance figures at Old Trafford. The popularity of bigger clubs is good for smaller clubs as they will benefit from league sponsorship and broadcast revenue which is shared. However, as far as I know, clubs collect their own attendance revenue and aren’t obligated to share it.

This aside, is it fair to infer it was the fault of promotion and relegation for small crowds? It seems to be an oversimplification of the times. As Andrew Howe stated, there has been some form of “promotion/relegation from 1978 to the early 90s, however over this period the league fluctuated from fourteen clubs to 16 to 24 to 13 back to fourteen. It went from not having finals to having finals to no finals and back to finals. It went from being a single league to a two conference system and then back to a single league. The league moved from winter to summer. There was some change or another during this whole period which is always going to create uncertainty amongst stakeholders and the fan base. The clubs themselves were under constant attack from the federation over their branding and origins. This instability and chopping and changing of the league makeup not just participating teams gave an impression of incompetence and turned the national league into a circus.

Looking at attendance figures, the late 70s or beginning of the NSL had solid numbers particularly in the second year, 1978 (approx. 4800). From 1980 to 1988, the attendances varied from 2800 to 3500. The introduction of summer football in 1989/90 saw an average of just over 3500 which was around 700 up on the season before.

One aspect of promotion and relegation that can have an effect on league attendance figures is that the teams competing changes from year to year, presumably most fans follow those movements. It happens in most leagues with promotion and relegation. In 2015/16, the English Premier League average attendance was 36,452 and the English Championship was 17,583. The following season with the relegation of well-supported clubs Aston Villa and Newcastle United, the EPL average dropped to 35,822 while the Championship average rose to 20,119. The same scenario in Germany, in 2015/16, the Bundesliga attendance was 43,300 and 2.Bundesliga was 19,155. That season one of the largest supported clubs VfB Stuttgart was relegated which helped see a rise in attendance to 21,785 while the Bundesliga average dropped to 41,511, the following season.

In an open system, this is a temporary condition as clubs have a clearly defined path back to the top. All hope isn’t lost by fans and investors don’t automatically feel compelled to bail out. It is at this point that the “cultural” argument is brought out. Promotion and relegation exists in many sports within Australia outside the top tier so many Australian sport’s fans and participants have direct experience with the concept. The majority of football fans follow clubs in leagues around the world which have promotion and relegation and some have even experienced the heartbreak of their team going down. Suggesting that it is an alien concept to Australians is a lazy argument made from convenience to avoid actually discussing the merits of it.

Culture is also a constantly evolving reflection of society and in many areas including sport. Remember it isnt that long ago when the prevailing voice in Australia was that the game of football itself wasn’t suited to “Australian” culture. This has always been more wishful thinking by a segment of Australian culture who refused to see the true unifying nature of football that saw it for decades be the most played football code across the nation.

The Bradley Report’s recommendations in 1990 were, for many people, a statement of the bleeding obvious: promotion and relegation brought a cluster of teams from the rich, populous cities of Sydney and Melbourne at the expense of a true national spread, and that it “had the effect of teams concentrating their time and resources on the field and neglecting such areas as the development of facilities and their spectator base”.

The above passage offers two interesting points involving league composition and use of resources. It highlights an issue we face today where the off-field aspect of the sport is placed above the onfield and how it is hindering the development of the game. The commercial aspect is crucial to all modern sports but it needs to be balanced. One would have to assume that if clubs are focusing on their onfield performance, it would lead to a more attractive “product” and this would mean more people watching, it’d also mean players getting better who then can be sold on for profit. Viduka’s sale allowed the Melbourne Knights to build a stand.

As mentioned before, some form of promotion and relegation existed in the NSL from 1978 to the early 90s but as was pointed out it was far from a traditional system. The excerpt from the Bradley Report cited by Gorman suggests that pro/rel was responsible for causing a “cluster of teams from the rich populous cities of Sydney and Melbourne” whilst having the doubling effect of causing the reader to be fearful of that happening again if it is reintroduced. There’s little to support this domestically or even internationally.

Forgetting for a second that there was never a second division with a table to indicate who should be promoted, let’s just look at the composition of the league over this period. Instead of just looking at Sydney and Melbourne teams versus Other Cities, let’s look at NSW and Victoria versus Other States. From 1977 to 1986, there were 5 states teams out of fourteen. Between 1986 and 1994/95 seasons there no more than 3 Other States sides and in a couple of seasons Adelaide City was the only Other State representative. It wasn’t until 1997/98 that the league once again had 5 clubs from outside of Victoria and NSW which was 5 seasons after the last “promotion and relegation” season.

If promotion and relegation were brought in in it’s truest form would it cause a league to naturally form which was made up of exclusively Sydney and Melbourne sides? One can only speculate but by looking at teams from major cities in leagues around the world, this tends to not be the case:

Serie A – Rome and Milan have two teams each.

Bundesliga – Munich has one team and Berlin has one team.

La Liga – Barcelona and Madrid both have two teams.

Premier League – London has five teams.

Ligue 1 – Paris has one team.

Scottish Premier League – Glasgow has three teams and Edinburgh has two.

Jleague – Tokyo has one team and Osaka has two.

Looking at the ten team Aleague, there are four clubs outside of Victoria and NSW and one of them is not an Australian side.  Five out of the nine Australian sides are from outside Sydney and Melbourne which is a good percentage compared to the period during “promotion and relegation” but the most non-Sydney and Melbourne teams represented during the national league was eight during the Conference system.

The report commissioned by Professional Footballers Australia in 2002 recommended clubs be included on the basis of market share and geographic spread, which implicitly excludes the meritocracy and the unknown of promotion and relegation.

The NSL Task Force, which delivered its report in 2003, made it explicitly clear that “the optimum number of clubs will be determined by market forces and the capacity of the key markets to support a team that meets the necessary criteria and benchmarks”, and that investors would have “certainty of tenure in the early seasons of the League and not be subject to a system of promotion and relegation”.

These two paragraphs explain how the so-called promotion and relegation worked during the NSL period. Teams were chosen on what the league thought they’d bring commercially and were often chosen from key markets. David Gallop himself has said “fish where the fish are” and Fox Sports has an expansion bonus for the FFA if they expand in either Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

Nowhere else in the world has such a perfect storm of problems that would prevent a successful implementation. Few countries have equalisation measures such as the salary cap, which in the event of promotion and relegation would have to be immediately scrapped.

No country has so many other professional codes of football to compete with, along with such huge distances and such a small population base.

No other country has such enormous and unresolved questions around the identity of its best lower-league clubs. No other game in Australia has been so transformed by the mercenary demands of modern sport. Soccer is now in the era of showbiz.

Gorman mentions equalisation methods as though they are set in stone Commandments unable to be reworked or removed. There is enough research and papers out there which question the effectiveness of the methods, including from the author used himself, the PFA.

The entire industry of professional sport in Australia will continue to be governed not by fairness or tradition or merit, but by the promise of huge television rights deals and corporate sponsorship.

Joe is correct here. However, it isn’t an argument against promotion and relegation. One need only look at the investment in clubs in lower leagues around the world to see that an open system increases revenue streams and growth. In closed leagues, where is the value? Without a clear pathway to the top competition, every club in the lower tier is nothing more than a seed in arid land hidden by fake plastic trees.

Promotion and relegation would imperil each of these fundamental requirements. Most of all, promotion and relegation would challenge the economic, conceptual, social and cultural foundations that helped create the A-League. It would bring an end to the cartel.

This is not a negative. There’s a reason anti-competition laws exist and it goes beyond fairness. Cartels and monopolies cause stagnation within industries, without the necessary competitive incentives consumers have to make do with what they’ve got. This is what we see from fan in the Aleague now and one of the key reasons calls for promotion and relegation are growing even amongst those whose teams will be put at risk. It is why despite the unprecedented investment in football, we are being caught up on the pitch by our rivals. Attendances and ratings are stagnating, forcing the FFA to create lopsided schedules in order to generate high attendnace and rating rounds in hope of creating a buzz. It’s all built on a false economy which is the trademark of closed, centrally-controlled systems.

To try and reverse-engineer promotion and relegation into the competition would return soccer to its role of trying to change Australian culture, rather than simply fitting in. And for the past couple of decades, there has been no greater desire in Australian soccer than to fit in.

This paragraph takes us back to earlier assertions by Joe that the media, spectators and clubs want promotion and relegation. When he mentions “Australian soccer” he is referring to the administrators more than any other group. This again is correct from Joe but we are moving on from the dictatorial role of sports administration in the past. People through social media, through shared experience are changing and evolving as is the culture. It is not just an idyllic dream of a romanticist but a real movement being driven from the ground up unlike anything we have seen before in our game. Joe can call it “insane”, many things that have been unknown or not understood have been.

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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