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Is there, in fact, a silver lining to the APL’s A-League budget cuts?

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A-League, APL, budget cuts

Australian football has a unique ability to shoot itself in the foot better than just about any other organisation worldwide. Whether this occurs when the game is flying, with wind in its sail, and momentum to push on to fulfil the potential many believe it holds, or when the game is under the pump, struggling for traction and looking for a way out of its rut. It doesn’t matter.

Shock news broke this week that the A-League’s administrators, the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), are set to cut the central funding available to the competition’s clubs next season. But is it, in actuality, a surprise?

Fans consider the APL’s administrative era as rife with financial mismanagement that’s squandered $140 million of investment. In January, half of the organisation’s staff were made redundant, notably within the APL’s media arm KeepUp, which reportedly cost some $40 million and delivered minimal ROI.

Many were left with a sour taste in their mouth. Surely, though, things couldn’t get worse? Not with the imminent expansion of Australian professional football from a single closed-off division into a two-tiered competition, the first step towards a long-desired footballing pyramid akin to every major European league.

Here we are though. Things are worse; desperately worse. According to various reports, the APL is more than likely to slash its central funding to A-League clubs by 50%. Not even a mathematician needs to tell you that half of not much equals very little. It is likely that what budget A-League clubs will operate with from 2024-25 onwards will be measly, at best.

Very quickly things have gone from very bad to worse. This potential decision has left many wondering about the financial security of Australian professional football and the suitability of the APL to run the show. Many are now, rightly, calling for an investigation into the organisation’s finances. These calls will likely go unheeded even if the footballing public demands answers on how millions of investment dollars rolled down the drain without a trace.

If it all seems doom and gloom, that’s because it is. Financially, Australian professional football is on its knees, even if the product is improving. On average, more fans attended A-League Men’s matches this season than any season from 2019-20 onward.

Both the Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix provided fans with a glimpse of what the A-League could, and should, be. The 2023-24 A-League Women’s season was the most attended season of any women’s sport in Australian history, to add a cherry to an otherwise bitter cake.

How we’ve got here matters immensely. It cannot be repeated. What happens over the next few months will be momentous for the short and long-term future of domestic Australian football. Yet, amidst the chaos, could a silver lining exist?

Are there any silver linings to the APL’s potential A-League funding cut?

It’s hard to fathom there being any positives to take away from a financial circus such as this one. Can there? If 2024 has been good for one thing, it’s the APL proving the A-League’s financial position is precarious at best.

Alongside proving the A-League’s financial position is at best precarious, 2024 has shown Australian football is back on the rise. Among other factors, crowds are up and greater talent is being produced more often.

Within it all, the Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix have risen to the top of the league on comparatively shoestring budgets and squads constructed with academy graduates and savvy investments. In short, they, alongside Adelaide United, are the new blueprint of the league.

Central Coast and Wellington are the second and third youngest squads in the A-League this season. Both sides invest in their youth. Both sides sign smartly. Both sides have a vibrant, positive connection to their fans and their local community. The same can be said for Adelaide United. Is this not what football is about?

How the Mariners, Adelaide and Phoenix operate is the silver lining of the potential looming budget cuts; more clubs operating just as they do. That is, invest in youth and sign intelligently. Seemingly, neither of the trio possesses any desire for needless marquees; footballers arriving on these shores on large contracts for a cruisy working holiday. When they sign someone, they do so for footballing purposes, not marketing.

Marquees are great when they work. They raise the levels of a side and bring casual eyeballs to the league. Think of Alessandro Del Piero and Shinji Ono in the early 2010s and Alessandro Diamanti more recently.

These days, they’re working increasingly infrequently, eating into minutes that could otherwise be afforded to a club’s academy graduates. That is a great tragedy of Australian football, one which many fans wish wasn’t the status quo. Unless they support the Mariners, or Adelaide, or the Pheonix.

Fans Australia-wide have been calling for their clubs to mirror these operations. To give the kids a chance. To invest in their academies. To produce fine footballers who can first serve their clubs on the pitch, then in the accounting books, and finally, hopefully, serve the Socceroos.

Should the APL’s potential A-League budget cuts come to fruition, clubs will likely have no option but to mirror these three clubs’ operations. Limited budgets mean limited financial pull to bring in limited marquee footballers who produce limited results and limit the minutes of academy graduates and young Australian and New Zealand footballers.

At a time when Australian football is implementing a national second division to grow in line with footballing pyramids worldwide, clubs turning to their academy for first team prosperity is another avenue down which Australian clubs can become more like their European counterparts.

FC Barcelona built their modern success off their academy’s success. Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Pedro were a few who built the club’s late 2000s and early 2010s dominance. The mantle has been carried by the likes of Gavi, Pau Cubarsi and Alejandro Balde.

A-League, Irankunda
Nestory Irankunda is one of the finest footballers Australia has ever produced

Ajax has been the same throughout its storied history. The Amsterdam club’s lineage of academy graduates extends from Johan Cruyff in the 1970s right through to Frenkie De Jong in the late 2010s. Manchester United boast a fine record of promoting academy graduates. As do Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Arsenal, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, to name a few. Football history has been defined by clubs promoting from within and succeeding.

A by-product of flooding the first team with academy products is a general increase in connectivity between club and fan, with these youth team graduates acting as the connective tissue between those who make the decisions and those who sacrifice their time and money to fervently support their club through thick and thin.

Supporters identify with kids who’ve progressed through a club’s ranks, local talents not too dissimilar to them, who would bleed for the club in the same way those in the terraces would. No Mariners fan in their right mind would question the commitment of Josh Nisbet or Jacob Farrell. Nestory Irankunda has fought tooth and nail for Adelaide, as do the rest of the Reds’ homegrown stars.

From a club’s perspective, why wouldn’t you invest in young talent? They cost nothing to sign as teenagers. Their contracts are minimal when they do begin life in the first team. And, if all goes to plan, they’ll be able to command transfer fees from overseas clubs that represent pure profit to the club.

There is no reason why Australian clubs cannot produce consistent, high-level footballers who can both excel in the A-League and ply their trade at top European clubs. Recent history has suggested the facilities are there, even if the investment is minimal.

Adelaide United have sold Nestory Irankunda to Bayern Munich for $6 million and Joe Gauci to Aston Villa. Melbourne City saw Jordan Bos leave for Belgium. Sydney FC’s Jake Girdwood-Reich is on the radar of German clubs. That’s only in the last 18 months. At a time when money is tighter than ever, such fees go a long way.

Australian clubs can afford to trust the kids. There is a greater benefit to gambling on academy products than gambling on overseas talent for the sake of having overseas talent. Improvement is greater in younger footballers than in those with skin in the game already. Egos are left at the door, footballing minds more open to education. Just as a flower needs sunlight to bloom, young footballers need time.

jordan bos
Jordan Bos

There can be no denying the shambolic administrative rut the game is in. Yet, it is often the greatest cataclysmic events that inspire the greatest evolutions. The A-League’s precarious financial position means clubs cannot afford multiple marquee players; those underperforming.

Australian football’s path out of this mess is clear; follow the blueprint drawn up by the Mariners, the Phoenix and Adelaide. Many will rightly consider the looming budget cuts as a joke. They are. But if they can be good for anything, it is to inspire greater investment into academies and embrace greater fan connectivity. That is, after all, the essence of football.

Picture of Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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