April 9, 2013

Foxtel support makes perfect business sense but it’s time to stop taking from the amateur game

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Monday’s announcement from Foxtel that they are investing more than $20 million in grassroots development in Australia is big news for many reasons and continues the ‘honeymoon’ for FFA CEO, David Gallop.

Officially announced by Foxtel CEO, Richard Freudenstein along with Gallop, the stage-managed event at FOX Sports’ new headquarters was attended by the most heavyweight of corporate heavyweights, News Ltd Chairman Rupert Murdoch as well as Telstra CEO, David Thodey. Murdoch’s and Thodey’s presence must have been a thrill for Frank Lowy. The FFA Chairman and Murdoch are close, and Lowy has long tried to encourage his fellow octogenarian to become more involved in football locally. Lowy’s absence was conspicuous, but he did not attend because he was overseas.

The $20 million over four years appears to encompass three elements:

  • Sponsorship of the newly formed Foxtel All Stars – the ‘fan engaged’ team that will play Manchester United in Sydney in July and looks set to become an almost-annual event
  • Sponsorship of the National Youth League
  • A new Foxtel All Stars Ambition program which includes an All-Stars Academy spearheaded by Tim Cahill and an All Stars Ambition Tour.

While News Ltd will no doubt reap significant commercial reward from its relationship with the All-Stars v Manchester United match, what is of most interest is their investment in young players.

The battle for elite players is a critical area of competition between sports and any measures that help make football more attractive, more competitive and more financially sustainable in the eyes of young, elite players are welcome.

Sponsorship of the National Youth League is an initiative that every A-League club will appreciate. When the national youth competition was re-introduced in 2008 – after earlier being left to wither early in the Lowy administration due to funding constraints – it was imposed on clubs without any financial recompense. Australia’s most successful youth team coach, Les Scheinflug, says we are paying the price now in the Socceroos for the five year hiatus in appropriate level youth competition in the period from 2004 to 2008.

Described by one A-League CEO as the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” each year financially, clubs will welcome a contribution to their costs for the NYL as a just reward for persevering with it over the past five seasons. It also provides certainty for the competition which many see as fundamental to the future development of the game.

Putting aside the rather clumsy name, the second welcome element is the Foxtel All-Stars Ambition program that appears to have both a grassroots and elite development aspect to it.

From a participation perspective, 1,000 kids will be invited to participate in 10 2-day clinics around Australia based on their capacity to share their football story. These clinics will be built around, and in conjunction with, the Tim Cahill Coaching Clinics. It is good to see News Ltd and Cahill are friends again.

Kids who play football love telling their story: we did this for the international launch of Australia’s World Cup Bid in December 2009 also, and FFA was inundated with young players who were eloquent and articulate in speaking of their passion for football as mini-ambassadors for the Australian Bid in Cape Town for a week.

From an elite player perspective, 30 boys and girls aged 10-15 years will be selected to participate in a specially created one-week academy to take place during the A-League season. Freudenstein said this was for “future potential superstars who might otherwise not get an opportunity to develop their skills” which suggests it is for kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds and who might yet be part of the talent identification system. It is unclear how they will be selected.

Foxtel’s investment should also be seen in light of other significant developments over the past few days.

On Monday, the Financial Review revealed that News Ltd’s Kim Williams wants to achieve greater integration of the sports offering between News Ltd tabloids and online and FOX Sports television and online. The strategic driver for this was another report in the same newspaper by John Stensholt that showed the new Media divisions of both the AFL and NRL have enjoyed significant growth at the expense of the traditional news sources of News Ltd and Fairfax. The AFL claims that is the most popular sports site in the country.

FFA has also had strong growth in its fledgling in-house online media operations, which are a joint venture with Optus. FFA insiders say that there has been noticeable growth since the arrival of Michael Cockerill as editorial director and that is already the most popular football site in the country, outranking the former powerhouse

Finally, the CSIRO has just released a report on The future of sports: megatrends shaping the sports sector over coming decades which notes that football is the team sport “that seems to be most on the rise”, not least for the reason that many of us have known forever – and that’s because of its cultural diversity and global appeal.

From Foxtel’s perspective, tapping into football’s large and growing youth demographic – and their mum’s and dad’s – makes perfect business sense.

But as much as this support from Foxtel is welcome, it does not yet address a fundamental inequity in the game: the cost of grassroots participation and who’s bearing it.

For a grassroots club to be accredited by FFA, they must have fully accredited coaches. These are people who are already giving up their time on at least one day a week and on the weekend – but they’re also expected to pay for their coaching certificates. It may be easy for coaches in Point Piper or Tamarama to meet these costs; it’s tougher on mums or dads in many other areas of Australia who have a household budget and other priorities to manage.

Plus there are thousands and thousands and thousands of players of all ages who continue to subsidise overall FFA operations, as well as those of their state federation.

The time has come for the professional game to stop taking from the amateur game.

This can start this winter season either by way of meeting the costs of coaching courses for grassroots coaches – who are predominantly drawn from parental or senior player ranks – or by elimination altogether of the national registration levy.

Eventually, of course, it should be both.


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