Did you know that, back in 1977, a lead balloon really did fly? Entering a contest set up by chemist Jim Birkett, a team in Boston constructed a zeppelin-looking contraption of lead foil covering a cylindrical wooden frame and, after an unfortunate gust of wind broke its restraints, watched it sail away towards the Atlantic Ocean. Science!
Needless to say, though, the Australian Professional Leagues' (APL) announcement that three A-League Men's (ALM) and A-League Women's (ALW) Grand Finals had been sold to New South Wales for a reported eight-figure sum did not soar into the stratosphere. No, almost as soon as the news broke, it would be much more accurate to say it went down in the same manner that most would expect a lead balloon to go.
Indeed, though APL chief executive Danny Townsend said in multiple media appearances that the leagues had braced themselves for fan backlash, it's hard to imagine they could have anticipated the sheer volume and ferocity of the feedback that eventuated.
So visceral was it that, whether motivated by a sense of self-preservation in the face of the malevolent maelstrom bearing down on them or out of genuine feelings of dissent, some within the A-Leagues' tent broke ranks and were distancing themselves or outright condemning the move within hours. This is despite clubs, nominally, all having an ownership stake in the APL and a say in the process -- they're Townsend's boss, not the other way around. There is a scheduled meeting between club owners this week and Monday's events will no doubt be top of the agenda.
By day's end, Socceroos World Cup hero Craig Goodwin and Matildas striker Remy Siemsen had actively disavowed the decision to sell Sydney the Grand Finals after footage of both players was initially used to promote it. Active supporter groups from Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City, meanwhile, were promising walkouts at the 20th minute of Saturday's Melbourne Derby. It was open revolt.
I wanted to clear things up publicly. I may be in the video for the @aleaguemen choice to host Grand Finals in Sydney, but I do not support it.— Craig Goodwin (@craig_goodwin11) December 12, 2022
I am a player, but I am also a fan. pic.twitter.com/e451tZcR98
Judging from their activity, tone, and sometimes their outright saying it, fans that had backed the league through thick and thin were now at a breaking point. They felt alienated, ignored, and taken for granted. There was anger, and they weren't interested in anyone telling them otherwise. In a way, the level of unity was remarkable.
Of course, for their part, the league did try to talk it out. Townsend conducted a curated question-and-answer session on the leagues' official channels and hit media street to defend the move, declaring it part of a bold long-term plan that will feature more events added around the Grand Finals and the dates becoming marquee events on the calendar.
"We did some fan focus groups, none of what you're reading or seeing on social media this morning didn't come out in those sessions, it was very clear that fans' initial reactions would be 'this is crazy,'" he told The Global Game.
"The easy thing for me to do as the CEO and from an APL board perspective is to do nothing and just keep doing the same thing and expect change to happen organically.
"We're not going to get everything right, but this one we believe is in the best interest of the long-term sustainability of the league and its major event strategy."
"Sustainability" is key there, as it's impossible to escape the thinking that this move, first and foremost, is financial -- no matter what else is said. Eight figures over three years are incredibly difficult to turn down and the APL -- coming out of COVID and needing capital to fund its ongoing operations and future projects -- probably couldn't.
But the A-Leagues have lost the perception battle surrounding the announcement. It's a rout. Fans are livid, and they're not buying Townsend's reasoning. If it doesn't bow to crushing pressure to reverse course -- which it doesn't appear it will -- the league operator's best (only) hope is that it can somehow deliver on the promises it's made surrounding the Grand Final and the events staged around to turn it into a celebration.
Perhaps it will work. The league clearly thinks it will. And crow has been on the menu of a lot of people recently, what with the Socceroos defying expectations to reach the round of 16 in Qatar. But it's going to take a lot of effort and tangible evidence, as opposed to spin, from the APL before they fire up BBQ again. Fans aren't going to give them the benefit of the doubt or assist them with this. They'll call out a Football Fyre Festival.
Yet beyond this, even if the move proves a commercial masterstroke that earned squillions and enraptured millions, it's also worth examining the angst surrounding the Australian footballing system and its relationship with commercial factors and sporting merit that Monday's events has again highlighted. It's an important reminder, because everything that revolves around the game in this country ultimately comes back to what happens on the pitch.
At first glance, the on-field-specific ramifications can be easily minimised with quick wit and a thorough briefing. Clubs that finish first will still be able to claim a Premiers' Plate for their cabinet and receive priority for Australia's slots in Asian continental competition. All this is doing is moving the location of a final to a nominally neutral venue, as happens with major games throughout the world.
In a broader context, however, the decision to remove a proper home-ground advantage for the most consistently outstanding team in the regular season represents another nod to finances and marketability over sporting merit when it comes to how the game is organised.
As currently structured, the A-Leagues operate without relegation; one of football's core disincentives for poor performance almost since its foundation. There exists a salary cap that, as designed, is supposed to ensure parity.
The fixture is uneven, with some teams playing each other twice and others three times, and that slate is heavily weighted towards commercial factors such as maximising derbies and rivalries. The season's length, from a footballing perspective, is widely considered too short, and Socceroos boss Graham Arnold again called for the ALM to be extended as a matter of urgency during Australia's campaign in Qatar.
Half the men's league's 12 teams make finals, themselves an equalisation measure, and now, with this move, the difference between finishing first and finishing sixth becomes even less pronounced.
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None of this is new information. It was a model that was established by Football Australia almost 20 years ago. Most of these factors exist, we are told, because of the league's place in the Australian sporting landscape, as well as the need to attract capital, find profit, and make the league a sustainable investment platform for existing and new benefactors. They're the tradeoffs that are required to ensure a professional league survives and appeals to the market.
But multiple things can be true at once. And even if deemed necessary, any moves that reduce jeopardy, lessen incentives for good performances, or warp perceptions of success, no matter how small, will also inevitably bleed in some manner into how teams approach what happens on the pitch. It's inescapable, we are all products of our environment.
Monday's announcement, slicing off a sliver of the carrot for sustained excellence, is another subconscious step towards good enough being, well, good enough. The prevailing paradigm in the A-Leagues already leans towards pragmatic football where risk is minimised and certain players are prioritised over others. And now, a fourth-place finish comes with less adversity than before, especially if one is a Sydney-based team.
This matters, as how players, coaches, and football departments respond to periods of stress, hardship, and changing circumstances is inevitably conditioned by their surroundings and perceptions of success. Bravery and willingness to embrace risk in high-stakes circumstances, even if somewhat innate, can be boosted with experience. But a lack of vulnerability and the relative simplicity of attaining something akin to success, conversely, can dull these instincts.
And as the A-Leagues is the breeding ground for future Socceroos and Matildas, then the circumstances of players and coaches at clubland will inevitably have a subsequent effect on the national teams.
That is the inherent conflict that exists in Australian football: the trade-off. Monday's move alone is small in a footballing vacuum, but it's all linked. Surviving off the pitch ensures the ability to put something on it, but it also inherently affects what is produced. The APL's latest move may unlock a door that leads to a path where the money is there to make all the game's wildest competitive dreams come true. Given that it appears to be full steam ahead, hopefully it does.
But remember, it's all linked.