Football Australia CEO James Johnson says he is enthusiastic about the "exciting" prospect of the NRL's Cronulla Sharks investing in a club in his organisation's new national second tier, welcoming any investment that is willing to buy into the competition's "DNA."
The Sharks were revealed as a party to one of 32 expressions Football Australia received to take part in a second division, joining forces with NPL NSW club the Sutherland Sharks to bring national league football back to Shark Park for the first time since Sydney Olympic's brief stint as the Olympic Sharks during the old National Soccer League.
An official from the Sharks confirmed to the Sydney Morning Herald that the club had an interest in involvement in the second tier, while Sutherland Sharks president Rob Sauer told the paper that they "have entered the expression of interest and that's all we can say at this stage."
"It was one name that brought a smile to my face when I saw it," Johnson said on Tuesday. "It caught me off guard. I had a pretty good feel for most of the clubs, but that was a surprise to me. I'm pretty excited and I think we should be welcoming this.
"[Sutherland is] a region that is huge in terms of our participation numbers. Rugby League plays in a rectangular facility, which is good for us because that's what creates energy and excitement in a game, if you get the right stadium.
"They've got financial backing behind them. And they've partnered with one of our biggest associations. So I think that's an exciting combination that you know we'd like to explore, so the door is open to them."
Olympic, who also lodged their own EOI as a standalone entity, was not the only NSL club to partner with rival codes during the dying days of the NSL: AFL outfits Carlton and Collingwood possessing stakes in the ill-fated Carlton SC and the Collingwood Warriors entities that entered the league in the 1990s.
"We would need to look at that in the EOI analysis," Johnson said when asked about concern over rival code investment. "We're not going to put the game in a position where we're going to include clubs that aren't sustainable.
"But I think that we need to look at the model. I don't think that's a bad thing. I'd rather have the option on the table than not and we'll explore it but as per my answer before the door's open. I think it's an exciting concept we need to look at."
This open-mindedness from the executive also extends to the potential of foreign investment in the league. Three-time national champions Adelaide City announced a partnership with Serie A side Atalanta alongside their EOI. At the same time, former Newcastle Jets striker Daniel McBreen has indicated Valentine FC has received overseas backing.
"If we talk about multi-club ownership and opening up investment from foreign owners into the second tier, yes, we would be open to that," said Johnson. "But we need to remember that the DNA of the second tier will be different from the A-League.
"There's a bit of a balancing act on foreign ownership interest. As far as we're concerned, as foreign interest would buy into the DNA of the competition; which is a competition that is rooted in community and also there to promote the development of young Australian players, then I see no reason why we wouldn't open that door."
Meanwhile, Johnson also confirmed that while the federation would not "close the door" on Sydney United entering any second tier, recent controversies surrounding the club would be considered in analysing their bid.
A former NSL power and one of the most-successful nurturers of future Socceroos in the local game's history, the club was heavily sanctioned by the federation over the behaviour of some of its fans during the final of the Australia Cup, behaviour which saw three spectators charged under a new law banning the display of Nazi symbols in NSW this week.
"We wanted to make this process open to as many clubs as possible," said Johnson. "The door was never closed to Sydney United and we want to keep that door open.
"Having said that, we do have some challenges with the club. Mainly around the Australia Cup final last year, which we're still working through with that club. We've got to work through that judicial process with the club, and the club needs to understand that some of the behaviours we saw at the Australia Cup final would not be welcome in the second tier.
"Does that exclude them from this competition? No, it doesn't, but it is a relevant factor."