A-League targeting Canberra and Auckland for expansion in 2024

The A-League has targeted Canberra and Auckland as its next two markets for expansion, seeking to add teams from Australia and New Zealand for the 2024-25 season, before adding a further two for the 2025-26 campaign.

Earmarking their two target cities after analysing 13 possible locations for expansion, competition administrators the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) have set a soft target of June to finalise the awarding of licenses to operate a new Canberra and Auckland franchise with the intention for both to have a 12-month preparation to enter a 14-team, 26-round, home-and-away A-League Men season in 2024-25.

Current plans then envision a further two new franchises entering for the 2025-26 season, bringing the men's season up to a 16-team, 30-round, home and away season, with the two successful candidates likely to be drawn from the next-best options from the 13 locations analysed.

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"We've got a very clear growth strategy ahead of us," APL CEO Danny Townsend said. "We raised the capital with Silver Lake to invest in the game and the time is now for doing that.

"Part of that is around bringing more football to more communities. The club landscape in Australia is always going to go through varying degrees of change. I think what we're focused on is building really strong sustainable football clubs into the future and we definitely think Canberra and Auckland fit that bill."

The move to expand comes at a perilous time for the Australian top flight with the leagues still repairing the fiscal inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with fan anger over its decision to sell hosting rights to its Grand Finals to Sydney. The Newcastle Jets have been without an owner since in 2021, propped up instead by investment from rival clubs.

In contrast to the open-tender process run by the Football Australia administration during the expansion process that saw Western United and Macarthur FC enter the league, planners at the APL examined criteria such as potential unique fan base, stadia, and the competition's footprint during their analysis before identifying Canberra and Auckland, locations described as being "head and shoulders" above the rest, as its next destinations.

Though new markets were the priority for 2024-25, Townsend confirmed that the potential for more derbies, rivalries, and competition would be explored for subsequent entrants.

The APL has now engaged with local stakeholder groups and investors to begin to establish the framework of a club and enable them to "hit the ground running," to the extent that training ground and stadium agreements may be made in principle before the new licenses are awarded.

Investors both local and international would be welcomed by the league, which already features two clubs that possess investment from multinational football groups in Melbourne City (City Football Group) and Melbourne Victory (777 Partners).

"Our time in market in both Canberra and Auckland has actually strengthened our resolve and conviction around those two markets," said APL CEO Danny Townsend. "Theoretically, sometimes data tells you one thing but the stakeholder support is not there but they both have probably been overwhelming in their support.

"There's no shortage of interested investors, both domestically and internationally. I think we would really love a consortium of owners of both teams that have local interests and potentially foreign football interests.

"We're lucky that our sport is a global game and there is a penchant there for the best football clubs in the world to own more football clubs and having that opportunity to strengthen the game in Australia and New Zealand is something that we shouldn't ignore."

Townsend was also very clear that the current expansion process would also extend to the women's game, part of expansion efforts that will see the A-League Women grow to 12 teams in 2023-24 and adopt a full home-and-away season.

This commitment, however, does raise questions about the Canberran expansion.

Though it doesn't have an ALM program, the ACT does already have a successful presence in the A-League Women's through Canberra United, which is run by the local member association Capital Football. Two-time champions and three-time premiers, the club possesses its own colours, fanbase, traditions, and legacy as a lone standalone women's football program in the top flight.

"Logic would suggest that says value being built up in IP, then you want to keep it and evolve it," said Townsend. "We're in conversation with Capital Football about what that means for the future.

"We've been really careful on the way, our first port of call on expansion was Capital Football, to sit down with them and talk about what bringing A-League football for men means for the women's competition as well.

"They've been on the journey with us. We'll work through how that transitions and when, but they're certainly supportive."

The APL's efforts to grow Australian football's footprint also come at the same time that Football Australia is seeking to introduce a long-anticipated National Second Tier (NST) in 2024, last week announcing the 32 entities that had submitted EOIs.

Both Johnson and Townsend have spoken of the need for collaboration and a desire for the two competitions to complement each other, with the former saying last week that "we don't want it competing with the A-League."

However, much of the value of an A-Leagues licence revolves around the exclusive access to the top-tier that it provides and the imminent presence of both an NST and a Football Australia CEO that has a stated desire to unite the pyramid -- Johnson confirmed to ESPN in 2021 that A-Leagues club's licences did not prevent their relegation -- represents a stark difference to the last time the A-League expanded.

Nonetheless, with the competition still yet to announce its inaugural makeup or model, Townsend said the presence of an NST hadn't affected their work on expansion.

"The NST, we don't know what that is in terms of structure. We don't know when it's going to be played," said Townsend.

"We're supportive, we've been public in our support for more high-level club football in this country, and if that paves the way for a connection into the pyramid, and we've always said that that's something that we support.

"I think you've got to understand what that landscape looks like before you can start building out strategy, and people are keen to see how that plays out; anytime you make decisions that affect the professional game in this country, [you need] well-informed information."