The 10 major questions the A-League and APL must answer

One of Australian football's biggest and most longstanding issues was finally addressed on Tuesday with the confirmation that, finally, Newcastle Jets had new owners, securing the club's future for at least a while.

The saga surrounding the Jets' ownership represented a mostly unedifying cloud that hung over Australian football for more than three years, but, finally, a resolution has been reached, and a team and its community have been provided some level of security.

Of course, the status of the Jets was hardly the only challenge facing the Australian top flight. Far from it.

The financial challenges that the league is facing, and its resulting shift in priorities, have been well-publicised, with the circumstances giving rise to numerous challenges that the league must face as it undergoes a shift in strategy and downsizes to better represent its current scope and position.

To that, ESPN's football writers have sat down to examine 10 of the most pressing issues facing the A-Leagues this offseason. ESPN sent this list of questions to league administrators of the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) for comment and right of reply, with the organisation responding to questions it felt able to answer amid its ongoing realigning through chief executive Nick Garcia.

1. What central distribution will clubs receive from the APL next year?

Traditionally a centrepiece of A-Leagues clubs' budgets, reports have circulated for months that the funds distributed to clubs by league organisers will be slashed ahead of next season, with multiple sources indicating to ESPN that they were operating under the assumption that the oft-cited $500k figure would be accurate.

Though initially speculated as being the result of reduced income from Paramount+ due to a failure to hit certain metric targets and the costs associated with production, SEN has since reported that the figures received by the league have not changed since a revision of the deal ahead of the 2022-23 season -- meaning that any reduction will be driven by the APL.

"As part of our ongoing, planned strategic and commercial review, the APL board met to review a number of our financial metrics and key leagues issues last month," Garcia told ESPN. "Club grants were one area under discussion. The board did not reach a resolution in its meeting. As there has been no agreement on this item any club grant values reported are purely speculative. The APL board will issue a statement when it reaches a resolution on this matter."

Unfortunately, while the uncertainty and reduced futures have impacted not only the clubs' ability to plan footballing operations for next season, redundancies for backroom and administrative staff have already taken place across the league this offseason -- good people who, once again, are paying for the strategic blunders of others.

2. Does the APL believe all clubs will remain viable through 2024-25?

Given all the noise surrounding the league, and the doom and gloom that has festered as a result, perhaps one of the most important things the league can do is let everyone know that, yes, all of its existing clubs will still exist this time next year.

The 2023-24 campaign saw existential questions hang over the future of the Jets and Canberra United for extended periods, taking focus and attention away from the football and leaving fans of these clubs disillusioned. Avoiding a repeat in 2024-25 will be ideal.

3. How close is the Canberra licence to a sale?

Speaking of Canberra, what exactly is happening with the A-League Men's mooted 14th side? When then-chief executive Danny Townsend first revealed in March of 2023 that the APL wanted to put new clubs in Canberra and Auckland for the 2024-25 season -- with new owners in the capital absorbing the existing A-League Women's side Canberra United -- a soft target of June that year was set for the awarding of licenses.

In August 2023, Townsend flagged that news on owners would arrive "in the coming weeks." In March 2024, as the saga dragged on and threatened Canberra United's existence, Garcia said the league would need answers on Canberra's status for next season "one way or the other, in the next two to three weeks."

It's now June 2024.

"We are still in discussion with a preferred consortium for an A-League licence in Canberra, but they aren't able to stand up a men's team in time for season 2024-25," Garcia told ESPN. "The ACT has a fantastic football fanbase, and we remain committed to Canberra and a 14th A-League team.

"We want to give new owners the proper runway to set up a team to ensure long-term success. The preferred consortium has the right capability -- a mix of European top-flight experience, and local Canberra knowledge and relationships -- and we continue to work with them.

"Capital Football will continue to oversee and operate Canberra United in season 2024-25. We look forward to working with Capital Football, the ACT Government and other local stakeholders in the coming months ahead of season 2024-25."

4. Who will the APL partner with to produce broadcasts in 2024-25?

First things first, it needs to be said that the APL performed a minor miracle in securing, in the middle of the AFL and NRL seasons, the services of NEP to produce A-Leagues broadcasts when previous partner Global Advance went into administration in March. An inability to provide contractually obliged broadcast content could have legitimately dealt a death blow to the competition, and officials did exceptionally well to scramble and find a solution.

NEP, however, represents the cream of the crop when it comes to sports production in Australia -- Global Advance was supposed to be the economic play in this regard, or as economic as a long-term bet on shouldering the costs of production can be -- and given the league is entering a new period of belt-tightening, questions exist over who will step in for the 2024-25 seasons.

"NEP has been a fantastic partner -- stepping in and helping a seamless transition part way through the season," said Garcia. "With the A-League Men final series now complete, we will undertake a tender process to get the best partner and the best deal possible."

5. Is there a roadmap for increasing the standard of A-League Women broadcasts?

On the subject of television, the A-League Women's Grand Final, broadcast on terrestrial television and afforded the benefits of full production, enjoyed the biggest audience in the competition's 16-season history with 279,000 viewers -- highlighting, in concert with the Matildas' effect, what can be achieved when the maximum effort is put into broadcasting of the 'Dub.

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However, the decider was just one of four games across the campaign to be televised, rather than restricted to online streaming services, and that standard of telecast was the exception rather than the norm. Most games throughout the season used limited cameras, no sideline reporters (and often just a solo caller), little-to-no pre-, half-, and post-game content, and more. Yes, games on 10Play are free and open to all, but when the league's communications are proudly trumpeting the ratings of one of the few games on terrestrial television, it can't be pretended this doesn't matter.

If money was no issue, this could easily be rectified tomorrow. But as has been well established, money is an issue for the league so that's (disappointingly) unrealistic. But with so much interest in Australian women's football coming off the Women's World Cup and the ongoing love of the Matildas, it feels almost counter-productive -- and possibly damaging to future commercial opportunities -- to not at least have a roadmap in place that will improve the visibility and quality of a property that probably has more growth potential than any other in the league's portfolio.

6. Will the APL see out its contract with Paramount?

Speculation about the relationship between the league and its broadcast partner has been rampant for what feels like years, with both parties probably failing to have their expectations met by the other since they partnered. At the same time, seemingly every other week there emerges some story surrounding the long-term viability of Paramount+, with a recent Vulture article stating that Hollywood and industry insiders consider it a "dead streamer walking." So, what's the go? It'd be nice to know given the role that television plays in ensuring the league's viability.

The most likely scenario is that the league remains with Paramount, even if the latter's streaming service undergoes some kind of reshuffling. It's invested a significant amount in recent years (more than anyone else was willing to). Perhaps the biggest indicator of this has nothing to do with the A-League at all, though, but instead, the reports that Paramount is set to sign a bumper new deal with Football Australia for the rights to national teams, the Australia Cup, the National Second Tier, and the other properties under its purview. The A-League, as it stands, can't afford to be the lone footballing offering on a platform; and with Optus and Stan not having shown the same appetite for investment, it looks like there's only one operator in town that is willing to dig into its pockets.

"Paramount has been a key partner in the continued growth in the A-Leagues," Garcia told ESPN. "This season we saw a record number of viewers tune in to watch the A-League Women; digital viewing was up 101% on 10 Play and up 113% on Paramount+ compared to last season, while the Liberty A-League 2024 Grand Final audience was up 64% on 2022-23. In the Isuzu UTE A-League Men, Network 10 audiences are up 16% on the 2022-23 season, while digital viewing is up 53% on Paramount+, and 33% on 10 Play. Additionally, the Isuzu UTE A-League 2024 Grand Final reached 1.12 million Australians with audiences up 12% year-on-year.

"We look forward to continuing to work with Paramount Australia as we continue to grow the game."

7. What is the roadmap to full-time professionalism in the A-League Women?

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ESPN's The Far Post ask whether now is the time for Matilda and A-League Women superstar Cortnee Vine to make the move overseas.

For all the talk of broadcasting, full-time professionalism remains the most critical goal for the A-League Women as it seeks to grow. The players have been calling for it for years -- a recent PFA report analysing the legacy of the Women's World Cup made it its first recommendation -- and, as Perth Glory captain Tash Rigby's decision to retire due to financial reasons shows, it's clear that this is the single most important issue facing the women's league. Further, as Cortnee Vine observed following the Grand Final, if the league is genuine in its desire to become a destination league for the world's top female talent, then it needs to present a compelling case. And that invariably starts with money and conditions.

The APL's commitment to growing and supporting the A-League Women is unequivocally one of its biggest successes since taking over the league; the introduction of a full home-and-away season was a paradigm-changing moment for the women's game in Australia, and expansion to 14 teams through the introduction of Auckland and Macarthur outfits is already planned. Compare this with the seeming lack of care and respect that the AFL is treating its own women's competition -- when it has the resourcing to do so much more -- and it's chalk and cheese.

But the APL cannot rest on its laurels. The surface of commercialisation and growth of domestic women's sport has only been scratched in recent years and by necessity, the league requires a long-term plan -- a concrete one, communicated to stakeholders -- to reach full professionalism to keep this momentum going.

8. When are we getting the oft-promised return of the Y-League?

The future of the A-League Men lies in the development of young talent who can connect with the community, earn their way into the national teams, and, importantly, eventually fetch their club a fee. It's probably the direction that the league needed to go for a while. But don't but don't take our word for it, Garcia has said the same thing.

At some point, though, if this is your focus you should probably consider bringing back a youth competition that, despite numerous promises, has been mothballed since the COVID-19 pandemic. While youth players do get valuable minutes in the National Premier Leagues, youth coaches have been crying out for years for a summer competition that not only allows them to continue to get crucial match minutes but also tests their players against the best of the best of a similar age.

Further, at what point does the conversation need to begin surrounding a youth competition for girls? Clubs are increasingly allowed more and more trainee and scholarship players on their books throughout the season but these players invariably only see the training track during the campaign. Often, their status with an A-League Women's side also prevents them from playing full seasons in their local NPL competitions -- themselves probably too short as it is. Add to this that many A-League clubs are prevented from fielding women's sides in their local NPLs and the opportunities for young players to see the field under the watchful eye of their A-League Women clubs are limited.

9. What is the APL's long-term strategy for working with various relevant authorities to ensure active supporters are encouraged and not unfairly targeted?

There has perhaps been no blow more painful for the A-Leagues than the collapse in active support across the competition, born of years of mistrust not just in league administrators but heavy-handed security and institutions whose policing of football is inherently tinged with historical views of the sport as a 'foreign' game prone to hooliganism and violence as opposed to more acceptable, dinky-di Aussie sports. The treatment of Western Sydney Wanderers, Macarthur FC, and Brisbane Roar fans, among others, illustrated this.

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The league and its clubs are caught between a rock and a hard place here because it can't dictate how authorities police games even if it's on the hook for the bill. But given that one of football's key strengths is its fans culture, it's imperative that a long-term strategy is in place to protect the league's fans, win back their trust, and bring the noise back to stadiums.

"We are exploring new initiatives and procedures with clubs and authorities to ensure we can retain the incredible atmosphere at our games whilst ensuring a safe and enjoyable environment for every fan," Garcia told ESPN.

10. Should the A-League be married into one club model as a long-term vision? Should it use the example of the NWSL and explore standalone women's sides?

Since the A-Leagues came under the stewardship of the APL, the one-club identity has been at the core of their strategy. It's the entire reason that we saw the W-League rebranded as the A-League Women.

However, observe the global growth of the women's game and what becomes increasingly apparent is that there is an investor class hungry not to invest in football, but women's football specifically. South Korean businesswoman Michele Kang, for instance, is the majority owner of Washington Spirit in the NWSL and Olympique Lyonnais Féminin. The most commercially successful women's football side in the world is Angel City in the NWSL, whose entire strategy revolves around being a women's football club and a women's football club alone (yes, being in Los Angeles and having a horde of celebrities as investors helps).

Further, the relatively lower cost base of the A-League Women could, ostensibly, open the door to new investors and clubs within Australia to explore entry into the competition. South Melbourne, as a hypothetical example, is the primary tenant of a Lakeside Stadium that has often served as a host for A-League Women's games and a well-established women's program. If they can invest in and field a side that could meet the requirements of the A-League Women -- both now and in the future -- why stop them?