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Another Government Review of Australian Soccer

2011 May 1
by Robert Macdonald

Last week, Australian government Minister for Sport, Senator Mark Arbib announced another Australian government review in to the affairs of Australian association football (soccer).  To be conducted by the head of the Australian Sports Commission, Mr Warwick Smith, the review will:

assess the structure, governance and administration of football in Australia, examine the development of its positioning for the Asian Cup [to be held in Australia in 2015] and identify key opportunities to ensure the financial viability and sustainability of football in Australia. It will be conducted in conjunction with, and with the support of, the FFA [Football Federation Australia].

 The FFA emphasised preparedness for the Asian Cup as a central focus of the review, rather than general questions of the fitness of the current administration.  Meanwhile, the Professional Footballers’ Association of Australia was quick to highlight the breadth of the review.  Irrespective of viewpoint, it is curious that the Australian government is driving yet another review of Australian soccer, for an extensive government instigated review led to the 2003 report of the Crawford Committee, which had the similar mandate to:

examine the structure, management and governance of soccer in Australia. It is to make recommendations for restructuring and improvement, and provide a plan for implementation of those recommendations.

The Crawford Committee report was the prelude to the creation of the FFA to replace the former National Sporting Organisation, Soccer Australia (essentially a legal maneuver to allow the national sporting organisation to step away from substantial debts incurred by an inept administration riddled with conflicts of interest) and the creation of the A-League to replace the former National Soccer League.  These 2003 reforms were the Australian government pretext for a $15 million (AUD) bailout of the sport, a later $32 million in funding for the sport at large, plus an additional $45 million in government funding for a Quixotic tilt at securing the 2018 or 2022 FIFA World Cup (Australia got one vote in the 2022 ballot). Perhaps then, the review is unsurprising. After all, $98 million could build a roof over the head of a lot of homeless people.

Some in Australian soccer seen to think the ‘world game’ is the sleeping giant of Australian sport. Certainly it has  a massive participant base.  Others in the Australia government seem to see it as a national priority.  Perhaps it is time the sport was recognised for what it is—a second or third tier sport in the Australian sporting landscape. Australian soccer must surely be ranked a long way behind Australian football, rugby league and cricket, maybe just above or at about the same level as rugby union, netball and basketball.  

The review does raise interesting questions for those interested in the ‘law & economics’ of league and sport governance.  Opinions differ on the optimal (or at least most desirable) relationship between (i) the participant clubs in an elite-level league, (ii) competition organisers in those leagues, and (iii) national governing bodies in those sports.  Many well-regarded scholars advocate a separation of the national governing body role from that of the competition organiser role.  This was exactly the recommendation of Crawford Committee in 2003; one not adopted then, but again, now, the solution advocated by many.  That most other Australian sports in the pat 20 years have headed in the exact opposite direction, to create a governance structure where the one entity is both the ‘keeper of the code and the manager of the national competition’ would make soccer a curious anomaly for yet another reason in this country.

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