A-League expansion is the talk of the town, and after a recent Football Federation Australia announcement, definitely on the agenda for the 2018/19 season. However, the current proposal is for two teams to be added, two teams is not enough. The A-League should instead add six teams for the 2018/19 season. A bold and aggressive move, but a justifiable and worthwhile move.
Currently the A-League is too small and too short, ten teams and 27 rounds is nowhere near ideal for Australia’s national competition. Ideally the A-League needs 18 teams, and a second division for promotion and relegation. Promotion and relegation is unfortunately a long way off, meaning expansion is the only step forward.
Expansion is a risk, Gold Coast United springs to mind, but an undertaking where the rewards massively outweigh the risks. Football in Australia has enormous potential and growing to do. Adding two teams at a time does not fully capitalise on this potential and will only lead to problems down the track.
The biggest problem with adding two teams at a time is the number of rounds played. Currently, each team plays every other team three times. While this isn’t ideal it sets up a principle that must be maintained. Teams should meet the same number of times as each other match-up. One team should not play another team three times when other teams only play them twice in the season.¹
An increase to 12 teams would mean each team still plays every other team three times, making 33 rounds.¹ Not a big problem, but the huge problem comes with 14 teams playing each other three times, making 39 rounds.¹ 39 rounds is too long, the English Premier League, Serie A (Italy), and LaLiga (Spain) only play 38 rounds. Instead, like these leagues, have the teams only meeting twice, making 26 rounds.¹ Only one less than now, but still too short, especially after a 33 round season before. Making a 16 team league, would mean every team plays every other team twice, home and away, for a 30 round season.¹
Currently there are five A-League matches each weekend, but more teams would mean more matches and action. Having a headline match stand alone works, but currently every match stands alone, and matches that don’t create a lot of interest don’t need to stand alone, they generally can’t stand alone. Creating a bit of congestion with matches kicking-off simultaneously creates a feeling of action, tension and fluctuation.
An extra six teams means eight games each weekend and it also creates a huge jump in the total number of games. Six extra teams means 105¹ extra games from the current system (135¹). With eight games a round the total number of games would come to 240¹. That would mean the A-League has more games than the AFL (198¹) and the NRL (208¹). Three extra games per round, an extra three rounds and an extra 105¹ matches would surely add immense value to any TV deal.
On the field Australia aren’t producing high quality players and it’s not because of a lack of talented players. The interest in junior football is at an all time high, higher than both AFL and Rugby in terms of participation numbers. But currently all that talent has nowhere to go in Australia. An extra six A-League teams would help fix that problem.
Currently with ten professional teams, 110 players start each week, leaving very little room for emerging talent. An 18 year-old might get a couple of games filling a hole, or a few minutes off the bench here and there. But what if a 16 year-old got the opportunity to play 25 games a season? He would improve much quicker and sooner. The more footballing situations a young player is exposed to the better. Especially when playing the best in Australia week-in, week-out.
A 16 team league means 176 players start every week, increasing the chance to play regular football for many. The increase in available spots means more opportunities for young talent, and a chance for them to shine. It may mean a dip in quality at first, but that is short term pain for long term gain. And considering we may see the emergence of the next Viduka, Emerton or Chipperfield, it’s worth it.
Across the vast area of Australia and New Zealand, travel is a big expense. But adding six teams will not impact much on this cost. Because a 16 team league only adds three rounds to the current format, travel and stadium hire costs will remain similar to this season.
Using Perth Glory as an example, this season Perth have 14 home games and 13 away. In an expanded 16 team league, they will have 15 home games and 15 away (and they won’t have to travel far for one if there is another team based in Perth).
Do not get the idea that we need new franchise teams to capture fans from vast areas. A team that unites a state, like Tasmania or the ACT, is worthwhile, but in big cities it’s better to go with established clubs that already have a fan base. Their current fan base may not be large enough currently, but national exposure and being part of the highest level will undoubtedly draw new fans. But the location of new teams is still crucial.
A second team in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, possibly another New Zealand team too, should be a priority. A local rivalry immediately creates a strong local interest. The rivalry also creates tension, a new team entering the established teams turf. A strong local rivalry will make headlines if the teams are at the bottom or the top.
Adding teams in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth would leave three other spots. Both Melbourne and Sydney/Wollongong have the size to support three teams (and more latter). South Melbourne (four times champions of Australia) deserve another crack at Australia’s top flight, while Wollongong Wolves (twice champions of Australia) is another side with a strong football tradition and history.
Tasmania has also received a lot of public support recently, and for good reason. But a new franchise needs to be done with community input and support. Western Sydney Wanderers were a huge success because the community was on-board from the beginning. For a team in Tasmania to succeed, the community, which will be the clubs fans, must be involved from the start.
FFA Cup Format
The FFA Cup cannot be forgotten in any expansion talk. Australia’s National Cup competition is huge for local community football and an expanded A-League is a good excuse for an expanded FFA Cup.
Currently 22 state league sides and ten A-League sides start in the Round of 32. Don’t cut any state league sides to include the new A-League sides. Instead cut 12 A-League sides from the start of the competition, they will enter the competition in later rounds. Doing this creates room for 28 state league sides to enter the competition for the first round, the Round of 32.
The second round of the competition is a Round of 24. Eight A-League sides are added to the 16 winners from last round.
The third round is a Round of 16. The four remaining A-League sides (presumably the top four) join the 12 winners from last round at this stage. The rest of the competition works as normal, with quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final.
Controlling the draw to make sure that a state league side makes the final four is still possible. An expanded FFA Cup with this system means an extra round, an extra 12 matches and six more state league teams for the competition.
From a 16 team A-League, an 18 team competition isn’t far away. From 18 teams consolidation should be the priority, but with one eye on setting up a second division and introducing promotion and relegation.
In such a revamp to the men’s game the women’s game should not be forgotten. But an A-League team should not mean an automatic W-League team. Clubs must assess their need for a W-League team and ability to support them. Another option is to have a W-League club first and use it as a stepping stone to the A-League, like Canberra.
¹not including finals