Monday, August 01, 2005

Relegation in Australian Soccer

Posted by AmishThrasher at 12:59 pm
Crystal Palace:
Should Australian soccer clubs be relegated,
like Palace were?
One of the ongoing debates with Australian soccer - especially in regards to the national league - is whether Australia should have a system of promotion and relegation, like European competitions (such as the English Premier League). The debate - which has been ongoing for over a decade - has been heightened given the kickoff of the Hyundai A-League later this month, with proponents of a relegation / promotion system criticising the new national league for not implementing one, while pointing to promotion and relegation systems being actively used in some of Australia's state soccer leagues. But there are good reasons why such a system wouldn't work on a national level Australia (as it does in Europe), and it seems that some of those pushing for such a system may have a hidden agenda. That said, it may be possible to have a modified promotion / relegation system for Australian soccer.

And the reason why a 'National 2nd Division' wouldn't work in Australia is simple: Australia is a continent with a low population density, spread over a large geographic area. This is coupled with the fact that in Australia, unfortunately, soccer is a second or third tier spectator sport, ranking well behind AFL football, both rugby codes, and cricket in popularity. Even in these more popular codes, it would be difficult to viably implement such a system. To attempt to do so with soccer could potentially be devestating.

And the reason it would potentially be devestating is because of the costs involved. Beyond the travel and accomodation costs, we have to factor in the cost of flying in team and league officials, doctors, the refs, the ticketing, catering and security costs, and all the other expenses that go along with sport on a national level - it truely is an expensive business. Even our most popular codes struggle to attract television coverage beyond the elite level, as do second and third tier sports like soccer; so television rights would not be available to offset the 2nd division. Over the past decade, these costs have proven to be problematic (or even fatal) for many of the clubs in the now disbanded NSL competition. The second and third tier clubs would not stand a chance, with many successful state-level clubs quite possibly going out of business in the process.

We also have to remember that some of those who have floated the idea of a National 2nd division have a hidden agenda. Many are connected to, or support, the single ethnicity clubs which were either former NSL teams, or play at state level. A system of promotion and relegation from a 2nd division, or lower divisions, would provide a 'back door' for these teams to enter - or re-enter - the national league. My reason for not wanting these teams to return to the sport at an elite level isn't the product of WASPish racism or a denial of the important role people of many ethnic backgrounds have had in building soccer in Australia; far from it, I myself come from a Non-English Speaking Background, and one of the great aspects of soccer is its multiculturalism. The problem comes about by representing this multiculturalism by having teams which represent a single ethnicity, and where those who do not come from that specific ethnic background often don't truely feel welcome, regardless of their love of the sport. By having a major metropolitan area represented by a team that seeks to only represent one ethnic group in that city (rather than everyone regardless of ethnicity), the potential support for elite soccer is diminished significantly. It is better to have Australia's soccer tribalism defined geographically, consisting of multicultural teams representing a geographic area where anyone - regardless of ethnicity - can feel 'at home' than to constrain the sport's popularity with single-ethnicity teams.

There is a model of promotion and relegation, however, that could work in Australia. Such a model would see a designated number of 'slots' for teams based on their geographic (in most cases, state) base. So, for example, we may have 2 teams each from Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern NSW / NSW Central Coast, and New Zealand; 3 each from Victoria and New South Wales, and a team each from Northern QLD, and the ACT. The teams which finish in the bottom 4 places are relegated back to their state league, with the top team(s) being promoted to national league level. Teams from the Northern Territory and Tasmania could be included either by replacing the ACT slot with a 'wildcard' slot, whereby if the Wildcard team gets relegated, the NT, Tasmanian and ACT premiership teams play off for the wildcard position, or alternatively, if there's no current Tasmanian team in the league, the Tasmanian state premiers play off against te Victorian Premiers for one of the Victorian slots (thus the Tasmanian clubs are included in one of the Victorian slots), with something similar also done for the Northern Territory. Or alternatively having a 'Tasmanian league' slot in the Victorian Premier League. Similar structures at state level could ensure regional participation in the sport at state level.

If such a structure were implemented, it may also be worthwhile to adopt a licensing system similar to that which is used in the German Bundesliga. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, according to Wikipedia, "Every team in the Bundesliga must have a license to play in the league, or else they get relegated into the minor leagues. Only financially healthy teams can get the license." Perhaps rather than directly promoting the state champions, we should instead promote the highest ranked state league clubs with a national league license. Qualification for such a license would ensure that the club was economically sound enough to compete in the national league, as well as a broad, multicultural appeal, and a large enough base of support to sustain it in the national league.

What such a structure would create would be a truly national competition which incorporates the promotion and relegation system - a system which makes soccer such an interesting sport to follow - while both strengthening the state leagues (as feeder competitions) and ensuring that national league teams are economically viable enough to sustain existance in the highest level of the sport.