By mid-October, the mooted season kick-off date, the Women's World Cup will have come and gone, hopefully leaving a sense of momentum and goodwill that flows into all of Australian football. Additionally, members of Australia's first-ever national second tier should be confirmed and busily preparing for an inaugural season to begin in March 2024.
Some stars will be gone. Jason Cummings and Jordan Bos will be playing in India and Belgium, respectively, and the likes of Cortnee Vine and Marco Tilio (the latter, it's understood, potentially for a fee breaking Bos' record) may join them. In their stead, a new generation will have the chance to emerge.
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When the A-Leagues administrators the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) look ahead to the new season, though, they are confronted not just with a landscape of questions to answer and problems to solve (and yes, opportunities) but also disenchantment. Of a core fan base that has long since withdrawn any benefit of the doubt for their handling of the competitions.
A deficit in trust between administrator and fan persists, with resentment over the agreement to sell Grand Final hosting rights to Destination NSW still simmering. That deal won't be rescinded by the APL, with focus already turning towards the future of the "Festival of Football" and making it a week-long tentpole event on the Australian sporting calendar. Streaming functionality on Paramount+ (which, it needs acknowledgement, isn't APL jurisdiction), a perceived lack of marketing support for the competitions, and afternoon kick-off times in oppressive summer heat highlight other points of contention (not just for fans). And inevitably, depending on one's own hobby horse, there are more.
How the league addresses it all is unknowable. A catch-22 exists wherein officials like APL chief Danny Townsend need to stay visible, continue to communicate their plans for the future, and answer hard questions, while simultaneously getting little credit for doing so amongst the masses; risking faux pas just to prevent criticism that they have gone into hiding or are keeping people in the dark. The APL has put in significant work to establish supporter consultation groups and deserves credit for a long process to implement such measures but, again, scant few of the target audience of this measure will trust these efforts unless given a good reason to.
"It starts with our fan representative groups both at club level and at league level," Townsend told ESPN. "Those being in place will enable us to engage more effectively with fans and bring them closer to our decision-making.
"There's certain things, we say this openly to the fans, there's certain things that we can consult on and there's certain things we can't and I think most level-headed fans sort of understand that because we've got to run a business ultimately.
"But we want to do that knowing that our fans have a say and have a chance to influence our decisions."
The cliche that it's actions, not words, that truly matters is a long-running one across almost every sector public and private. It's a platitude so often repeated across public and corporate life it's almost become meaningless. But that's genuinely the scenario facing down the A-Leagues. Only tangible progress -- things that supporters can touch, attend, consume, and engage -- will genuinely begin to turn the tide.
None of this needs to be extravagant or even new to be successful, either. In fact, it's probably preferable that those aren't the priority areas. Simply working with clubs, players and the federation to ensure that the basics are done right would perhaps engender more attention amongst the league's core consumers than anything else could.
The simple things. On the pitch, encouraging teams to play discernible styles that resonate with their identity and supporters, as well as constructing squads that give them heroes and rising talent to follow (albeit, that's one mostly for football departments). In the stands, a drive towards affordable and fan-centric game day experience and schedules (with a particular focus on afternoon kick-offs in summer) in appropriate stadia. On the streets, a community and supporter focus from clubs and a genuine and authentic voice from the league that fans see reflected in its communications, content and marketing.
Of course, while it sounds simple, there's a lot (a lot) of work that would need to be done for all that to happen -- not all of it under the domain of league officials. Would it work? Well, it's probably no surprise that newly crowned ALM champions the Central Coast Mariners' rebirth across the last three seasons hits most of the above criteria and they're now considered one of the best stories in Australian sport.
"We just genuinely hope that the rest of the league can start to see a bit of that," Mariners chief executive Shaun Mielekamp said following his side's Grand Final win. "That the APL itself and plenty of other clubs have got to remember what the A-League is about. Hopefully, they saw a bit of tonight and thought you know what, we want to do it our way and let them do it their way and hopefully they're trying to match that."
Of course, beyond the more high-level, strategic matters, there are more immediate, practical questions to be asked. All of which are impossible to list in a timely manner.
The most pertinent at APL land is completing the process of finding an independent chairperson as well as filling its last independent vacancy on the board, the former of which was declared by Townsend to be "very close" in early May.
Excitingly, there will be double the Mariners next season: the Gosford-based side set to enter the ALW in 2023-24 and finally give the league a much anticipated and laudable home and away season -- an important win for Australian football by improving career opportunities for women's player and capitalising on the Women's World Cup momentum.
At present, discussions are underway between the league and Football Australia on how it adapts to the men's Asian Cup being moved to next January. There is no question that players that are selected will be released to represent the Socceroos at the tournament but Townsend said that his preference was to work with Football Australia to ensure it could play through, moving kick-off times around to ensure the league didn't clash with the national team.
"It's a challenge because [January is] also the most accessible part of the year for most of our fans," he told ESPN. "So we're working with [Football Australia] on the domestic calendar, and that's obviously going to play a part in it.
"We also learned a bit from the World Cup in that I don't think ... served us that well in terms of momentum. We had some really good momentum going into that World Cup and coming out of that World Cup that momentum slowed, frankly. We stopped for three weeks. Then we restarted and we didn't really start with the same momentum as we had going into it."
In a positive step, Townsend said the APL plans to re-establish its youth competition for the 2023-24 campaign, which would deliver on their long-standing commitment to providing a place for ALM young talent to play more crucial games during the summer months when local NPL competitions have ended, closing another gap in Australia's improving pathways.
"We're in the process of finalising a strategy for our A-League Youth, which will be presented to the board in the coming weeks, which is about how we take that forward into the next season," he said.
The marquee policy, which last year delivered former Manchester United star Nani for an unsuccessful stint with Melbourne Victory, will continue. Though controversial, such a policy can be done well if clubs actually put the proper work into scouting, recruitment and deployment. And if the arrival of less than a handful of major names means the league can't find a way to provide exciting young and deserving talent with opportunities, then it's got much bigger concerns with its coaching than a few blow-ins.
"You're playing in a global economy," said Townsend. "And attracting talent is difficult, particularly when you're selling with Aussie dollars.
"I think [marquees is] an overplayed strategy to be honest, because it's one of many initiatives that we've got in place. But it's certainly one that's still there and we're still committed to it and we're, we're still searching for players.
"[Last Thursday] I got a call from two clubs, looking at two different players and wanted to run through the scorecard and see whether they get support."
Ultimately, when it's all said and done, the A-Leagues' most dedicated followers will prepare for 2023-24 much the same way they have done for years. Wondering if this season will be the one where the corner is turned. Where progress, not hope, triumphs over cynicism. It's Aussie football DNA, really.