With a National Second Division (NSD) proposed by the Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) set to commence in the near future as a way to bridge the gap at the higher levels of football in Australia, a number of ex-players and parents in the footballing fraternity have expressed concern at the funding model that will be used by NSD clubs, as they try to generate revenue to cover the inevitable costs that will arise from trying to become professional and eventually competing with A-League clubs.

Former Matilda legend Joey Peters, has joined the chorus of voices who are concerned that a NSD will simply add to the already skyrocketing costs of junior football.

Peters, who is part of Football Australia’s Starting XI, a group of former players who have been given the task of finding ways to develop the future generation of footballers, is also concerned about the focus on the elite level of football while the problems at the foundation level still exist. 

“I just don’t understand why it (NSD) is a priority when families are having to fork out thousands to play,” said Peters who played professionally in South America and America as well as Australia. “I don’t know any more, football seems to only be for the 1% now - who is caring for the remaining 99%?”

The AAFC released their budget last week, estimating the initial cost of a NSD will be between $850K to $1.65M per year, but those costs will soar for any team promoted to the A-League.

The annual cost for A-League club’s ranges from $8M-$20M, and while AAFC expects the excitement generated by a genuine second tier will attract fans and thus sponsors and TV deals, many have questioned if the interest will be wide enough to generate the dollars needed for a second tier to be self sustainable.  

There are some current NPL clubs around the country charging parents upwards of $700-$800 just for Mini Roos (Under 7 to 11), which is community level football.  SAP programs can set parents back upwards of $2,000, while NPL junior programs can exceed $2,000 already, with a few skirting around cost cap rules set by federations by having compulsory pre-season programs that are on top of their regular season packages. 

“I think people are in dreamland about how much this is all going to cost, and who’s going to end up paying, grassroots kids and families of course,” said Peters. “How can you have AFC and FIFA standard facilities and professional resources at the budgets they are setting?

“Eventually you need to spend more, but will the interest generated be enough to bring in the revenue to cover it? If not, it will end up being parents of the juniors who have to fork out. 

“The question we should be asking is, is this the best thing for the whole of football family?”

Peters, regarded as a lateral thinker in football circles, has over the past few years been involved in Game Play Learn (GPL), a program designed to allow kids to be creative and learn football in a fun environment. 

“Let’s not forget, sport is fun, and with Covid teaching us all about what is important, let’s remember winning and trophies isn’t everything," she said. "Let’s hope the NSD doesn’t make us compromise our values even more.”

AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas has an alternative view to Peters, insisting an implementation of the National Second Division will not lead to higher costs for grassroots footballers, but in fact may have the opposite effect.

"As our Progress Report states, the NSD model we propose will be financially responsible. It is informed by the present capability of clubs and their projection for increased revenue based on commercial and match-day opportunities," said Galatas.

"The cost clubs incur in delivering NPL programs is based on the licensing obligations imposed by their respective Member Federations.

“The NPL is a program introduced by Football Australia and delegated to Member Federations to operate, as competition administrators.

“The limitations the program has imposed on clubs, together with their consignment under this licensing regime to a fixed function and status within the game, while burdened with the responsibility of delivering an expensive program to thousands of children at a time, across the nation, was one of the key drivers in the formation of AAFC.

"The clubs wanted to gain a voice, given lack of direct representation within their governing bodies, to express their concerns with the system. One of their main concerns was the cost of playing for children. It is a key aim of AAFC to reduce this cost."

Galatas believes the 32 clubs who have committed to the NSD will not use junior registration fees as a major revenue stream, but rather focus on sponsorship, TV revenue and gate takings. He insists clubs will be held to account in their operations.

"Not only will a NSD not increase that cost but it is a key measure in its reduction," he said. "The NSD and its clubs will be subject to a very high governance standard. You will see details of it in our report.

"Fees paid by children are not used by our partner group of clubs to subsidise senior team costs now, as some suggest without evidence, and they certainly will not need to do so to participate in the NSD.

"The cost to participate in the NPL will not change, at least not for the NSD clubs, although we aim that it be reduced for most other clubs. The additional funds any club will need to take part in the NSD will be sourced from the commercial and other avenues identified in our report.

"A very important point missed in this discussion is that it’s not necessarily the amount of money parents of some young players pay, but the number of players who pay it. The NPL was intended as a program for elite young players.

"It is supposed to be our national second tier. But from even a cursory look at it, it is obvious hundreds of teams do not comprise a true second tier below an A-League of 11 Australian privately-owned teams. It is crucial to note at this point that the A-League was established as a senior men’s only competition.

"The NPL was established with that A-League model in mind. We now have A-League teams with junior and youth team set-ups playing in the NPL competitions. So altogether we have thousands of young players notionally participating in the notionally elite NPL.

“Delivering the NPL is expensive and we have devised a system with hundreds of clubs doing it, resulting in thousands of young players being unnecessarily drawn into an expensive system."

There are currently 94 NPL top tier clubs around the country. Member Federations like NSW have four NPL tiers, ACT has two and Victoria has three tiers creating an additional 72 NPL branded clubs.

Galatas is hopeful the implementation of a genuine second tier will serve to enable clubs that won't get to that level to scale back the level of their operations to reflect the needs of their community, which in turn will end up reducing their running costs.

NPL clubs around the country have a number of costs they have to incur to comply with Football Australia and Member Federation rules. Some clubs pay licensing fees as high as $40,000 in some states. This is on top of fees paid for referees, coaches (and their licences), NPL compliant facilities and general running costs.

"Introducing a true national second tier of 12-16 clubs will, together with the A-League comprised of a similar amount of teams, cater for elite young footballers,” said Galatas. “Hopefully, the NPL will be reformed to relieve hundreds of clubs around the country of some of the costlier elements of the NPL licensing regime.

"It may have the opposite effect to cost-escalation caused by the NPL brand. An inevitable consequence of creating a fixed tiered system and then labelling it as the higher ranked labels acquire a cache which is desired by those who don’t have it. Parents with children not playing NPL wonder if they are depriving their children of the best ‘education’.

"This drives more clubs to pursue the label and in Victoria, for example, we now have 48 junior boys’ NPL clubs and nine girls’ teams which are overlaid by a ‘more elite’ National Training Centre.

“Each is required to field all of a number of specified age groups. That’s approximately 300 boys’ teams with more than 5,000 players in Victoria alone purporting to represent the elite level.”

Galatas pointed out that some parents are willing to pay extra for additional training and many also seek out what they are told is the highest level which results in many juniors paying high fees.

"Of course, it may also be that some parents are happy to pay the fees. But while we create brands, bringing with them licensed exclusivity, we shouldn’t be surprised that costs increase and the number of people desiring them increases too.

“We also see many parents attracted to private, foreign club-branded private academies for expensive short-term additional training for their children.

"AAFC believes that restoring some natural order and enabling fluidity and connectedness between competitions and alleviating unnecessary and costly compliance measures will reduce the cost of playing for young players.

"We represent the clubs at the forefront who have to deal with parents. It is our clubs who are most interested in reducing costs and making their lives and those of their volunteers who sustain the game easier."

Football Australia has publicly backed a NSD, but behind the scenes have also proposed alternative ideas. The potential loss of revenue streams, such as licensing fees received from NPL clubs, hasn’t been discussed publicly but a proper NSD will likely result in the NPL brand being diminished.

Football Australia insist the clubs must work together with the national governing body to develop the second tier and assess funding and costs at all levels as part of that process.

"From Football Australia’s perspective, it’s not a question of if there will be a second-tier competition, but a question of when and how," said a spokesman. "It is important that we move the discussion from the conceptual level to a practical level but we do so collaboratively and in unison.

"This would include, for example, the consideration of proposals for a national second tier competition in the context of our current circumstances, the strategic objectives of the XI Principles, practical financial modelling at both competition administrator, and club level and the various competition models / formats that can be considered.

"It is vital we firstly build a strategy which will help us achieve our objectives of creating competitions which connects our game and importantly benefit all clubs within Australia’s second tier of football.

"Whilst the AAFC have independently embarked on this work, we have informed them of the importance of working collaboratively with Football Australia, who will ultimately operate such a competition and will need to consider the associated criteria, financial and operating models, competition format options and composition.

“In recent months, Football Australia has taken significant steps towards connecting all tiers of competition, with the release of the Domestic Transfer System white paper and the commitment towards the establishment of a national club licensing framework, which will be instrumental to the development of a national second tier framework and the operating and regulatory standards required for such a competition.

“Football Australia is currently undertaking its own work around financial modelling and examining the various competition models and formats.

"In the coming months, we will be consulting with relevant stakeholders, in particular, the Member Federations, as we further evolve the national second tier framework from a conceptual discussion to a practical discussion, including implementation timelines.”