John O'Neill - National Press Club address

“Has the World Cup awoken the ‘Sleeping Giant’ of Australian Sport?”

Below is Football Federation Australia Chief Executive Officer Mr John O'Neill address to the National Press Club on July 26, 2006.

To the President, Ken Randall, the Board, Members of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, ladies and gentlemen. Firstly can I thank you for this opportunity to address you - particularly at such an interesting time in the life cycle of what we have come to call “New Football”.

After all, this new Football organisation is barely 30 months old.

In 2003 when the Federal Government through Senator Rod Kemp and the Prime Minister himself initiated the independent review (the “Crawford Report”) into the running of soccer in Australia, much of the game was in a pretty sorry state. Soccer Australia was haemorrhaging money and close to insolvency.

The National Soccer League was generally considered to be sub-standard on the field, and off the field it had lost some $65m in its last three seasons. Its image had been irreparably sullied by many years of mismanagement and ethnically-based trouble.

“Mainstream” it was not!

Our national team the Socceroos had not played in the FIFA World Cup since 1974, and had not even appeared in Australia for more than two years. All our regional and qualifying competition was through tiny Oceania - the smallest and weakest of world Football-s regional confederations. This consigned Australia to barely a subsistence way of life - trying to get by on a diet of meaningless “friendly” internationals, and a single, once-in-four-years do-or-die final World Cup qualifier.

Relations with players were strained and unworkable, sponsorship and media deals flawed and untenable, relations between the various stakeholders in the game were dysfunctional, and Australian Soccer had a somewhat justified reputation for nepotism, parochialism, jingoism and shoddy practices, and was constantly under attack in the media. Indeed it-s credibility and reputation was shot and it was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Things were not good. Then came the “last roll of the dice”.

It came as a gutsy and forceful initiative on the part of the Government to demand that the sport embrace the reforms contained in the Crawford Report - this was a bold policy decision accompanied by fundamental structural and constitutional reforms, supported by essential funding; however, and pleasingly, this policy decision has proven to be a correct one, and reflects well on the Government and the ASC which oversaw and drove the process.

Because thirty-odd months later, the situation is considerably different. While far from “set for life”, Football Australia is now certainly a “going concern”. Commercial partnerships - many of which, like those with the Federal Government, Fox Sports, SBS and Qantas, were very much “Leaps of Faith” when they started- now underpin a $60m business which has grown at close to 100% year on year since 2003, and is almost unrecognizable from the morass of Old Soccer-s administration.

The new Hyundai A-League - new Football-s shopfront, built on a one-team-one-city model, a much improved standard of competition, and a strong, fresh, youth-targeted marketing strategy - has enjoyed a remarkable first season. The sold out Grand Final was enjoyed by more than 40,000 spectators at Sydney-s Aussie Stadium and an average of almost a quarter of a million viewers on Fox Sports.

More than a million spectators went through the turnstiles at the 90 matches across the season, with crowds averaging over eleven and a half thousand.

The audience is substantial, but it is also young - and culturally broadly representative of the Australian population. More than 65% of our audience is under 35 years of age. And - touch wood - there hasn-t been even a whiff of the ethnic issues that blighted the old soccer league. In fact, the one-team-one-city model would appear to have both “united the tribes” as well as removing many barriers to supporters which existed in the past. More than 44% of the A-League-s audience in season one was at least second generation Australian. (The population at large sits at 41%).

And more than 40% of our spectators in the first season had never been to a Club Soccer match in Australia before.

All of this would suggest that the new League has already established itself in the “mainstream” of our uniquely competitive Australian sports entertainment market.

It was these figures and the attendant entertainment value and popularity of the League (the fans have effectively voted with their feet) that have enabled an early renegotiation of our broadcasting rights with Fox Sports, paving the way for a $150m seven-year partnership - a deal that was beyond contemplation for the sport eighteen months ago - and one that can provide certainty and sustainability for the A-League and the Clubs. That has never before been available to this game in this country. Clearly, the A-League is here to stay. The shop is open for business.

But it is at the international level that the game is perhaps at its most unrecognizable. Certainly, the success of the Socceroos over the last 12 months has generated a level of support and interest that is quite unprecedented - certainly in Football, but perhaps even in Australian sport. In Australia we love people or teams that do us proud on the world stage, and it is hard to recall a group of young Australians of whom we have been more proud - or one which has excelled on a bigger stage! The change is not just as a result of winning, but through the character of the performances - both on and off the field.

In the space of a few short months since that magical night of Novermber 16 last year when Australia beat Uruguay to qualify for their “Date with Destiny”, these Australian athletes have removed barriers to involvement that have been built over decades.

Suddenly any historical stigma attached to supporting Australian Soccer has been replaced by a pressing need to demonstrate a working knowledge of the off-side law - or more specifically, when a penalty should or should not be awarded!

Roy Morgan claim that 6.7 million Australians got up between one and three in the morning on June 27th to watch Australia play Italy! That-s one in three men women and children in the country!

“Liverpool-s Harry Kewell” a boy from Sydney-s western suburbs, has become “Australia-s Harry Kewell”, and been joined and even overtaken in our national consciousness by Australia-s Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton, John Aloisi, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano, Mark Schwartzer and Mark Viduka. Who would have imagined - I know they didn-t - that almost overnight they would become household names?

But as huge as the impact of the World Cup has been, the largest and most transforming shift in Australia-s international sports landscape is actually not the World Cup - it is the Asian Cup. The Asian Cup is one of the largest sports events in the world in its own right. The tournament - which is Asia-s equivalent every four years of Euro - draws an international broadcast audience of more than a billion people.

The final alone in 2004 was beamed to 120 countries and watched by 450 million viewers just in Asia - making it the biggest single TV event in the Asian sporting calendar and Japan-s top rating program in 2004.

The biggest shift in our strategic and competitive landscape is that since January this year, we can be part of competitions like this, through our move of membership from Oceania into the Asian Football Confederation. Consider Oceania-s equivalent of the Asian Cup or Euro.

The “Nations Cup” in 2004 had no broadcasting, a total spectator attendance of less than 30,000 and a net financial result of a quarter of a million dollar loss.

Through this one step, Football in Australia has moved from a crippling subsistence lifestyle relying entirely on sporadic “friendly” matches, to the certainty of a regular, rolling four year calendar of scheduled, meaningful, high-quality, high-value qualifying matches for the Asian Cup, and the World Cup - through Asia. The Socceroos, who were absent for 31 months before May 2004, will play no less than eleven matches - six of them at home and three of these Asian Cup qualifiers - in this financial year alone.

The Asian Cup is in July next year, in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Before you say “Where?”, you might want to consider figures released last week for the recent World Cup-s worldwide television audience.

The fourth and fifth largest cumulative national broadcast audiences for the World Cup were …Vietnam and Indonesia, with 650m and 589m viewers respectively. One and a quarter billion viewers, and their teams weren-t even playing in the Cup! What can we then expect for an Asian Cup where these nations are not just playing - but hosting the event?

Straight off the back of next year-s Asian Cup, the Beijing Olympics, for men and women, are in 2008, and World Cup 2010 qualifiers, for 4½ Asian qualifying places, culminating with several blockbuster, Uruguay-style matches are here in 2009.

So the landscape has certainly changed. Importantly, engagement and integration with Asia through the symbolic sporting ties which Football provides, is unique and will contribute to enhancing Australia-s overall ties with our neighbours. In one sense, sport has, until now, been the missing link. As I have said before, “normal programming will not be resumed!”

But has the World Cup “Awoken the ‘Sleeping Giant- of Australian Sport?”

Well firstly, Football (Soccer) certainly is a giant. Whichever way you look at it, its scale, the “critical mass”, is imposing. Football is the biggest participation team sport in Australia by some distance. More than 700,000 players participate in organized Football competition with clubs and schools affiliated to FFA. That does not even include other non-affiliated or informal participants, like church-based competitions or corporate or social leagues. A recent Roy Morgan poll estimated that 1.218 million people in Australia “play football”.

To give you a sense of how that compares with participation figures in other major codes, if we take out schools and sampling programs so that we are comparing “apples with apples”, Football has over 450,000 registered players. Netball is next with 328,000, then Aussie Rules with 308,000 and Cricket with 274,000.

When you move off-shore, playing numbers become even more astonishing. Quarter of a billion people are playing football around the world. And more than 100 million of those are in Asia.

At the mass entertainment end of the game, too, the number and size of competitions is formidable. The World Cup of course, as we-ve just seen, is the largest, most-watched sports event on the planet. But massive regional international competitions like the Asian Cup and the European Championships, and regional Club Competitions like the European and Asian Champions Leagues are all shoe-horned into a jam-packed international season alongside domestic leagues like our Hyundai A-League.

And all this applies to men and women, indoor and outdoor versions of the game, and to an ever increasing number of age-grades (allowing earlier and earlier identification and development of talented athletes).

This ubiquity is both a benefit and a burden. At any particular time we are running - and funding - eight national teams - only one of which - “The Rainmaker” - The Socceroos - now generates any revenue. We invest more than three million dollars a year so that our seven non-revenue-generating national representative sides can prepare and participate in Asian and world competitions.

So by any measure, it is a giant that we are dealing with.

And I would suggest that the Giant is indeed awake. (It would take some sort of special giant to sleep through the sort of jolt it has had in the last couple of years!)

But while it has opened its eyes, I would maintain that the creature is still some way from truly “Arising”!

Apart from anything else, a creature of this size that has been asleep for this long takes a bit of time to mobilize. We have often said that “repositioning” of Football in Australia is probably a ten year plus proposition, and we are in the very early stages of that life cycle.

But there are a great many factors at play that will influence the pace of Football-s revival.

Firstly, Australia is arguably the most competitive sports entertainment and leisure market in the world. There are a number of very successful, very well-established, mature competitors in the Australian marketplace. The AFL-s numbers, for example, illustrate a great success story over the last twenty years. They have developed to a point where around seven million spectators watch Aussie Rules games each year and around 3,000 hours of AFL is broadcast on television.

AFL-s recent broadcast deal is worth about $780m across just five years. And the AFL is for men only and has no real national teams to fund. So the sort of resources available for Aussie Rules to pump into their domestic league are very substantial. And Aussie Rules is just one of three very well-financed football codes which compete with cricket, ourselves and dozens of other sports for the hearts, minds, athletes and dollars of Australian participants, fans and corporate partners.

Football, the world game, however, has a number of important competitive advantages and points of differentiation - some of which I have already highlighted - and several of these are impossible for our competitors to replicate. Besides its scale, and events like the World Cup, Football is also an Olympic sport - for men and women. It is played seriously and recreationally by both boys and girls. It has even spawned its own demographic - “Soccer Mums”!

The building blocks have been established on which Football can cement a giant-sized place in the Australian sports landscape. But the key to truly awakening the giant will be the extent to which we can capitalize on those advantages and leverage the strong foundations built in recent months, in the period ahead.

There are several interrelated keys to the New Football successfully capitalizing on our current strong foundations, and I wanted to share those with you.

The fundamental strength that allowed us to start transforming Football in Australia is the huge participation base - male and female - and broader Football community. Part of our national priorities have to be to strengthen our connection to, engagement with, and support for, this community. Collectively, that community is the primary stakeholder in Football and it is up to the national and state managements to improve the return to this stakeholder and to grow the base.

That may well require real innovation in what is done and how.

The success of our national teams has a critical role to play in galvanising that huge community. Any national governing body in an international sport is rightly obsessed with the success of their national team. Nowhere is this more relevant than here in Australia, where our whole national psyche yearns to prove ourselves through our international representatives, as being capable of competing with - and beating - the best in the world. The “feel-good factor” is impossible to quantify. Football has been anomalous in that regard. In what other serious sport would it be acceptable in Australia to lose honorably to France? Or Italy? Or Argentina? Not at the Davis Cup. Not at the US Open Golf. Not in the Olympic Games. Nor should it be the case in Football.

So if Australia can produce World #1 tennis players and golfers, and can maintain a top-5 finish in the Olympic Games, why should we not be a top ten Football nation? World Cup qualification should certainly be a quadrennial fixture now, but why shouldn-t regular semi-final appearances be realistic in the not-too-distant future?

Since Montreal 1976, when Australia won just five Olympic medals - none of them gold - we have prided ourselves on identifying and developing elite athletes better than pretty much anyone in the world. Once we turned our mind and resources to it, just eight years later we won 24 medals in Los Angeles, and these days we-re pretty disappointed if we don-t come away with 50+. Punching above our weight is a national obsession.

So designing and developing - or aligning - systems, expertise and infrastructure in Australia that can consistently identify and develop very competitive international players is a massive priority for us now. We have to be smarter than the competition if we are to competitive in this world market.

With the Australian Sports Commission, we have been engaged in a groundbreaking piece of research and analysis for some months, looking at talent identification and development programs in the major international Football countries around the world, as well as other relevant sports within Australia. The outputs from the research and analysis will allow us to design an optimal system for talent identification and development for Football in Australia, taking into account the best of the best from overseas, while recognizing the assets already existing in football and in sport generally in Australia, which can be lined up optimally to make a big difference quickly. This project is close to the top of our list right now.

Of course one asset which is very relevant to all this, and which is vital in its own right to the future of Football in Australia is the Hyundai A-League. While the League has a critical role to play as the week-in, week-out mass-entertainment “shop-front” for new Football in Australia, its role as a highly credible step in our elite player development pathway is also crucial. And the two roles are potentially very compatible - even complimentary.

The more successful the A-League is as a sports entertainment product, the more we will be able to pay coaches and players, the more international recognition the League will get, the more senior players we will be able to attract back to finish their careers here, and the longer we will be able to retain young Australian talent here at home. We have to accept that our very best players will continue to go overseas. Indeed it would be concerning if they did not, because it is a measure of how good they have become. But properly integrating their development through the A-League will mean that these vital assets are not lost to us. All of this will in turn continually improve the quality of the on-field A-League product - creating a virtuous circle year on year.

So the A-League too remains critically important for us.

An important part of the A-League-s evolution is its connection from this year with the Asian football and commercial markets through the Asian Champions League. For the first time this season, the top two clubs in our Hyundai A-League will qualify to compete in next year-s Asian Champions League against the best clubs in Japan, Korea and the strong leagues in the middle east.

Our Asian opportunity therefore exists at multiple levels of competition.

But Australia-s opportunity through Football in Asia is much bigger than Football or even sport.

In a broader geo-political sense, it also puts us amongst the world-s youngest and fastest growing trading block. A seminar staged earlier this year by the Lowy Institute for International Policy highlighted this, with the resultant Policy Brief pointing to major new commercial opportunities for Australian business through Football, in sponsorship and media rights, travel and tourism and through business networking. Sport offers a unique platform for relationship building - whether those relationships be diplomatic, political, trading or cultural. No sport offers such a platform for Australia into the Asian environment other than Football.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of this to Australia as a nation. From now on, each and every year, the Socceroos, Matildas and our best A-League teams will be playing in Asian stadia and on Asian TV screens as part of Asian competitions. As the World Cup has illustrated, we are talking an extraordinary number of TV screens here! Think about the subliminal effect of that on people in Asia. It is going to affect their sense, and our own, of Australia-s identity. No other Western country is in that position.

Asia does, after all, represent two thirds of the world-s population, and the world-s biggest consumer market, with 3.6bn consumers - 48% of whom are under 25. China alone has 305m mobile phone subscribers; Korea - with 75% broadband penetration - is the most broadband connected country on earth; Japan remains the world-s second-largest economy; and India will be world-s largest market by 2050, with 1.63bn people. Only one thing talks to all these people! Football.

We have not yet even scratched the surface of this opportunity. Doing so will take some time, but when it happens the impact on Australia - inside and outside sport - will be very substantial. So designing our full engagement with our new Confederation and region is therefore another key priority for us.

That process was helped along significantly by the Socceroos- performances in Germany. We are now the highest placed country of the 46 in the Asian Confederation, and this really enhances our Football credibility in the region.

That sort of “credibility” will be vital if we are to successfully mount a bid to host the FIFA World Cup. And we believe that is a realistic aspiration for us now. The next two tournaments are bedded down - with South Africa to host 2010 and South America apparently promised 2014. But after that, there appear to be some opportunities. We have held some informal and preliminary discussions with FIFA President Sepp Blatter and AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, and the early sounding have been encouraging.

Here at home the Federal and State Governments have been strong and unified in their expressions of support. Our priority now is to get our homework done, and design a process and a structure that will afford us the best opportunity to mount a successful bid - and, importantly, one that will create the best possible legacy for the Game in this part of the world.

So these things I believe are the keys for us.

• National representative teams that continue to make all Australians proud on the largest of world stages. • A highly attractive national league, with quality improving year on year, attracting and retaining better and better talent. • Galvanising, mobilizing and harnessing the enormous Football participant community. • Full engagement with Asia, in Footballing and broader national terms, and … • A bid to once again capture the imagination of the nation - only more so, because not only is this one the largest event in the world, but it would genuinely be a national bid for the whole of Australia.

And that-s fitting for this sport…

The Socceroos, and even in their own way the A-League teams, have united Australians in a quite unprecedented manner. A journalist in Brisbane-s Courier Mail last month wrote

“…it is safe to say that one sport has never before crossed social groups and ethnic communities, uniting the elderly immigrant man from Asia to the toddler in Alice Springs. Its stretch connects the banker in Martin Place to the farmer in North Queensland”.

And therein lies the core of the opportunity for New Football in today-s Australia. This sport like perhaps no other has the potential to tap into the 21st Century Australian psyche. It can come to embody the progressive ideals of 21st Century Australia.

Today-s Australians are “children of the world” - worldly and curious - they positively seek out and embrace new and different people and experiences. They are strongly independent and quietly aspirational - they want to “make their mark” - but they know where their roots are - in terms of both culture and family. They are comfortable and proud of our place in the world. They love both Vegemite and espresso!

So too does New Football.

The Giant is, perhaps for the first time, alive and well, but there is a great deal that still needs to happen before it can lay claim to the castle. There can be no slackening of effort or creativity among those responsible for guiding New Football.

When “hosting and winning the World Cup” are realistic goals for us, I believe the Giant of Australian Sport will have truly awoken.

And that day may not be too far away.