The Australian 2nd Tier works in a geographical conference format. There is no ‘standalone’ second division as there is in more developed football nations. The separate conferences include state federations (NSW, Qld, SA, Tas, Vic, WA), a territorial federation (ACT) and a regional federation (NNSW). For clarity the 2nd Tier is most often referred to as the National Premier League/s.
Each state, territory or regional football federation (conference) oversees its own competition and crowns its own champion. In September the respective conference champions come together for a knockout competition to decide the Australian National Premier League Champion.
It should be known that at this point in time there is no promotion/relegation system at the elite level of Australian club football. Hence, current National Premier League Champions Blacktown City remain in the 2nd Tier, though they received automatic qualification for the FFA Cup Round of 32 (2016) as reward for their 2015 title winning exploits.
Each conference is free to organise its competition in the manner it likes. Hence there is the Victorian Premier League which involves 14 teams (26 games), the Northern NSW Premier League involving 10 teams (18 games) and the Tasmanian Premier League involving 8 teams (21 games) etc. This lack of uniformity will no doubt lead to the strong getting stronger over the coming years.
There is uniformity however, in the selection of each conference’s champion. All eight conferences use a ‘first past the post’ (most points accumulated) format, to elect their representative for the Australian National Premier League Finals Series competition in September.
For the time being Australia has possibly the largest 2nd Tier competition in the world. There are a total of 90 teams across the eight conferences competing in the 2nd Tier.
There are of course questions surrounding the depth of talent in some of the conferences, and many fans and pundits simply don’t accept, for example that Tasmania’s eight teams could represent Australia’s 2nd Tier. Or to put it more bluntly, represent a level one step below the A-League.
Though fans are crying out for it, in its 20 Year Mission Statement the FFA never makes a commitment to relegation and promotion for the A-League. On expansion of the A-League FFA says it will come, “. . . as a product of sustainable growth, via a managed process of ‘in and out’ as circumstances arise, rather than a relegation and promotion system based purely on results.” (FFA, p84).
FFA is erring on the side of intelligent selection rather than relegation/promotion as a means of expanding the A-League’s club base. Due to the relatively small (24mil) but very competitive market, most would agree it’s paramount FFA does its homework before ‘cutting the ribbon’ on a new club. We’ve already seen dud choices in Gold Coast United and New Zealand Knights (Nth Qld Fury were also excommunicated but that may have been a rash decision), and the long term damage done to potential fans when their team is axed is immeasurable.
Though the league is expected to expand over the next two-three years it’s likely the new clubs will be totally new entities. Amongst the cities and regions mooted for A-League clubs are: Canberra, Geelong, Wollongong, Hobart, Sunshine Coast, Cairns and a reborn Townsville. At this point in time Cairns, Sunshine Coast and Wollongong have competitive 2nd Tier teams that may prove to be the exception.
But for the relegation/promotion purists, recent comments by new FFA Chairman Steven Lowy (son of the greatest football philanthropist Australia has known) gave hope. In an interview with the Herald Sun published in May 2016 Lowy was probed on promotion/relegation and said, “I’d like to think we will see it at some point.”
During the same interview Lowy cited current licensing arrangements as one factor holding promotion/relegation back in Australia. Currently their are 10 teams in the league with licenses for 18 years. It’s not hard to imagine clubs taking FFA to court over the terms of their licenses if they were victims of relegation before the 18 years have lapsed.
So it looks like a long wait for A-League fans, but I know promotion and relegation will arrive one day. The FFA Cup (nationwide knockout comp) has done great things for 2nd Tier clubs in Australia. The FFA itself has seen the cup competition as one way of recapturing die-hard NSL fans. Clubs like Sydney United, Adelaide City and Melbourne Knights have been catapulted back onto the big stage of Australian soccer, and the competition’s given players exposure as well, think Jai Ingham.
Apart from natural growth, is it that hard to imagine an ex-Socceroo dropping funds into a 2nd Tier club that he has an affinity with – remembering that in Australia the purchase of an A-League (1st Tier) club can be as low as $5.5 million. And then there are those foreign investors. The opportunity to mould an NPL club into exactly the vision of professionalism you desire is breathtakingly massive. The game can only grow.