A-Leagues not prepared for scale of fan hostility - Danny Townsend

A-Leagues officials were not prepared for the scale of hostility towards the decision to sell Grand Final hosting rights for the next three years to New South Wales, Australian Professional Leagues (APL) chief executive Danny Townsend has told ESPN.

Townsend believes, however, that the decision will ultimately be validated by the success of the envisioned "festival of football" model of the deal with Destination NSW, and he hopes that recent talks with supporter groups and the introduction of a fan advisory body will go some way towards repairing the immediate damage that has occurred between the league and its key stakeholder.

"[The Grand Final decision] was made because we felt that our marquee fixtures deserved a date on the national sports calendar," Townsend told ESPN. "To do that you need to commit to a venue and then also engage governments in determining where that is. We want our game to grow. We want a marketable, investable proposition that we can all as football fans get behind and, equally, can sports fans."

For all the talk of marquee spaces on the calendar, the financial aspects of the deal are relevant. After all, deciders in Australian football's history had long been awarded on sporting merit until Destination NSW agreed to a multimillion-dollar fee to secure the games.

Multiple explanations for the deal with Destination NSW have been put forward by the APL, the fiscal element is one that is consistently revisited two months on.

The A-Leagues balance sheet suffered a significant blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, as did the books of the clubs that make up the competition; statements released by clubs in the face of fan anger about the grand finals decision frequently used phrases such as "commercial reality"; "sustainable future"; and "long-term security and sustainability':

And a report from The Sydney Morning Herald indicated that a failure to meet subscriber benchmarks had resulted in reduced payments from broadcast rights holder Network 10 and Paramount+.

So, is it a case of there's no cash here? Here there's no cash, alright? Was the grand final deal to stave off collapse? Not according to Townsend.

"We can continue on the same path, financially, if we want," Townsend told ESPN. "If we don't want to change then we can continue doing what we're doing. What will inevitably happen is we won't make ground on our competitors. We won't build a better product.

"That's our stated ambition, and we're only going to get there by making bold decisions and doing things differently. Because if we want our sport to remain where it is, in five years' time, then we could just keep doing the same thing we've always done.

"What that'll mean is that clubs won't get the distributions they get now; they'll go down. Player wages go down, product quality will go down. What we're trying to do is the opposite; is to have a flourishing football economy here. That enables us to continue to grow our game and deliver a much better fan experience.

"If I was to sit here as the CEO and deploy the capital we've raised into keeping the lights on and then in five years from now say, 'Sorry, guys, I didn't do anything. I just sat here and kept doing the same thing. I got paid to do it every month and guess what, there's no more money left.' I don't think that's the CEO these fans want or they need"

Said fans will not easily be appeased, however, as reaction against the grand finals decision was vicious and near all-encompassing. The discontent has settled into a simmer, bubbling under the surface after the Melbourne Derby riot robbed supporters of the moral high ground and significant momentum

"We didn't execute the communications like we planned," Townsend said.

"We had a very structured communication strategy that was designed to ensure that the clubs were complicit with the league in getting behind the concept. And unfortunately, that broke down. And before we had that opportunity to execute on it, the [negative] sentiment was rife. At that point, we were always going to struggle to land the message the way we wanted to.

"We probably would have had a better forecast as to what might happen. And I think we always knew that there would be fan sentiment in a negative direction on that. But we felt that we had enough in place to combat that with the reasons why we were doing it.

"Not just about money, but about creating a week of celebration for men's and women's football that we can get behind. And in time, with clubs being complicit in that, we would win that over and when we start to announce other things around those two matches that will make it clear to fans that there is a great reason to get behind that.

"We'll never quite know but I think we probably should have had a better engagement process with our clubs whereby they were very, very clear that they had to run it out, that they had to hold the line because it's going to be choppy waters, and unfortunately they didn't.

"But look, that's hindsight, there are certain practical things as well that you can't publicise or you can't do a wide-ranging fan consultation on a concept like this, because it'll be in the newspaper in five seconds and then the deals will be off so there are commercial sensitivities around deals. And confidentiality is a big one."

Townsend is nonetheless confident the move will eventually prove a success, and fans eventually will be won over by the festival of football concept.

But even in a best-case scenario, that is a medium- to long-term proposition -- and that isn't going to help win back fans who are feeling betrayed and taken for granted by the decision.

Townsend hopes other efforts will provide assistance, including a commitment to do "everything we can" to engage supporters in the future.

Townsend met representatives from several A-Leagues clubs across the Christmas period, and attended a joint meeting with representatives from 11 of the ALM's active support groups; the Victory supporter group OSM was shunned by its peers after the Melbourne Derby violence.

The active groups, who to that point had been the main organisational force behind protests, subsequently released a statement indicating they had agreed to cease their protests indefinitely, contingent upon a series of conditions being met.

Townsend confirmed the statement was accurate and that steps were underway to deliver terms of reference to determine the who, what, when, where and why of a fan advisory body. He said also that a recruitment firm had been engaged to find an independent chair of the APL's board.

"They love their club, and our job is to ensure that their club is playing in an environment that can be successful, and they can deliver a great fan experience," Townsend said.

"Actions speak louder than words, but there's got to be a level of trust in our strategy, that APL has gone to the expense to take this league on because we believe in it.

"We're going to make decisions that from time to time may appear on face value or in isolation [to be] challenging to comprehend, but [fans and observers] need to respect that there is a very clear strategy to grow this game, to have this game prosper and be the game we know it can be. And that's in their interest.

"I don't expect fans to necessarily change their opinion on the back of me meeting with seven clubs in the active supporter group. I think those meetings were all really productive and I think they opened up a nice dialogue.

"But actions will be what keeps our fans committed to the task.

"It's going to take us a journey to get there and there's going to be decisions along that way that may not appear to be aligned with what a fan really wants. But in time I think it'll show that the strategy is the right one.

"I think just give us time, trust there's a process that we're going through and we're confident that we'll come out the other side you know in a really great place because this league deserves it."