With fan boycotts threatening to derail the A-League Men's finals series, Australian Professional Leagues boss Danny Townsend has told ESPN that the competition remains committed to introducing official supporter representative groups.
Adelaide United will host Wellington Phoenix on Friday night, before the Western Sydney Wanderers take on Sydney FC in the first week of a finals series that once again is being overshadowed by what is happening off the pitch.
Trust between the leagues and its fans is close to an all-time low, with unrest over the APL's sale of hosting rights of its next three Grand Finals leading to a number of active fan groups promising to boycott the games.
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The APL and supporter groups met in December 2020 and agreed to a truce to ease simmering tensions -- one that would see demonstrations cease "indefinitely" in exchange for various concessions such as the establishment of supporter committees by the end of the season and the recruitment of an independent chair on the APL board. The pact did not include a demand for the cancellation of the Grand Final deal.
However, citing a perceived lack of progress towards the agreed goals, Sydney FC supporter group The Cove declared their intentions to boycott the finals last week, subsequently joined by newly formed Melbourne City outfit the Yarra End Collective on Monday.
"The continuous treatment of supporters as commodities for promotional material and financial gain must stop," said The Cove in a statement. "We are stakeholders that deserve more recognition when decisions are being made for the league."
Also distributing leaflets explaining their plans ahead of Sydney FC's win over the Newcastle Jets on Saturday, The Cove reiterated their commitment with a social media post on Tuesday, requesting that any Sydney fans attending the elimination final not occupy the active bays they would normally fill in order to "let our massage have the impact it deserves in silence."
Though Western Sydney Wanderers collective The Red and Black Bloc have indicated an intention to be present, the prospect of one of the biggest spectacles the A-Leagues could hope for -- a Sydney Derby elimination final -- being staged without one of its most vocal fan groups is an imminent possibility.
"We understand the fan discord," APL chief executive Townsend told ESPN. "I personally spent a huge amount of time in December and January meeting with them to try and at least give them some transparency around decision making.
"We made some commitments there that we remain committed to. I can understand they feel that the communication hasn't been as often as they would have liked but the work is certainly being done."
Townsend said that the CEOs of each A-League club had been presented with plans for club-based fan representative groups on Monday and were enthusiastic about the proposals that he believed demonstrated a commitment to going far beyond lip service.
"To have a genuine fan-representative group, that needs to start at the club first," he said. "They're fans of their club.
"Our philosophy was always building a bottom-up proposition where the clubs needed to sign up to a consistent specific structure around ensuring every fan cohort or segment has a voice. And we've got a list of different [demographics] that we'd like to see represented in club fan groups.
"Then a representative of that club will then sit on a [leaguewide] fan representative group that we will convene on a regular basis to represent the club's fans' interests.
"[The CEOs] were unanimous in supporting the proposition and will now move into a consultation phase to take our fans through that but that will be club-led with APL support, not the other way around. We need to be clear that the APL is never going to go in and force a fan engagement framework on clubs; the clubs will ultimately own that with our support.
"We agreed on that framework ... we didn't want to go through a process of a vanity exercise. We wanted this to be meaningful.
"They'd have access to the whole executive team of the APL. To provide that level of access and transparency that they were looking for at the time and we're going to deliver on that."
Townsend also confirmed to ESPN that a nominations committee is due to sit next week to examine the recommendations of a firm tasked with identifying candidates "suitable to become an independent chair of the APL and that approval of a candidate was "very close." That appointment would then allow focus to shift to filling the last independent vacancy on the board.
"We saw the women's Grand Final, the momentum building there around the [ALW] and the Women's World Cup," said Townsend. "We've got expansion on the horizon. We've got a plan to connect into grassroots and community football that will start to roll out over the next 12 months.
"We genuinely believe we've got some tailwinds. Our strategy is starting to bed down. Yes, we've probably tripped ourselves up a few times, but that's always going happen when you're startup business and we're excited about what the future holds."