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FFA not scared of A-League clash with AFL, NRL in winter switch

Johnson welcomed the debate but said it was time football focused on itself for once and not on how it can fit in around its rivals.

“We shouldn’t be worrying about what other sports are doing,” he told the Herald. “We should focus on who we are and what we do well. That’s our opportunity. We have the largest and most diverse base with two million participants. We have great women’s and men’s national teams.

FFA chief executive James Johnson says football should not fear the AFL and NRL.

FFA chief executive James Johnson says football should not fear the AFL and NRL.Credit:AAP

“We equally care about our W-League and A-League and our clubs compete both domestically, regionally and soon globally when FIFA introduces the new global Club World Cup.

“It’s in our hands as a sport. If we can get our two million people to be more interested in our professional leagues, then it doesn’t matter what the AFL and NRL are doing.”

Domestic football has been played across the summer since 1989, a decision made partly so the old National Soccer League could escape the long shadows of the AFL and NRL.

But a switch back to winter has been gaining momentum in some quarters, with many believing the summer heat has a negative impact on the quality of play in the A-League, while also pushing for the domestic season to be played in tandem with the local and Asian football calendars.

Like so many recent changes in the sport industry, this one has been precipitated by COVID-19. The current A-League season won’t be finished until August, meaning the following season had to also be delayed. But with the Qatar World Cup in 2022 to be played across November and December, football’s global calendar is facing disruption for several years.

Johnson said FFA saw an “opportunity” therein, having already undertaken its own research on the ideal timing of the domestic season.

“To me, it makes sense logically to align our grassroots seasons, where we have the numbers, with our professional leagues,” he said. “There are lots of benefits but as with anything we need to test this hypothesis and that’s what this next season will do. I’m quite excited by it, actually.

“We’re going to be able to analyse it, to study it, and see whether there are more benefits in an aligned season than not.”

Another benefit, Johnson said, is that it could help boost the A-League’s transfer revenue. Roughly one-third of the competition’s players come off-contract, and thus become free agents, during the world’s most active transfer window in the middle of the year. Johnson believes there is greater scope for clubs to make money from selling players if their contracts expire at the end of the year.

Johnson also dismissed concerns around pitch quality in winter, saying they were “easily tradable” with a more comfortable climate for football.

“Playing in 40 degrees heat doesn’t help the product. Playing in the winter does. That’s certainly a leveller there,” he said.

The impact of the change for the W-League is less clear, particularly given that competition’s strategic partnership with the US National Women’s Soccer League, which usually runs from March to September.

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Meanwhile, the week ahead looms as a huge one for FFA and Johnson, with FIFA to decide in the early hours of Friday morning where the 2023 Women’s World Cup will be held – Japan, Colombia, or Australia and New Zealand.

Johnson said winning the hosting rights could have a transformative impact on the sport and FFA’s financial health, with several sponsors having dropped away even before the pandemic.

“It would be a gamechanger,” he said. “If we’re unsuccessful, we’re going to bring the sport to life anyway. But it would absolutely be a gamechanger, just on simple facts and figures – over a billion people watched the last two World Cups.

“It’s not a development competition, this is the biggest sporting competition for women’s sport. It’s an area of the sport that is the quickest developing, not just in Australia but abroad.

“To have the likes of the US women’s national team, the English, Brazil, Japan, competing against our national teams, the Matildas and the Ferns, it’s going to be a spectacle to remember for many, many years to come.”

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