Media politics could not be more niche in Australia’s complex football landscape – and the message hardly muddier. For those operating in the comparatively small local scene, one currently battling sliding TV ratings and crowds, that can be both a blessing and a curse.
One striking advantage for journalists is the capacity to build close, trusting relationships with players, coaches, officials and other stakeholders. It is the kind of access about which counterparts working in the grand-scale, cut-throat world game in other countries can only dream.
Undercutting this severely under-utilised benefit (more on that later) is a slightly incestuous and matey culture not so receptive to criticism. The result is a precarious daily tightrope walk for the reporter, whose professional relationships often lie in direct conflict with his or her ethical requirement to impartially scrutinise those very same people.
In a zero-sum game of this type, one side or the other inevitably takes a hit. This is not a football-specific conundrum – it is near-impossible to cover any sport without rubbing somebody up the wrong way. But if we are talking football, it’s difficult to imagine Pep Guardiola or Roman Abramovich personally ringing a journalist to voice discontent over the 12th paragraph of a newspaper article buried next to the details.
Last year one respected Australian coach was so affronted by a single word in a match report he called a meeting with media to google and then debate the definition of the offending adjective. This hilariously absurd incident is not a one-off, and reflects an increasingly tense environment in which protagonists expend too much valuable energy on reputation at the expense of progress. In any case, popularity generally follows positive action.
A critical piece of the pie, as Fox Sports presenter Adam Peacock highlighted last week, is Football Federation Australia’s ongoing neglect of its communications department. Both the governing body and the A-League clubs must employ an expert to re-engage a media contingent that, in the current climate, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Ask uncomfortable but necessary questions, and they’re contributing to the game’s insidious demise. Build it up, and they’re spineless fawners – if the story even runs.
Which is another contributing factor: football rarely achieves a healthy breadth of coverage. For every negative NRL or AFL story on any given day, another handful generally fall into the positive or neutral bracket, evening out the spread. The A-League and W-League typically get about one-fifth the column inches of major codes. And since positive stories are not so sexy – despite genuine moments of on-field joy – the controversial or sensational frequently win out.
Think deeply ingrained stereotypes, and the common misconception that the A-League is the worst in the world (a view generally held by those who do not watch it), not to mention the steady online stream of “peak A-League” self-flagellation. “The A-League is dead” is another popular theme (see host broadcaster Fox Sports’ cost-cutting and indifference and reports of key sponsors severing ties). Rarely is there room for nuance, which irritates football fans and fuels the simplistic fodder promulgated by some mainstream media.
But equally at fault for these perception problems is the game’s own hierarchy, who consistently fail to wrest control of their own narrative. During the bitter congress battle, FFA lost the public war of ideas to an impassioned and united consortium of A-League clubs, the players’ union and many state federations. Now those same clubs appear to be repeating FFA’s mistakes, having promised a brave new world and then disappeared into a silent abyss right when the A-League desperately needs defending and decisive action.
This seeming reluctance to stand up and take ownership imprisons the game inside a self-destructive ghetto, where everybody slowly kills each other and only pause briefly when there is some mainstream invader to knock off instead. There is no front-foot approach, just a chain of knee-jerk reactions that further damage the brand.
What both FFA and the A-League sorely need is a central message, a carefully cultivated strategy for positive public cut-through. Something authentic, not contrived. Bold without being bitter. A little animation wouldn’t go astray either. Because nothing saps a soul like Steven Lowy reading aloud from his iPad and David Gallop’s world-weary drone. With the James Johnson era comes new opportunity, and the game has characters galore to sell its strengths. So for the love of Lawrie McKinna, inspire us.
This stuff is the bread and butter of a strategic communications adviser. One of these might have helped stem Lowy’s bleeding throughout the protracted congress reforms, and minimised the fallout of Gallop’s bumbling “we done?” press conference following Alen Stajcic’s highly contentious Matildas sacking. PR disasters aside, they may also help the lay person navigate a bureaucracy so complex it borders on the ridiculous and features more factions than the Australian Labor Party.
One journalist who dipped into the Stajcic affair lamented they’d picked up the phone in the morning to speak to sources and put it down in the afternoon more confused than when they’d started. That is little surprise given FFA umbrellas nine separately governed state member federations, some of which represent a small minority of the country’s registered players, and all of which are too often gridlocked by clashing agendas.
Most parties at every level want the game to grow, it’s just that many would prefer it on their individual terms, their timeline, and in a slightly different way to everybody else. That’s before considering the newly independent A-League, that is only sort of independent due to legal intricacies that may not be resolved until the end of the current broadcast deal.
The lack of a formal resolution has both sides palming responsibility off to the other, in a high-risk hot-potato exercise that could yet turn terminal before someone finally nurtures the game they’ve been fighting for all along. But here’s an idea: quit the brinkmanship and give us something good to write about.