What a year 2020 has been for Australian football; COVID caused a major disruption to the closing stages of the season, the financial viability of the league has been hurt due to the FFA losing multiple commercial partnerships, and Fox Sports has given a clear indication of its indifference to football when it held the league to ransom during broadcast deal renegotiations.
Whilst these have been the unavoidable negatives, there have also been some standout positives too with Australia and New Zealand winning hosting rights for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup and Melbourne City securing the bridesmaid's treble.
Players from all clubs should be congratulated for the sacrifices made in order to finish the season, with many spending 80+ days away from their families and most paid a fraction of their usual wages. In particular, a huge shoutout has to go the Wellington Phoenix group who gave up the most time away from family to ensure that the league resumed.
Now that the season has been completed and we cast an eye forward to 2020/21, we are seeing the rise of discussions around the salary cap and a proposed reduction of 30%, bringing the cap down to $2.1 million (from $3.2 million).
This is a popular idea amongst several A-League clubs who are making a push in favour of this reduction, which would give teams the power to selectively slash players' contracts with a seven-day take-it-or-leave-it period. It is important to note that under the current 2019/20 salary cap system, clubs are required to spend a minimum of $2.880 million as a salary floor.
This concept will be revisited soon. For now, we'll consider this: The players have made huge sacrifices to complete the 2019/20 season, with all taking a huge pay cut and having to rely on JobKeeper in many instances, and now the majority of clubs are asking for the ability to slash their deals further and cut their pay on an ongoing basis. Is this the right call? Some say that it is necessary for clubs to be able to protect the bottom line, which is an understandable argument. Most, if not all clubs, are currently running at a loss and are reliant on the TV broadcast deal to cover as much expenditure as possible. A cut-price TV deal means less money to be shared between all the clubs and with a new franchise joining again in the 2020/2021 season the TV payments will be diluted even more.
Is this decrease something that the league can afford to take on? Would we see a decline in the quality of the league? Almost certainly this would have a direct result on the level of football that we see on the pitch. This is a league that already struggles to attract and hold onto top-level talent under the current system which dictates that overseas offers can often not be matched.
A current option that League, Club, and PFA bosses are discussing to help clubs cut costs is the removal of the salary cap (and therefore also removing the salary floor - the minimum amount that clubs are required to spend).
I know what you're thinking: "Of course the City fans would be in favour of removing the cap, CFG could flex its financial muscle and turn the league into a three-horse race, with only Sydney and Victory capable of keeping up financially." This is a fair concern but one that the salary cap isn't really preventing currently. We see Sydney consistently at the top of the table due to the fact they have been able to successfully work the salary cap and its concessions to their favour with multiple players eligible for features like the loyalty concession. City and Victory are also consistently amongst the front runners, so is a salary cap really providing us with the balance it is designed to provide?
On the other hand, the Central Coast Mariners have become the league's case study for underwhelming, uninspired 'small-club' spending which has seen them rooted at the foot of the table for several years now.
Is having a minimum spend really helping the sides that are struggling financially or is it simply a barrier to entry that is becoming too demanding? The reality is that clubs that consistently languish at the bottom are there due to problems that extend much further than the organisation itself. The FFA is currently forcing them to spend more than they can afford to, demanding that the cap floor be met in order to keep the league competitive.
What I would like to see is the removal of the salary cap as well as the introduction of transfer fees so that clubs without financial muscle can be rewarded for developing a player and turning a profit from the transfer fee received. As we see in leagues around the world, the financial implications of a big enough fee can present tangible benefits for several years after the fact.
The removal of the cap has multiple benefits, with higher-profile players more likely to consider an Australian move as we would be able to offer competitive wages. More Socceroos would likely spend time here too instead of chasing money in Asian leagues, which could see improvements for the A-League and national team simultaneously. Now is the perfect time to make the move away from a salary cap. It isn't providing the balance that it is designed to cultivate and, it can be argued, is actually hurting clubs at the lower end of the financial ladder thanks to enforced minimum spending.
Let's take the shackles off and let this league finally take advantage of the popularity of the sport both here and abroad. It's time to break from the Australian sporting mould and take our first big step forward, back in line with the rest of the footballing world.