The majority of countries around the world have a professional soccer league system that revolves around promotion and relegation. In England, the Premier League is the top league in the nation, and below that is the EFL Championship. To transfer between the two leagues, teams can be promoted up a division and relegated down, depending on their performance during a season.
While most leagues around the world have this function built into their systems, Australia doesn’t, except in the lower league. This means there’s no way to move between the A-League – Australia’s top professional soccer league – and the National Premier League (NPL), which currently acts as the nation’s second tier of soccer.
However, this soon may change thanks to the proposed national second division, which would implement promotion and relegation within the A-League.
But how might the proposed division impact the A-League and the future of Australian football?
Currently, there are 32 clubs bidding to join the new national second division from all across the country, most of which currently compete in the NPL. Some of these clubs also competed in the now-defunct National Soccer League (NSL), which acted as Australia’s top soccer league from 1977 to 2004.
The idea for the national second division had been around for years but was really starting to be discussed in 2016, and in early 2023, Football Australia shared details of a proposed second-tier professional competition. The league is slated to begin next year with the goal of bridging the gap between the elite and the community.
Neal Symons, co-founder of news site Kick360, believes that the establishment of the division will be “extremely beneficial” for the growth of football in Australia, as well as helping players reach that next step.
“I think this will provide enormous benefit for the way the game is perceived in Australia in terms of its legitimacy, player pathways, in terms of allowing more young players to play,” he tells upstart.
“And I think in terms of legitimising Australia as a footballing nation and really building upon those achievements from the World Cup and establishing a national second division is immensely crucial to not just the fabric of the A-League, but also the fabric of the NSL clubs. They can finally receive a platform on a national stage.”
NPL reporter Jack George believes that the growth of the sport in the country will be dependent on the success of the division itself.
“If it’s successful, it will breed positivity and improvement in Australian football. It will draw in a wider range of fans which will translate throughout the nation, in national teams and all leagues,” he tells upstart.
“A successful national second division could be the turning point for Australian football in establishing it as one of, if not the major, sport in our country.”
Established clubs are looking to join the proposed competition, which may pose a threat to clubs in the A-League – for example, the newer expansion sides like Western United and Macarthur FC. Both teams have had a tough season on and off the pitch, with both sides currently sitting in the bottom three and struggling significantly with fan attendance. This comes despite Macarthur being the current holders of the Australian Cup, while Western United are the reigning A-League champions.
However, Symons believes that A-League teams – specifically Western United – don’t have to worry yet.
“Preston Lions, for example, who are in Western United’s catchment area, and they pull 3000 [fans] per week, a lot of the time. You wish you could look at that and say, ‘well, we shouldn’t be scared, but how can we take inspiration from that?’” Symons says.
“’How can we, you know, encourage our fans in this way?’ And often, it’s not possible because of the way the A-League is set up as a license-based organisation.”
On the other hand, George believes that the national second division will make the A-League more competitive.
“Clubs will be more incentivised to compete on the bottom end of the ladder, with finals not the only positional motivation,” George says.
“If promotion and relegation are introduced, clubs will do everything in their power to avoid the drop and the issues that could follow, such as a loss of sponsors, players, fans and overall financial stability. This could see the industry become even more cutthroat in terms of performance.”
If the new division does prove to be a success, it may beg the question of whether a national third division of Australian football should be introduced.
“You know, I’d love for a three-tier Australian footballing pyramid,” Symons says.
“I think it’s about number one, establishing these clubs as sustainable financial entities, and that we don’t let another one of these clubs go into financial ruin which happened a lot in the NSL. But the game has matured immensely in the last 20 years, so who knows?”
Article: Campbell Leo is a Bachelor of Media and Communications (journalism) student at La Trobe University.
Photo: “Melbourne Victory Kevin Muscat” by AsianFC available HERE and used under a Creative Commons License. This photo has not been modified.