Former Fifa and CFG executive Johnson bullish as he starts FFA tenure

FFA Chief Executive Officer James Johnson and Matilda Elise Kellond-Knight pose for a photo during an Australia Matildas media opportunity at Bankwest Stadium on January 29, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

  • FFA is chasing replacements for three major sponsorships that have recently expired
  • This is task number one for new CEO James Johnson, who has worked at Fifa, the AFC and City Football Group
  • Long-term prospects are brighter, particularly if Australia can land the 2023 Women’s World Cup

James Johnson succeeded David Gallop as chief executive of Football Federation Australia in December.

In the same month, oil company Caltex’s four-year naming rights deal with the men’s national team, the Socceroos – worth about A$2m (€1.2m/$1.3m) a year – came to an end. Last time the FFA went looking for a naming rights partner, the search took two and a half years.

Then, in the first week of 2020, supermarket giant Aldi decided against taking up an option to extend its three-year agreement with the FFA, which included naming rights to the organisation’s children programme. National Australia Bank also ended its 15-year relationship with FFA, worth about A$2m annually, last year.

Johnson has a long football resume, with positions at Fifa, the Asian Football Confederation and City Football Group. He will need all that experience immediately.

A decade ago, most of the Socceroos were playing in the biggest leagues in Europe. The present crop possesses less star power, and this has hurt the marketability of the FFA’s prize asset.

“Australian players were once upon a time a commodity that top European clubs looked out for,” according to Craig Moore, former Rangers and Australia captain-turned consultant. “It is natural that the interest is there when the product is what it can be.”

The women’s team, the Matildas, remain both successful and popular, but their marketability has been dented by the persistent negative coverage that followed the surprising and controversial sacking of head coach Alen Stajcic in January 2019.

Moore adds: “The talking points and issues we have had in the game such as the sacking of the Matildas coach, these are things that major sponsors don’t want to be seeing in the media for 6-12 months. It is not good for publicity or investment.”

There is also the general business environment, with Australia particularly susceptible to catching colds when parts of the international economy sneeze.

“Firstly, sponsors are companies, and as growth in the Australian economy slows, many companies have entered a period of belt-tightening,” says Sebastian Hassett, an international sports consultant based in Melbourne. “As an export market, Australia depends on flowing international trade between nations, and the trade war between China (Australia’s top trading partner) and the US (Australia’s top strategic partner) has halted that flow.

Team Australia singing national anthem at Kaohsiung National Stadium on October 15, 2019 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. (Gene Wang/Getty Images)

“I don’t think football has trouble finding sponsors but finding the right ones – who are prepared to make a proper strategic investment – is always a challenge. More kids play football than any other sport and the possibility of leveraging that participation base as well as their parents will always be a lure to top-tier sponsors.”

Reasons to be cheerful

FFA chief operating officer, Mark Falvo also takes solace from the strong levels of participation in the country.

“We know we can attract sponsors,” he tells SportBusiness. “We are by far the biggest sport at the grassroots level by the government’s own numbers, with 1.8 million playing the game all around the country.

“We are seeking to qualify for the World Cup, we have two successful senior national teams and they embody the diversity of Australia. We see it as an opportunity.”

While Australian sponsorship is an intensely competitive marketplace with five major properties – the Australian Football League, National Rugby League, Cricket Australia and Rugby Australia and Tennis Australia – FFA has a unique selling point given that Australia, since 2006, has been a member of the AFC as well as the Southeast Asian regional federation.

The FFA has been accused in the past of being slow to engage with the giant continent to the north but Johnson’s experience at the AFC should make a difference.

“No other sport in Australia can provide the global engagement and opportunities that football can,” argues Falvo. “We are playing in competitions all over Asia week in and week out. Asia is the opportunity. We haven’t seen that as yet but as we become increasingly engaged in the region, we will see more, especially as Australian corporations are making inroads in Asia.”

And in the medium-term, the specific challenges to marketability should improve. “The Matildas are arguably the most marketable team in Australia right now, and the Socceroos will probably qualify for the 2022 World Cup,” says Hassett. “The FFA has genuine performance assets to call upon.”

The World Cup

Co-hosting the 2023 Women’s World Cup along with New Zealand would be a fillip for FFA and its commercial offering. Fifa’s 37-member council will make the decision in March, with Japan, Colombia and Brazil the other three contenders.

“We have come together to present a unified bid that we think includes a stronger quality of stadium, a commercial return, a legacy for the Asia-Pacific region,” Falvo says. “The two countries have been progressive in women’s football for some time and have seen a huge growth in the following of the respective national teams.

FFA chief executive officer James Johnson speaks during an Australia Matildas media opportunity at Bankwest Stadium on January 29, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

“Australia tends to leverage major events very well from a business/corporate point of view. Lots has been written about how many trade deals were delivered at the Sydney Olympics. It was the same at the 2015 Asian Cup and we worked with government to establish events and build dialogue with participating nations. I think Australia and New Zealand are ahead of the curve when recognising the value of women’s sporting properties.”

It’s another early opportunity for Johnson to show his mettle. The Australian bid to host the 2022 Fifa men’s World Cup failed dismally, winning a single vote from the Fifa delegates. A change of chief executive while the hosting race enters the final stages is the opposite of a problem, according to Hassett.

“Fortunately, Johnson’s background – first as a player, then as a lawyer and ultimately rising through the ranks of the PFA, AFC, Fifa and City Football Group – means nobody comes in with a better grasp of the local challenges and global opportunities. Over time, I think the football community will realise the sport has nabbed one of the sharpest minds in world football, with a work ethic to match.”

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