Transcript of address by FFA Chairman, Steven Lowy AM, from the FFA Annual General Meeting
On the evening of the current board’s final meeting just a few weeks ago I hosted a dinner to mark the occasion – a kind of Last Supper, you might say.
You might have thought it would be a pretty solemn affair.
But it was, in fact, a very warm and light-hearted occasion.
And it wasn’t because some of us felt the burden of responsibility lifted from our shoulders!
It was because most of the evening was devoted to looking back at what had been achieved on our watch.
Each board member took the opportunity to speak about their experience, and the stories they told were universally respectful and positive, and often humorous.
This was because, beyond the headlines generated about the Congress process, much progress had been made, on and off the pitch.
We reflected on FFA record revenues, a record broadcast deal, and record corporate sponsorship, all achieved in a fiercely competitive sporting marketplace where football probably ranks as the number four sport in the country for both revenue and broadcast numbers.
We spoke about the flourishing grassroots, with participation growing as more young boys and, importantly, young girls continue to get involved in football.
Football is clearly now the No. 1 participation sport in the country.
There were plenty of other initiatives mentioned – such as our absolutely critical investment in digital infrastructure to better market the whole game and better connect the professional and amateur pillars of football.
Directors recalled this year’s record distributions to A-League clubs; and record distributions to Member Federations; and the fact that FFA revenue is expected to grow to $121 million this year – with 60% allocated to running of the Leagues and distributions to A-League clubs and players with the remaining 40% to the national teams and grassroots.
Players now receive 33% of overall revenues of FFA, up from 27% four years ago.
And the balance sheet which reflects members’ equity of $6.9 million, which is small because we distribute effectively all of our revenues to various sectors of the game, was held intact along the way.
There was the first-ever Collective Bargaining Agreement for Westfield W-League players.
And the building up of FFA’s government and international relations capabilities consolidating FFA’s high standing with Commonwealth and State Governments and with FIFA and AFC.
On the pitch the FFA Cup continues to grow and is hailed as a unique success story in the Australian sporting landscape, involving more than 700 teams and creating captivating “David and Goliath” contests.
There was much discussion about the continuing success of the Socceroos and Matildas.
For the Socceroos – they are one of just 12 nations out of a total of 211 FIFA member countries to have appeared at the past four successive World Cups.
The Matildas continue to improve and are now ranked 6th in the world, and are a real World Cup prospect next year in France. They are now one of Australia’s most-loved sporting teams.
Our bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup, with strong support from the Commonwealth Government, was another milestone that has the potential to massively turbo-charge women’s sport, and particularly women’s football, across Australia.
These were just some of the happier recollections.
There was some dark humour about the difficult times too.
I recalled that within days of assuming the chair the entire game was in uproar over the fan-banning controversy which led to active fan groups striking. Fortunately it was quickly resolved, thanks in large part to the leadership of David and his senior team, as well as Chris Nikou from the board and Mark Bosnich who is well known to you all. It would have been disastrous if this issue had not been resolved quickly.
And then there was the Congress process.
I’d like to take this opportunity to address candidates for the board of directors and Members on this issue.
You all know that I was not prepared to cross my “red line”, as it were, which was to run the risk, in the existing board’s view, of undermining the true independence of the FFA board.
The football community will expect the new board to continue to govern the game to the letter and in the spirit of that concept of independence.
Regardless of who nominated or votes for individual directors today, and regardless of previous affiliations or factions, new directors must continue to act independently and in the best interests of the overall game.
The new board will immediately confront very, very difficult choices in the allocation of finite resources to infinite stakeholder objectives.
They will have to determine significant strategic and financial issues for the game, not least being:
- A new operating model for the A-League.
- The introduction of new clubs to the A-League – including consideration of their financial sustainability and where they are to be located.
- The vexed issue of the creation and viability of a national 2nd division looms, along with the question of promotion and relegation.
- Regulations that favour national teams or A-League clubs, or vice versa.
- And in an environment of scarce resources trying to reduce the costs for individual players in the community and the elite pathway systems.
All of these have to be got right. And to achieve that requires wise debate and independent decision-making.
Any future board will need to justify and explain its choices to the entire football community – not just to the professional game; or one or two particular State Federations, or one interest group or another.
To be clear, the current board has been a strong advocate of the need for a new operating model for the A-League, and for its expansion.
While the A-League has record distributions and club memberships it clearly has stagnated in broadcasting viewership and crowds and much work is required to get it back onto a growth path, that will justify a further investment from the broadcast world in the next few years.
In making the transition to a new operating model the new board and Members must respect that the A-League is owned by FFA on behalf of the football community of Australia.
Many people have forgotten that the A-League got its start with help from the taxpayer, via the Commonwealth Government, and was subsidised in its early years by the success of our “Golden Generation” of Socceroos.
A-League clubs didn’t exist 15 years ago, but today the owners who have invested in these clubs have seen the value of their asset – the licence issued to them by FFA – grow considerably.
If and when they sell that licence to a new owner there is potential to realise significant profit, as was the case this year with Adelaide United.
Now, as the new board considers the transfer of the A-League to a new entity with new governance arrangements it is important that the legacy and the ownership of the league by the football community is respected.
This means maximising the potential of the A-League without cannibalising our national teams’ participation in tournaments or damaging the grassroots.
As I said, there will be hard choices about the allocation of finite resources.
I hear the argument that is fashionable at the moment that there must be more “football people” and fewer “suits” represented on the board.
It is a nonsense argument which is hopelessly superficial and naïve.
And it is typically advocated by people who have had no board or management experience at this level or the heavy responsibility that goes with it.
Football is about passion. We all get that. Those of us in this room who have played it, lived and breathed it, know that.
But passion is not enough.
Football is also a serious business and it therefore demands skills and experience beyond just the game.
The current board had precisely the right mix of skills: firstly, directors have been engaged in football at various levels both professional and amateur.
Danny Moulis played at the highest level. He also happens to be an experienced legal practitioner.
Joseph Healy played for the junior Scottish national team as well as bringing a wealth of banking and financial expertise to the board.
Chris Nikou was another with deep legal experience, as well as impeccable credentials as a “football person” through his involvement with FFV and Melbourne Victory.
Simon Hepworth is Chief Financial Officer of Caltex and in terms of football, played semi-professionally in the UK, and is a qualified coach and a qualified referee.
Crispin Murray is one of Australia’s leading fund managers with enormous financial and strategic expertise, as well as a player and deep student of the game.
Kelly Bayer Rosmarin is one of Australia’s leading banking executives, and has been particularly insightful in the board oversight of the implementation of our most important digital strategy. Both Kelly and Crispin were especially valuable during our negotiations over our record broadcast deal.
Moya Dodd and Cheryl Bart who retired last year both have extensive corporate, legal and football credentials.
There was never any doubt that any of these individuals were motivated or influenced by anything other than a deep and abiding love of the game.
A fundamental aspect of governance is often overlooked by commentators in sport.
The fact is that there is, and must be, a separation of responsibilities and duties between an independent board and its executive management team.
The board is there to oversee strategy, policy, governance, finance, reputation and culture.
Management’s role is to develop and execute its strategy and operate within the parameters determined by the board.
It goes without saying that FFA’s management team and its coaching and technical staff have an abundance of hands-on football experience.
Ladies and gentlemen, many things have made me proud to serve FFA over the past few years. These are just some of them.
The first is that I was able to follow my father, Sir Frank Lowy, who together with his board, led the resurrection of the game only 15 years ago.
We have been together in all things football since I was a little boy.
I knew that when I was asked to put my name forward for the board that my surname would be an issue.
Which is why I explained to each Member of Congress at the time that they would need to look past my name and focus on my credentials.
And I only wanted to do the job if they wanted me to do it.
They did focus on my credentials and saw that my experience qualified me for the role.
They saw that I had been intimately involved in the game for 50 years.
That I had played the game competitively for more than 40 years.
That I was a 30-year-plus senior and Chief Executive of one of the largest publicly listed and most successful retail real estate companies in the world.
And that I had served on a number of Federal and State Government committees for national security and policing.
And as Chairman for a range of leading institutions like the Art Gallery of NSW and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, among others.
This was all experience I could bring to bear in this role and Congress Members at the time supported my nomination and elected me unanimously.
The board and I didn’t achieve everything we might have hoped to over the past three years.
We would have liked to have moved more swiftly on issues like a new operating model and expansion of the A-League and addressing the urgent need to provide more resources and match experience for our junior national teams, both male and female.
We would also have liked to have made more progress on better connecting the grassroots with the professional game.
There were other issues too, but on balance I’m proud of the progress made over our term.
I was also proud to lead a board of such outstanding individuals, each of whom devoted enormous amounts of time and thought to the issues confronting the game, all without any remuneration and often in the face of very strident and unfair criticism.
Given that Joseph and Danny will also be retiring today and Chris and Simon’s terms finished recently I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their enormous contribution selflessly serving on the board and numerous committees.
I have often said that the FFA board I served on would hold its own against any corporate or sporting board in the country and I will always stand by that statement.
The same can be said of the executive team, led by one of Australia’s most outstanding sports administrators David Gallop.
He, along with Jo Setright, Mark Falvo, Tim Holden, Emma Highwood, Greg O’Rourke, Luke Casserly and Luke Bould, Alen Stajcic and Graham Arnold, and the rest of the team have been incredibly hard-working and loyal servants of the game, and FFA is fortunate to have them.
The territory they must cover is vast, domestically and internationally. No one is perfect but they do an amazing job with limited resources.
I have always been proud of our national teams, but the past few years have given me new insight to this.
The role that the Socceroos and Matildas play as ambassadors for our country is incredibly important – and they have never let us down.
No sport is immune from lapses in behaviour by players or staff. Constant discipline is required by all involved to ensure our teams, including our junior national teams, uphold the values of Australia, and Australian football, and promote them on the world stage.
I am proud of the professionalism of all our national teams and the way they play our game – hard but fair.
They are always gracious in victory and dignified in defeat and I am sure this is why they are held in such high regard not just by football fans but by all Australians.
In a similar way, I’m proud too of our fans.
And our nation should be proud of the way our fans represent Australia abroad, something that was remarked upon to me at the World Cup by the FIFA President.
Being in Russia and having the opportunity to spend time with the 8000 or so Australian fans who travelled huge distances in support of their team and country was extraordinary and on a personal level, a highlight of my time as Chairman.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure you will join with me in thanking all candidates for their interest in standing for election and congratulating the four elected directors.
I was thinking of writing a letter to the incoming Chairman of FFA, and a couple of weeks ago I read about the hand-written note former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sent to Barack Obama upon his election as President of the United States in 2008.
It wasn’t quite what incoming US Presidents might have expected from another head of government.
“Dear Mr President,
You poor bastard….Infinite expectations. Finite resources.”
I don’t think I can improve on that message to the incoming Chairman!
Let me close by saying what an honour it has been to serve as Chairman of FFA, and to have been able to build upon the strong foundation put in place by previous boards.
It is now up to the new expanded Congress and a largely new FFA board to protect the gains already made, and take our game to new heights.
This remains my fervent hope and I wish the incoming custodians of our great game the very best in realising the enormous potential of football in Australia.
I now declare the meeting closed.