A revised A-League Collective Bargaining Agreement has been embraced by the clubs and their owners, who have responded magnificently to challenging times by assembling what looks like being the most exciting assembly of players in the A-League’s 7 season history.

PFA Chief Executive Brendan Schwab looks back at the latest round of CBA talks between FFA and the PFA, which vitally ruled out cutting player payments, and instead embraced quality on and off the field.

About a year ago, Football Federation Australia and the owners of the A-League clubs gathered in Sydney to discuss the future of a competition that, off the field, was starting to want for direction and energy.  Part way through its 6th season, declining crowds and financial instability indicated change was needed.  And whilst the PFA was not in the room with the owners, the ensuing FFA press release and the call for cost cutting as part of a strategic review suggested a big cut to player payments would be in the mix.

The PFA rightly asked itself why this would be the case, bearing in mind:

• combined, Socceroos and A-League player payments accounted for about a third of the combined gross revenue of FFA and the A-League clubs (excluding government grants), low by international standards;
• A-League players are, with their counterparts in Major League Soccer, one of only two player groups that have agreed to a cap on their earnings to boost the competitive balance and financial viability of their league;
• the quality of play had never been more acclaimed; and
• the real issue must surely have been to boost the game’s revenues, especially by converting the millions of people that love football into fans of the A-League and its clubs.

The conversion rates of A-League clubs in 2009/10 made for stark reading.  For example, average Melbourne Victory crowds equated to 31.7% of participants in Victoria, 29.2% in South Australia for Adelaide United, 18.2% in Perth, 8.7% in Brisbane and only 3.8% by Sydney FC in Sydney.  On any measure, had all A-League clubs been able to mirror the performance of Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United, the A-League would be in a very strong position.

The strategic review of the A-League coincided with review mandated after the third season of the PFA’s 5 year collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with FFA and the A-League clubs.  This obliged the PFA to negotiate any changes to player payments and conditions in good faith.  The PFA wanted the opportunity to negotiate security for player contracts to avoid the loss of player contracts and benefits which had followed the collapse of the New Zealand Knights in 2007 and North Queensland in 2010.  We also wanted greater investment in player education, development and wellbeing programs, to help players mitigate the risk of football’s short term career path by developing a plan for life after football.

FFA’s opening position was to seek a new cap at the level of the salary floor in 2010/11 – under $2.0 million, a cut of more than $350,000.  Only one marquee player would be allowed instead of two, with allowances for under 23 marquees, additional services and a myriad of other benefits all cut to fit under the new and lower cap.  The PFA calculated FFA’s proposal to cost the players over $12 million in 2011/12 alone.  In addition, FFA wanted to canvas the reintroduction of a domestic transfer system despite the PFA’s successful legal challenge to it in the old National Soccer League in 1995.

The PFA’s response reflected both our obligation to negotiate in good faith and our marketing and financial analysis.  We suggested investigating a “hard” but higher cap as an interim measure, without the many allowed exceptions.  We also recommended the introduction of geographical zoning for clubs to encourage the development of their brand identities and community engagement.  Additional Services Agreements would be replaced by “Community Service Agreements” that would reward clubs that employed players effectively at grass roots level.  We ruled out a transfer system, citing it as not only being harmful to the players but also to the shared goal of competitive balance and financial viability.

But, above all, we impressed on FFA the need to preserve the great progress the A-League made on the field in 2010/11, as evinced by the outstanding performances of teams like Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners and players of the calibre of Matt McKay and Mustafa Amini.  The A-League can only do this by investing in its greatest asset – the players.

In the end, the quality of our members’ performances won out.  FFA and the PFA agreed to maintain the current salary cap rules for the final two seasons of the CBA, which coincides with the game’s broadcast deal.  The cap will increase by CPI for those seasons, with some changes designed to reward clubs that develop “home grown players” and to avoid the abuse of additional services agreements.  Clubs will be entitled to recruit two marquee players – one of whom must be Australian – whose wages can be paid outside of the salary cap.  FFA and the PFA continue to negotiate non-financial issues including contract security and player education, development and wellbeing.

Brendan’s next look at the A-League CBA will examine the players’ priorities between now and its expiry in 2013, in which time FFA must implement any recommendations from the current Smith Review as well as negotiate a new broadcast rights agreement.