By Braham Dabscheck, Senior Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of Melbourne and a Member of the PFA Advisory Panel

27 April 2008 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Australian Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). The persons who attended this inaugural meeting had two key objects. The first was to improve the wages and employment rights of players. Such problems were seen as being linked to the operation of the transfer and compensation system that operated in football. The second objective was more fundamental, more profound; it expressed a deep felt concern about the state of football in Australia.

The minutes of this meeting state:

that a major problem with soccer is its perceived total lack of professionalism and that it was regarded as a ‘joke’ by many other professional sporting bodies. With that in mind, [a players’] association must be encouraged to work for the good of the game.

The PFA initially acted to protect and defend both the individual and collective rights of players. It represented and acted on behalf of players in grievance disputes with clubs over terms and conditions contained in contracts. Such actions acted as a powerful bond between members and leaders/officers of the PFA. It also negotiated collective bargaining agreements for both players of the old National Soccer League (NSL) and the Socceroos. After the PFA’s “Bosman like” legal victory in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in 1995, the first NSL collective bargaining agreement a year later introduced major changes to the transfer and compensation system and increased the economic freedom of players. Between 1996 and 2001 the average income of players increased from $20,000 to $43,000, with full-time players earning on average over $60,000 in 2001 and, for the NSL’s best, substantial six figure salaries.

Despite these successes, the PFA was frustrated in its attempts to improve incomes and benefits for players, because of the inability of the Australian Soccer Federation (ASF) and NSL to provide a financially stable environment, let alone grow the game. Various administrators were viewed as being unable to develop policies and programmes to enhance the code’s development. The ASF and NSL, plus various clubs, lurched from one financial crisis to another.

In October 2001, the PFA decided to launch PFA Management Limited and allocated scarce resources – some $500,000 – in undertaking research to investigate commercial opportunities and develop a proposal for the establishment of a new and viable league in Australia. In November 2002, the PFA endorsed the creation of the Australian Premier League.

Such initiatives induced the ASF (by then called Soccer Australia) to call on the Federal Government to help it escape from the financial and administrative mess that was Australian football. In due course, the Government commissioned Crawford Report made recommendations for a new beginning. Both Soccer Australia and the NSL were abolished. They were replaced by Football Federation Australia (FFA) and the A-League, respectively. The organisation and structure of the A-League was largely based on the Australian Premier League model which had been developed by PFA Management Limited.

While the PFA experienced some initial problems in developing a relationship with FFA, it has now negotiated a “whole of game” compact with FFA as well as comprehensive collective bargaining agreements for the A-League and players who represent Australia in various international competitions. The average income for A-League players, for the 2008/2009 season, will be approximately $100,000, with a minimum of $35,000 for young players and $42,000 for players over 21. The A-League boasts a free labour market without the restriction of the transfer and compensation fee system which proved to be so problematic for players. Socceroos players earned on average $215,000 in the 2006 FIFA World Cup year and payments will continue to grow over the 4 years of the new Socceroos collective bargaining agreement. The PFA continues to represent players individually, and has won millions of dollars in unpaid entitlements for players both at home and around the world. Players now turn to the PFA for guidance and financial assistance when injured and to prepare for life after football. In addition, FFA’s strategic plan expressly acknowledges the importance to the game of building partnerships with both players and the PFA.

The A-League is now preparing for its fourth season. It has grown in leaps and bounds. The FFA has secured a meaningful broadcasting agreement. FFA and the respective clubs have been able to negotiate increasingly valuable deals with sponsors. Match attendances have grown. Many of Australia’s leading players have returned from Europe to play in Australia. The A-League is looking to expand into exciting new markets, such as the Gold Coast, and, in time, second teams are likely to be added in both Sydney and Melbourne in keeping with the PFA’s early vision for the competition.

Australian football is on a growth trajectory. The PFA has been a major force in the successful transformation of the sport from a ‘joke’ to a professional code enjoying increasing success. The PFA can look back with pride, since that historic meeting on 27 April 1993, on the pro active and prominent role that it has played in this transformation. This has been the greatest achievement of the PFA in the fifteen short years of its operation.

Braham Dabscheck is Australia’s leading authority on the industrial relations aspects of professional team sports. He has advised the AFL Players’ Association, the Australian Cricketers’ Association, the Rugby Union Players’ Association as well as the PFA since its inception. Braham was an expert witness in the PFA’s successful legal challenge to the Australian transfer and compensation system before a Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in 1995, which paved the way for the free movement of players within Australia. Players in attendance at the PFA’s inaugural meeting included John Kosmina, Greg Brown, Stan Lazaridis, Oscar Crino and KimonTaliadoros.