What the FFA Cup can learn from the AFL and NRL grand finals

Full story first published on SBS’ The World Game: https://theworldgame.sbs.com.au/what-the-ffa-cup-can-learn-from-the-afl-and-nrl-grand-finals

The AFL and NRL Grand Finals represent the crown jewels of Australia’s two great sporting behemoths. But in the FFA Cup, Australian football has its own event that has the potential to enrapture the Australian sporting zeitgeist.

On Saturday night, fans across the country watched in their millions as Richmond won their third AFL Premiership in four years by defeating Geelong. Then on Sunday, the Melbourne Storm capped off a Victorian triumvirate of Grand Final successes (Melbourne Vixens also won the Super Netball crown last week) by defeating the Penrith Panthers.

Even if one has only a passing interest in either code, it was almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement surrounding the two games in the week leading into their staging  – excitement which reached a state of fever pitch on the day itself.

But while those games carry with them romance and emotional connection unable to be matched by any of their domestic rivals, Australian football does have its own, unique competition that carries with it a similar potential to enthral and enchant: the FFA Cup.

While the NRL and AFL carry with them all the bells and whistles that only their war chests can provide, in no other major sport in Australia is it theoretically possible for a group of panel beaters, accountants, electricians and personal trainers from the state leagues to go on a magical run of games that leads to a competitive fixture against professionals from the country’s highest tier.

Such fixtures appeal not just to football fans, but the public as a whole. There is a reason a classic tale of the underdog in ‘Rocky’ won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Furthermore, if, as Optus Sport has reported, consideration is being made to rebrand the competition as the ‘Australia Cup’, further golden opportunities to engage the rich history that the game has in Australia emerge.

In the same way that Richmond’s 13th AFL/VFL crown can be celebrated as joining the legacies of Jack Dyer, Kevin Sheedy, Royce Hart, and Kevin Bartlett, the progress of clubs like South Melbourne, Adelaide City, Sydney Olympic, Melbourne Knights and Lions FC allows football to tell the stories of its historical heroes.

In 2022, not only could the exploits of the competing clubs and players be celebrated, but also the 60th anniversary of the first edition of the Australia Cup; recounting how SSC Yugal downed St George Budapest 8–1 at Wentworth Park in the final, as well as how Adelaide’s Juventus defeated Melbourne’s Juventus on penalties in the third-place playoff.

And with the next iteration of the competition excluded from the re-negotiated broadcast deal with Fox Sports, the coming months represent the perfect opportunity for the FFA to investigate delivering this content, be it by themselves digitally, via an established broadcaster or through a combination of the two, in a manner that allows the game to share this story with a much wider audience than before.

For while it must be acknowledged Fox Sports’ embracing and coverage of the cup in its formative years has been integral in its survival and becoming a beloved part of the footballing landscape; a move to get at least some facet of it from behind a paywall can only serve to broaden the appeal.

And it’s not as if a greater emphasis on the cup would require a major change in thinking from the FFA.

On page 35 of its updated XI Principles document from October, the federation highlighted the need to better connect the competition to its 700+ participants clubs, as well as leverage the commercial opportunities presented by this wide base by fostering greater awareness and coverage of the early, state-based rounds of the competition.

Introducing an open draw, making the FFA Cup final the final game of the football calendar as part of a standalone weekend, providing the winner with ACL qualification, and the establishment of complementary events surrounding the final are also flagged by the document.

The establishment of an equivalent tournament for the women’s game is also floated and, though that would create some challenges given the crossover between W-League and WNPL rosters, such a move would also strengthen the interconnectedness of the ecosystem.          

This is not to say, however, that the A-League Grand Final or finals series must be sacrificed on the altar of raising the profile of the FFA Cup final.

With 3.812m people around the country tuning into the AFL Grand Final, 2.967m to the NRL Grand Final and the A-League Grand Final – even if it did suffer 14% drop compared to last year – bringing in significantly more eyeballs than its regular-season fixtures, it’s clear that the Australian sporting public loves itself a Big Dance.

The finals series, furthermore, represents an excellent opportunity for participants – the COVID-19-effected 2019/20 finals notwithstanding – to boost their bottom lines via highly attended matches and with TV deals supplemented by the promise of finals football – especially important for A-League and W-League clubs as they transition towards taking control of the competition.

And, for all the talk of unification and celebration of history, an increase in importance in the FFA Cup is just one piece of a puzzle of reforms that need to be undertaken to ensure that all clubs are able to feel included in the footballing ecosystem and rise to the level their aspirations and competency can take them.  

Nonetheless, there is a reason it’s called the Magic of the FFA Cup. Let’s let it loose.  

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