The A-Leagues, the organizer of the top men’s and women’s soccer competitions in Australia, has confirmed plans to add two new men’s clubs based in Australia's Canberra and New Zealand’s Auckland for the 2024-25 season, with Auckland also set to gain an A-League Women’s side.
The two markets beat 11 other contenders including north Queensland, Gold Coast, and Wollongong to claim the 13th and 14th places in the men’s A-League next year, pending the finalization of their license applications in June.
The expansion sides will pay fees of about AUD25 million ($16.6 million) each, which will buy the new owners a share in the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the new commercial and marketing body for soccer in the country.
Other shareholders in APL include the 12 existing teams, broadcaster Paramount, investment firm Silver Lake, which acquired a significant stake in the body for a final figure of AUD140 million, and governing body Football Australia (FA), which owns a special ‘good of the game’ share that gives it control over key issues like foreign player allowances and expansion.
The APL said the ultimate goal was for the men’s A-League to feature 16 teams for a 30-round competition by the 2025-26 season.
It is the first expansion the APL has organized following their unbundling from FA in 2020 and sees a shift from the process that saw Western United and Macarthur FC join the A-League in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
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The last two clubs were given A-Leagues licenses under a FA rationale that they would develop alongside the small but growing populations in western Melbourne and southwest Sydney.
However, both clubs have since struggled to gain a foothold in their communities due to challenges created by the pandemic, as well as a lack of local facilities, limited fan engagement, and leadership issues behind the scenes.
The APL’s chief executive Danny Townsend said the body had taken a different approach this time, choosing markets with an existing population that currently have no representation in the leagues. Other criteria the markets were judged on included whether the teams would cannibalize other fanbases and whether they would expand the A-Leagues’ footprint.
Canberra and Auckland ticked multiple boxes, while Tasmania and Darwin are in contention for future expansion rounds.
Townsend said: “Those two last expansion clubs were given licenses on the back of being two healthy growth corridors in Australia … and FA wanted to build a build in the community as the community grew around it.
“In the long term, they are going to be great clubs because they’re going to grow with that community. I think what we’re trying to do with these next two is drive into a [existing] passion for football and hunger for elite football, and Canberra and Auckland have got those attributes.
“We want to make sure that, from day one, they are really strong additions to our league.”
Canberra has not had a team in the national men’s top tier since the Canberra Cosmos folded in 2001, while Auckland-based Football Kingz folded in 2004.
Auckland’s New Zealand Knights then played in the A-League for the competition’s first two seasons before having their license revoked in 2007 due to poor crowds and on-field performances.
Townsend said despite the city’s previous failure to host a team, he was confident the new team would take a “better path,” adding: “Auckland is the biggest metro city in Australia and New Zealand without a team.
“We’re not overly concerned about history and why things worked or didn’t. You obviously look at why the Knights didn’t work and you learn from that and ensure you don’t follow the same path.”
The introduction of Auckland to the A-Leagues means New Zealand will now be represented by two clubs each in the men's and women's leagues, joining Wellington Phoenix's sides to create four New Zealand derby matches.
Canberra’s latest bid, meanwhile, is again being led by Michael Gaggiano, who had his previous bid to enter the A-League in 2018 rejected by FA in favor of Western United and Macarthur.
Speaking to news outlet AP Australia, Gaggiano said: “I’ve been working with the APL, they are genuinely engaged, interested, and working with us on bringing football investment to Canberra.
“This is about the best investor, not any investor. The best investor for this region that’s going to contribute to football and to help football grow and be more valuable as a whole.
“It’s not about who can drop the most money, it’s about what’s best for the game and best for the leagues.”
Another significant feature of the APL’s expansion strategy is taking greater diligence over club ownership, with several current A-Leagues clubs including the Newcastle Jets and Brisbane Roar experiencing tensions with their owners.
APL said as part of its expansion plans, it will aim to engage with local partners and investors first, with a preference for creating consortiums of owners as opposed to individuals to reduce the financial risk of incoming clubs.
Local and international investors with pre-existing soccer acumen will also be favored when assessing prospective owners.
The 2022-23 men's A-League season started on October 7 last year and will conclude on May 27 while the women's league kicked off on November 18, 2022, and concludes on April 30.
Image: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images