As the controversial “Festival of Football” nears its crescendo, APL chief executive Danny Townsend has told ESPN the concept’s debut had delivered on its key goals and that planning for an expanded and improved effort for next year is already underway.
Concluding when Melbourne City and the Central Coast Mariners face off in the A-League Men grand final on Saturday, this year’s festival is the first since the leagues signed a divisive three-year deal with Destination NSW to stage its grand finals and a “week-long extravaganza” celebrating football in Sydney.
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Commencing with an NSW parliamentary reception on Wednesday, it then celebrated its Dolan Warren Awards at the Star Casino on Thursday evening as part of the festival and continued with a Grand Final Party at Moore Park’s Entertainment Quarter on Friday.
Though the events themselves have been well produced, the festival itself has done little to soothe tensions with the league’s most vocal core consumers nationwide, who remain riled over the move away from a history of awarding grand final hosting rights in line with some form of sporting merit-based criteria as well as a breakdown in trust with administrators.
Speaking to ESPN, Townsend said the festival had been undertaken with a focus on quality over quantity in year one, with steps already being undertaken to grow the festival’s offerings in future years.
“We were working on the deal eighteen months ago,” Townsend said. “So the deal, getting to the deal, was the first stage. Then getting to what’s in the deal, what are we delivering in year one? For the [NSW] government, their focus was on ensuring whatever we deliver, we deliver it well. So the government are really happy with that.
“We’re really happy with that. Next year, we’ll start adding in more events and gradually building up more momentum for the concept.”
Though saying he was unable to divulge too deeply on specifics, the executive revealed this will likely include the removal of the two-week break between the semifinal and grand final, work with Football Australia to stage Australia Cup and National Second Tier fixtures during the festival, and increasing crossover with the A-League Women.
“You’re not going to do more events on the same days, right? You’re going to spread them out and do more things to get people to come here and spend more time here,” Townsend said.
“That’s part of our commitment, how can we put on enough things in a week that if you love football, then you just have to be for it?
“I’d ultimately love to get it to the point where you book it, whether your team is in it or not because it’s just a great way to celebrate football.”
Townsend did acknowledge, however, that the collapse of the deal to bring German powers Bayern Munich to play against an A-League All Stars side, a year on from 70,174 fans attending a similar fixture against Barcelona, was disappointing; the fixture rendered financially unviable after the newly elected NSW Labor government withdrew support for the fixture (that funding separate to the three-year grand final deal signed with the previous Coalition government).
“Obviously, that would have cost taxpayers money and that won’t be proceeding,” NSW jobs, tourism and night-time economy minister, John Graham, said in the aftermath of Bayern’s withdrawal. “Look, it’s a good idea but we can’t do every good idea.”
But despite the Bayern disappointment, Townsend was quick to emphasise that the APL had received assurances that government support for the footballing festival remained.
“They’re very supportive,” he said. “We had a parliamentary reception which was extremely well attended by both sides of politics but led by the Labour government and Minister for Sport, Steve Kamper.
“They’ve been in office for eight weeks, so they’re largely just getting their feet on the desks. And so far, you know, we’ve had the premier attend two of our functions in the last six weeks, I don’t think we had a previous premier attend any of our functions prior to that.
“We have an ongoing contractual commitment.”
And with the international footballing calendar beginning to return to normal following the disruption caused by the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, plans are already underfoot to secure high-profile opposition — possibly more than one — for a 2024 All-Stars fixture.
“The obvious place to go searching is [Champions League calibre] teams that aren’t in the Champions League,” Townsend said. “They’re your first port of call because, one, they’re looking for more money because they’re not going to get the Champions League money and, two, they’re available and they can tell us they can play today.
“Even last year, we talked to a couple of teams that said not this year but we’ll look at it next year. Those conversations are ongoing.
“We would never rule out multiple All-Stars games. Our ambition was always to look at multiple. We were never going to look at multiple in the first year because we wanted to just land the one and unfortunately didn’t happen.
“But our strategy certainly is about getting multiple games, so that’ll be our intent.”