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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: James Johnson, CEO of Football Australia, Discusses the Legacy of FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 and Future Plans.

Roger Hampel

James Johnson, the CEO of Football Australia (FOT: Football Australia)

The interview took place in Miami, Florida, USA, during Soccerex Americas 2023.

Roger Hampel (Football Business Journal): Hi James! My first question is regarding the World Cup legacy. We experienced this year the first ever World Cup in Australia, the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023. Could you elaborate on the legacy of the recent FIFA Women's World Cup, hosted in Australia, particularly in terms of its impact on women's football and sports culture in the whole country?

James Johnson (CEO of Football Australia): Hi Roger! The day after we won the bid to host the Women's World Cup, we started to think about and talk about what we wanted the legacy of the Women's World Cup to be. We put a strategy together that was very clear on what legacy outcomes we wanted for the tournament. It was called Legacy 23 and we launched that publicly in January 2021, so two and a half years before the start of the Women's World Cup.

What we wanted out of the Women's World Cup, number one, we wanted to elevate the level of the Women's World Cup for world football and for FIFA, who own the competition. That meant we needed to hit KPIs, which the world has never seen before, broadcast and attendance in particular. That was of course achieved with the broadcast numbers and the attendances that we got.

More locally, what we wanted to do was build the Matildas brand, our women's national team, into one of the top sporting brands in the country. We believe post Women's World Cup we've achieved that. The Matildas are now the most visible national sporting brand in the country.

We also wanted to grow the participation base, particularly around young girls, because that's where we saw a big growth corridor. Our registration numbers post Women's World Cup are high and we're expecting a 20% increase of participants across the country when we measure our participants early in 2024. In order to facilitate the growth of the registered participants, we wanted our governments to invest more in facilities to effectively allow the growth of the participants.

We've seen a lot of investment going into local clubs, from state and also federal government, to the tune of half a billion dollars post Women's World Cup. For us, that's what legacy was, and right now we're living the vision of our Legacy 23 plans.

James Johnson Football Australia
James Johnson Football Australia

James Johnson during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023.

Roger Hampel: Regarding the women's football promotion, what other specific initiatives is Football Australia undertaking to promote women's football after the World Cup?

James Johnson: Right now we're in a broadcast cycle, so we're selling our media rights starting from 2025 until 2028. Women's football is front and centre of the package of rights that we've brought together. We've acquired the rights for the Asian Football Confederation for women's and men's national team content, and we've also, in partnership with IMG, been able to bundle together the Women's World Cup rights for 2027. We have an extraordinary package that's come together.

The Matildas and women's football are very front and centre of that broadcast process. We're very inspired by what we saw recently in this country with the NWSL and the $240 million deal that was done, and broke a lot of records. Our broadcast package is also very focused on women's football, and we're anticipating a record deal for the country, and a lot of the revenues will go back into the women's game.

Football Australia
Football Australia

"The Matildas - Australian Women's National Football Team"

Roger Hampel: Regarding the future bids, what are the key strengths of Australia's bids for the 2026 AFC Women's Asian Cup and 2029 FIFA World Cup Cup? 

James Johnson: I'll start with the 2026 Women's Asian Cup. This will be the biggest and best ever Women's Asian Cup. It's already the oldest women's football tournament in the world, but we believe that we'll be able to help the AFC build the tournament, like we're able to help FIFA build the Women's World Cup tournament in 2023.

What that means concretely is that stadiums will be full. It'll be, of course, broadcast on the Olympic platform in Australia. We'll bring sponsors on board, and we'll deliver a fantastic tournament.

Ticket sales in Australia is never a problem. We always sell stadiums. So this competition has not sold big stadiums out in the past, and we believe that we would do that to help elevate the level of the competition for the AFC.

Club World Cup, we're not formally in the process yet, but we're very interested to bid for this competition. We want to work with FIFA to help again and build this competition. We're very excited about the prospects of the first edition here in the United States in 2025.

But for us, the Australian market is a place where big European clubs like to come during the summits. We're in a great time zone for European clubs. Our neighbours are some of the biggest and most populous countries in the world, from China to India to Japan to Philippines to Indonesia.

This is a good place for the clubs to really build their brands, and we'll have again full stadiums. Broadcast will be very good, and sponsors will come in, and we'll lift the level of this competition as well. That's what our vision is for this tournament.

Roger Hampel: How this event is fitting to the broader strategy for Australian football? Saudi Arabia has Vision 2030 - Do you have something similar to becoming a sports power of this Oceania region?

James Johnson: Yeah, so we have a vision that we set in 2020 called the 11 Principles for the Future of Australian Football. That was a 15-year vision for the sport, and as part of that, we wanted to be local and global.

What we meant by that is we wanted to bring top global content back to our local shores. The 2023 Women's World Cup was the start of that process, and we wanted to define very clearly which competitions over the 15-year period that we would potentially be able to bring back into Australia. So for us, the 2023 Women's World Cup was the start of that process.

We're officially bidding for the 2026 Women's Asian Cup. We have aspirations to host the 2029 Club World Cup, and Australia will host the Olympics in 2032, of which football will be front and centre. If we were able to achieve that goal, we have a golden decade for Australian football in terms of big content coming to our shores.

Roger Hampel: Can you discuss how Football Australia's relationship with the AFC has evolved, especially after these bids? 

James Johnson: We've got a very good relationship with the AFC. We're one of 46 member countries, and we're very proud to be a solid member of the Asian football community. We have regular dialogue with the leadership of the AFC. We have a seat on the AFC Executive Committee, so the board. We participate in many committees within the confederation.

So our relationship is very good! We're very, very proud of our relationship with the AFC.

James Johnson Football Australia
James Johnson Football Australia

Football Australia has been recognized with the 2023 AFC President's Gold Recognition Award for Grassroots Football.

Roger Hampel: Could you elaborate on the most crucial aspects of the 11 Principles for the Future of Australian Football?

James Johnson: If you boil down the 11 principles into the three major areas, one is we want it to be local and global. That was one of the key pillars of the 11 principles.

I already mentioned one point is bringing international content back to local markets. There's also exporting our local brands into the global markets, which is why, for example, we did a Disney documentary with Matildas because we wanted to showcase our team into markets like the United States and also European markets. That's the first pillar.

The second pillar is we wanted to be a football-first organisation, so it was about putting football at the core of our business and building a business around football, developing the product of football. Again, I can point to our senior national teams. These are household names.

They're a big brand within themselves. But that's really at the centre of our business, and that's what part of the vision was. It was putting football in the centre of our business.

The third point was bringing a complex group of stakeholders together who don't always have to agree but who can sit at a table and understand and talk and exchange information and know-how and really get behind the vision in Australian football. It was the coming together of Australian football. That was the third one.

If we boil the 11 principles down to three pillars, it was being local and global, putting football at the centre of the organisation and also bringing the Australian football community together under a vision.

Football Australia
Football Australia

Roger Hampel: The MENA region countries are getting stronger, with Neymar, Benzema and Ronaldo moving to Saudi Arabia and Verrati to Qatar. You're in the same confederation and the last AFC Champions League winner from Australia was nine years ago. How does the federation plan to support and enhance the Australian league to remain competitive during these changing times in this confederation? 

James Johnson: I think the first point I'd like to make is we're seeing a bit of disruption in club football worldwide, with Saudi Arabia coming to the table and investing very heavily in their domestic leagues. We're very supportive of this. This is a great thing, not only for Saudi football, not just for Asian football, but also world football.

It's really challenging the status quo of the market, and this is a good thing for Asian football. It does mean that the level outside of Saudi, particularly in club football, really needs to be lifted all throughout Asia. We've got work to do.

We're in a situation where many of our players actually play abroad. Our men and women's team, the majority of our senior teams, they're not playing in Australia, which is always a challenge for us - that's not a bad thing.

That's often a good thing, which makes our national teams stronger. It does mean that we've got some more work to do. We need to work with our clubs to grow our revenues in Australia through sponsorship broadcasts and match their revenue for our league, so that we can effectively invest more in our squads and in our players, so that we can compete with the likes of Saudi and Qatar. We acknowledge we've got a lot of work to do in this space, and Saudi are leading the way in Asian football.

Roger Hampel: How has hosting these international events impacted the infrastructure development and sports facilities development in Australia? 

James Johnson: Australia has excellent infrastructure. We're a sport-loving nation, and we have a very competitive sports market with big sports. So our two national team brands, the Socceroos and the Matildas, when they're playing in Australia, they're filling stadiums. We have a big league like the AFL and the NRL that are going to fill stadiums week in, week out.

We have three levels. We have our big stadiums, which is 60,000 to 100,000 seater stadiums. Some of these are some of the biggest stadiums in the world.

We have our mid-tier, which is 40,000 to 60,000, and our boutique stadiums, which is the 20,000 to 40,000 range. In terms of content, we've got stadiums for all levels. The Women's World Cup, we had a mixture of the three different levels.

However, for something like the Club World Cup, we would be able to facilitate and utilise our biggest stadiums, which means bigger crowds and more revenue generated that ultimately goes back to people.

Football Australia
Football Australia

Roger Hampel: What about the youth development after the World Cup and before these events?

James Johnson: Right now, we're very happy with our youth. Of course, our women's national team is very strong. We've got a great young group of players coming through, like the Kyra Cooney-Cross or the Mary Fowler, who are just out of their teenage years. They've got a decade of football ahead of them, and we're very excited about that prospect. Also on the men's side, we've got a lot of good young players coming through.

For example, Nestory Irankunda, who was playing for Adelaide, has just signed for Bayern Munich – he’s really a top talent! We're very excited about the future prospects and our youth players are coming through into our senior teams. For us, it's about playing more and giving our players, while they're in Australia, more match minutes.

We're looking at introducing policies within our top-tier professional leagues, which incentivise clubs to play younger players more often, and also introducing a second-tier competition, which is scheduled to be established for 2025, that is predominantly focused on young Australian players and giving them match minutes. That's our focus.

Roger Hampel: What are the expected economic and social impacts of hosting these major events in 2026 and 2029?

James Johnson: The economics for AFC and FIFA is we'll generate revenues, sponsorship and sell tickets in Australia. These are revenues that go directly back into AFC and FIFA, respectively.

We're also in a great time zone for broadcast. We're able to connect into the European markets when we play matches on the West Coast, in Perth, for example. We're able to tap into the American markets on the East Coast, Sydney and Melbourne, and play matches at the right times on the East Coast.

We're in the same time zone as some of the biggest countries in the world, like China, Indonesia, Philippines, India. Matches played in our time zone is very good for these countries that are still developing.

This is where the growth opportunity for FIFA and AFC is. The economical impacts for FIFA and AFC is as high as we saw at the Women's World Cup, where FIFA, for the first time, made money through hosting the Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Football Australia
Football Australia

Socceroos (Australian Men's National Team) playing vs. Argentina in Bejing, China in June 2023.

Roger Hampel: What about the sponsorship of Australian football? Growing sponsorship revenues has been a key achievement during your tenure in Australia. How do these partnerships impact the growth and sustainability of football in Australia?

James Johnson: We’ve gone through a major business transformation over the past four years. The first step was we unbundled our professional league. In 2019, before I came back to Australia, the league was a department within the Federation offices.

We set up a company together with our clubs and gave the responsibility to run the competition and to commercialise the competition to our clubs. What that meant for us from a business standpoint is we had to grow our revenue stream.

We had to replace revenue that we wouldn't get from the league. The focus was really on three key revenue streams. One was sponsorship, the other was broadcast and the third was event revenue or match day revenue.

On the sponsorship side, it's been about really building the brands of our Matildas and our Socceroos, telling the stories of the individual players and using the players to market the teams. We've been very happy that we've been able to bring CommBank on board, Subway, Nike, we're about to do a renewal, Qantas, Priceline, Cupra, Cadbury. We have an outstanding group of partners and not only are they investing in the sport, in terms of injecting cash into Football Australia, but they're also bringing with them big marketing budgets which are helping us further promote our national teams because of our relationship with these sponsors.

Roger Hampel: In light of the evolving global football landscape, how do you envision Australia's role in the coming years, especially considering the strategic advantage of sharing a time zone with numerous Asian countries and the significant Chinese market? Beyond planning international competitions, could you elaborate on Australia's broader strategies and initiatives in football business, particularly off the pitch?

James Johnson: We see ourselves in a very important geographical region of the world. We sit right between Asia and the Pacific and if you look at our history as a football nation, a lot of it sat in Oceania and now we're a part of Asia.

That’s why we see ourselves as having the ability to really connect these two major parts of the world together. As football becomes more global, so does Asia and the Pacific. We believe we're in the right geographical location to really be a leader in football.


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