Newcastle Jets: time to start thinking big

After a fairy-tale 2017/18 season that saw the team finish 2nd in the table and achieve qualification for the 2018/19 AFC Champions League, the A-League’s Newcastle Jets are on a high, ready to shed the label of regional team and start thinking like a big club.

Jets CEO Lawrie McKinna has been involved in Australian football for over 30 years, as player, coach and administrator. He was the inaugural coach of the Central Coast Mariners in 2005, where he instilled a real sense of community at the club, and led the team to the A-League Premiership in the 2007/08 season. Mr McKinna’s popular local identity helped him establish a career in politics, where he served four terms as Mayor of Gosford City. Back in the A-League with the Newcastle Jets, Mr McKinna talks to The Australian Business Executive about his plans for improving the club long-term, the financial struggles faced by the A-League’s less prestigious clubs, and the team’s determination to start thinking big.

A fresh start

After a decade of varying success in the A-League, the start of the 2017/18 season was something of a fresh start for the Jets. Before the season began, Mr McKinna publicly outlined a number of changes he planned to make to the team. But the big change at the club had already happened. In June 2016, the club was bought by Martin Lee, who immediately appointed Mr McKinna as CEO. The planning for what would prove to be a season of resurgence began in earnest a year earlier.

“When we came in,” Mr McKinna explains, “the squad we had, we knew it wasn’t good enough. But 95% of the players were contracted, so we were basically stuck with them for another year.” The changes started with the removal of the coach, Scott Miller, who was replaced by local coach Mark Jones. Jones lasted for most of the 2016/17 season, but was removed from his position after the club ended with a second wooden spoon in three seasons.

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“A lot of the process had already started [that season]. The next season we bought in an experienced coach, Ernie Merrick – Australia’s most experienced coach – and he walked in the dressing room and got that immediate respect that we needed.” With the club now moving into its third season since the ownership change, it is important to push on and keep up momentum. Preparations have started well, with the re-signing of many of its current players showing intent to remain consistent. “Too many times in the past, Newcastle Jets, and many other teams, after a successful year, have not renewed contracts and they lose most of their players, but we’re managing our player recruitment very well.”

Big club mentality

In order to achieve sustained success, Mr McKinna knows that the club must shed its historical identity as a regional club and begin thinking like a big team. Setting high professional standards means nothing if they aren’t being consistently met. “We got there [last season],” he says, “which was hard, but we need to maintain that now, because the fans want it, the owners want it, we want it as individuals. We’ve got goals ourselves that we want to achieve for our own personal satisfaction.” With a distinct lack of depth in terms of playing staff in the A-League compared to leagues around the world, clubs qualifying for the Champions League – particularly smaller teams like the Jets – often struggle to cope with the extra playing demands.

“It’s a horrendous schedule,” Mr McKinna says, “and at that time of year a lot of teams do drop off, because they’re trying to juggle a 23-man squad. You are allowed to sign extra players for the CL, but obviously you need more budget to sign more players.” To counter this, the club has extended the salary cap to try and acquire enough players to cope with demands. But even with more players, the risk of injuries is always there, which can easily disrupt a squad. “We’ve actually expanded our medical [team]. We’ve now got two full-time physios, so we’re starting to look at that – preparation, recovery. It’s very, very important. The sports science side of things comes in there to help us manage players and the loads and the travel.”

In order to achieve sustained success, Mr McKinna knows that the club must shed its historical identity as a regional club and begin thinking like a big team.

In addition to on-field performances, the club is emerging from almost a decade of poor ownership and bad decision making, which has had a negative impact on its relationship with the community. Things are starting to look up, with membership and attendance rising. “We’re about fifth or sixth in the table for members. Last year we averaged 11-12k people, which would be in the top half as well. We do very well, I think, in crowds, and I think we can get better.”

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Well-known for his community-minded approach when he was head coach of the Central Coast Mariners, Mr McKinna sees great value in imbuing the same sense of regional pride in his current crop of players. “You have to go back to basics, back to working with the community, get back to being respectful to everybody you speak to, and get the players out there in the community. Over the last two years [everybody at the club] has done an outstanding job.”

The future of football in Australia

Despite its global appeal, football in Australia is still living in the shadow of other codes and sports. Mr McKinna admits the A-League’s relative youth makes it much more difficult to compete with long-standing Aussie brands such as the NRL and AFL. “Participation-wise, we’ve got more numbers than all the codes,” Mr McKinna says. “We need to engage more kids, that’s the clubs’ jobs to infiltrate grassroots football. We play during the summer, so we’re up against cricket. We struggle for airtime.”

Even though the A-League pulls in the 14th highest football crowds in the world, it will always struggle to compete with the huge numbers of Australians who pay to watch the AFL and NRL every week. “We’re a long way behind the AFL and rugby league. But, you look at the J-League, the American MLS – when these guys started, they had that steady growth and then they dropped off, and then they came again.”

There was a sense of excitement a few years ago when the FFA announced new rights for free-to-air TV, with A-League clubs hoping to see an increase in revenue. With the arrival of cricket’s Big Bash League however, the prime viewing spots didn’t materialize. “The TV deal was locked-in for six years, and the clubs weren’t happy with it. Because most of the clubs lose money in the A-League, they were looking to bridge that gap between breaking even. They weren’t happy with what the FFA did with the rights.”

There was a sense of excitement a few years ago when the FFA announced new rights for free-to-air TV, with A-League clubs hoping to see an increase in revenue.

Mr McKinna admits that in order to get the best TV spots, the league needs to do more to attract fans. The way the Big Bash is run makes it more of a spectacle, and football must do everything it can to offer fans an exciting alternative without losing the spirit of the game. It’s clear the financial element of the sport needs improvement. Apart from Melbourne Victory, all the clubs are consistently in the red. A large part of the revenue clubs can control still comes from getting sponsors on board, which is always tough for regional teams. “It’s still not easy to get [big sponsors],” Mr McKinna says. “We’ve increased the sponsorship again this year from last year, and we’ve still got a long, long way to go to even get near what the big city clubs are getting, but we’re going in the right direction.”

To address the ongoing issue of how revenue can be increased, clubs have set up an organisation, the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA). Much of the call for more money revolves around the league becoming self-sufficient. “They’ve been lobbying the FFA that they want change. They want an independent league – they want the A-League to break away from the FFA. It doesn’t mean to run independently – it’ll be like the English FA and the English Premier League.” The APFCA hopes to see this change happen in the next couple of years, and believes it will help A-League clubs start generating more revenue. At the moment clubs run on a grant from the FFA, which most feel should be bigger.

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The recent dispute between clubs and the league’s governing body, the FFA, is beginning to reach breaking point. Recently FIFA came in to try and have some influence at the negotiating table, but there is currently no resolution in sight. “The next two months is a really important time for football in Australia,” Mr McKinna says. “Hopefully it’s the best outcome for football, and the professional game, and for the women’s game and grassroots football, that everybody’s represented at the table.” There is a chance, if the A-League breaks away from the FFA, that the league’s salary cap will be removed, creating the potential for financial inequality to infiltrate the league as it has done in so many other leagues across the world.

“The bigger clubs will spend more money, and the smaller clubs will spend what they’re spending [now], or what they can afford. On paper, you would say the gap’s going to get bigger. It just means the smaller clubs have to recruit and manage player development.” Whatever the hurdles the club may face in the future, Mr McKinna is determined that the Jets start cultivating a big club mentality and begin to enjoy a period of resurgence that has promised to bring sustained success back to Newcastle.

“We want to be the best professional sporting club in Australia,” he says, “on and off the field. It doesn’t mean we have to win every week. It means we have to be competitive, and we have to be respectful, and while I’m at the club, I’ll make sure we do that.”

Find out more the Newcastle Jets by visiting www.newcastlejets.com.au.