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Nov 15, 2006

Regions ready for A-League expansion

Right now, an A-League franchise is like the shiny new must-have Christmas toy - every city wants one.

In its first season and a half, the success of the reborn domestic soccer competition has been stunning.

Crowds keep going up. So does the playing standard. And so, it seems, will the number of teams by mid-2008.

The sport's governing body Football Federation Australia (FFA) is likely to expand the A-League from eight teams to 10 for the start of the competition's fourth season.

Officially, the FFA won't make any announcement on where it goes from here until after a post-season review, likely to be held around March next year.

But at least three regions have declared they want the A-League to come to them - north Queensland, the NSW South Coast and Canberra.

Others like the Gold Coast are expected to follow suit when the FFA declares the race to join an expanded league officially open.

Best advanced is the north Queensland bid, which would base a team in Townsville.

The city is a proven success in national sporting competitions, with successful franchises in the National Rugby League and men's and women's national basketball leagues.

Already a company has been formed to run the bid, Tropical Football Australia (TFA).

TFA spokesman James Gage said the group had several expressions of interest from would-be financial investors, including an English Premier League club, Asian-based businesses and an airline.

It has also spent time talking to high-ranked FFA officials about how best to structure its bid, as well as sourcing ideas from other A-League clubs.

With Australian soccer's new foothold in Asia, Gage says north Queensland is geographically ideal for the A-League.

"We're in a good position in north Queensland with the mineral resources boom and with Asia so close," Gage said.

"We're looking at having corporate international dollars as part of the bid.

"We've got meeting with Chinese investors in the next three to four weeks, and our facilities are second-to-none."

The North Queensland side has both ready-made training facilities and stadium in place, with Dairy Farmers Stadium - the home of the North Queensland Cowboys - its preferred venue for home matches.

Gage believes the team could draw support from as far south as Rockhampton and west to Mount Isa - a catchment area of around 450,000 people.

"We'd be looking to start with (crowds) around 7,000 to 9,000," Gage said.

"We have to be realistic about the crowd numbers we'd get to start with, but this region does have the fourth fastest population growth in Australia."

Wollongong is also a serious player in any A-League expansion, and has set up a steering committee to pull its bid together.

Co-ordinating the bid is Wollongong City Council economic development manager Bob Doyle, who believes its strength is that the entire community and its football interests are pulling together to get an A-League franchise to the South Coast.

It also has ready-made venues - and a big-name trump card in Socceroos World Cup hero Scott Chipperfield.

Chipperfield, a former Wollongong local now playing for Swiss club FC Basel, has expressed interest in returning to play for his hometown side in any A-League campaign.

"We've got a playing venue, we've got a training venue. This is a well resourced situation," Doyle said.

"The only thing missing is the balloon from the FFA to go up, then we'll go out and see what cash is around.

"Our group encompasses all the football interests around the place. We have a unified desire to have a side here."

Also keen to be part of an A-League expansion is Canberra.

But the nation's capital is taking a softer approach than others, with Capital Football - ACT soccer's governing body - acting as an umbrella body to pull a bid together.

While it doesn't want any involvement itself - nor would it be allowed to as the FFA will not consider state federation-run bids - Capital Football has established a Canberra A-League Foundation to smoke out would-be investors.

Canberra attracted more than 7,000 to an A-League pre-season match involving Sydney FC, holding a champions' lunch in conjunction to gauge investor interest in a possible franchise.

"The reality is it's a different ball game - around $5 million minimum (to start an A-League franchise) and other costs on top of that," Capital Football chief executive Heather Reid said.

"But we might have a consortium of business people ready to put money in for 2008-09."

Any Canberra bid could also attract local government funding, with Sport and Recreation ACT sponsoring rugby's Brumbies and league's Canberra Raiders.

The government also underwrites AFL matches held in the city.

But while the addition of two new franchises in 2008 is the most likely option, all three wannabes may want to consider fast-tracking their planning as the prospect of an A-League spot opening up next season rises.

The struggling New Zealand Knights - the A-League's weakest link - could have their licence revoked should the FFA deem it unfit of keeping a spot for 2007-08.

Both Townsville and Wollongong say they can be ready if the underachieving Knights are cut - and the odds of that happening at season's end are shortening by the day.

"We don't want to see New Zealand fall over - we want to be the ninth or 10th club in the league's expansion," Gage said.

"(But) if push comes to shove and an opportunity did present itself, we'd like to think we'd be in a better position than most to be able to take advantage of it."