National League Reboot

It’s a fact so unlikely it would make a great pub trivia question.

Which sport in New Zealand was the first to launch an annual national league?

It will surprise many to know that it wasn’t rugby, given the prominence of the oval ball code here. It also wasn’t cricket, despite its preeminent status every summer.

Nor was it netball, rugby league or basketball.

The answer is football, with their National League established in 1970, setting a template for many other sports to follow.

That’s worth reflecting on, as New Zealand Football launches yet another iteration of the competition in 2021. It’s being sold as a brave new step and marketed as our “biggest ever national football competition” but also makes you think of Back to the Future.

The national competition has had numerous costume changes over the last three decades, but nothing quite seems to fit.

From such promising beginnings – the National League was a relative success in the 1970s – it has become an almost unsolvable dilemma.

New Zealand Football can’t afford not to have the shop window of a domestic competition, but settling on a viable, sustainable format hasn’t been easy.

Since 1992, when the National League fell apart for financial reasons, there have been six different competition structures and a myriad of changes.

The competition has gone from winter to summer and back again, from 30 teams to ten to 20 to eight.

Confused? There’s more.

There’s been regional leagues, conference systems and national formats along with a mix of clubs, franchises and representative teams. A definite low point was the introduction of penalty shootouts following draws in 1996 (Ice Hockey anyone?) and the bonus point for scoring more than three goals in 2000 was an unwanted global first.

The latest iteration (New Zealand Football Championship) was a relative success, lasting 16 years, especially when compared with the New Zealand Island League (one season) or the National Club Championship (three years).

There was some wonderful football in the NZFC era, particularly in the rivalries between Auckland City, Waitakere United and Team Wellington, and it helped to launch some professional careers, with former Wellington Phoenix striker Roy Krishna a notable example.

But it never really captured the imagination of the football public, nor attracted a tribal following. There was a marked gulf in standards and resources, and it became unsustainable.

So what comes next?

NZF has opted for three regional conferences, with the best teams qualifying for the end of season national league championship in August.

Some aspects are positive; clubs will be at the forefront, promotion-relegation is on the table and the long running summer experiment is over.

But the inclusion of a mandated youth quota, with a minimum of two starting players under 20 has been controversial, while the decision to give the Wellington Phoenix reserve team a free pass to the national playoffs was unpopular.

The ‘new’ structure bears a remarkable resemblance to the Winfield Superclub (1993-95), which was disbanded after three seasons. A NZF review into that competition stated that “the regional format meant lower playing standards, leading to poor spectator attendance”.

That is again the obvious concern, as the pool of talent will be spread across 32 squads, instead of the eight to 10 teams of the past decade.

As always with football there is hope that things will be different this time round.

The proliferation of academies are producing more and more talented players and the advent of live streaming technologies means increased exposure for clubs and sponsors.

The latest move was seen as a necessary gamble by NZF and everyone involved with the sport hope it pays off, on the seemingly endless search for the best formula.