Are you a glass half-full or glass half-empty sort of person? Depending on your disposition you either viewed the first round of the A-League as proof that the seeds of interest are growing, or that the support for the league is at an unsustainable level.
The crowd average may have been comfortably above the 10,000 mark (surely the absolutely minimum crowd average we should expect from the league each week), but the same old concerns are around.
Across the league we saw:
- Melbourne Heart v Central Coast – 11,050.
A crowd of 10,000 was the litmus test for the Heart and they surpassed it – impressive considering it was a Thursday night match against the Mariners.
Over 2000 memberships were sold before the match – and more on the night with volunteers aggressively pushing memberships outside AAMI Park.
A significant percentage of the crowd was made up of Melbourne Victory supporters who may take up the option of attending a match in Melbourne each week.
The test for the Heart will be as the season draws on and this goodwill from Victory fans evaporates as the rivalry develops… as it inevitably will.
- Adelaide United v Newcaslte – 8479.
Disappointing. Adelaide United is testing its typically resilient fans and many are simply walking away.
Don’t expect to see an improvement when they welcome Newcastle back in four weeks time (great scheduling from the FFA).
- Perth Glory v North Queensland Fury – 16,019.
Crowd of the weekend. It’s brilliant to see the Glory return to their NSL glory days.
Just shows what a difference a marquee worthy of the title, proper marketing and a bit of justified hype can make.
- Sydney FC v Melbourne Victory – 12,106.
Bitterly disappointing. Sydney fans had no excuse not to turn up.
With the strong lead-in of the Football Festival and Everton’s visit, the defending champs should have pulled 20,000 for the grand final replay against their great rivals.
Yet it only pulled in one thousand more people than Melbourne Heart managed for their first ever match.
The Sydney market is an incredibly fickle one, which highlights what a huge task awaits the Sydney Rovers franchise next season.
- Gold Coast United v Brisbane Roar – 6394.
Take out the Brisbane fans, which made up a significant percentage of the crowd, and Gold Coast’s supporter base remains at an unsustainable level.
How many will there be when the Mariners, Adelaide, Jets and co visit? Perilously low.
What’s going on?
The technical standard of the A-League has improved (the weekend’s matches proved this), yet fans are staying away and clubs are bleeding financially.
Before the situation gets use (and it will with the lack of promotion and as the excitement of the first few rounds subsides and the AFL and NRL begin their finals), it’s important to understand why crowds are stagnating rather than growing and why it appears the league is failing to resonate with Australians.
Here we go:
- Intrusion into the AFL and NRL seasons. It’s just not working. The A-League is getting buried in terms of media awareness and casual fan interest (made worse by being stuck on Fox Sports) and starting so limply and hoping interest will magically multiply come October is flawed.
There’s no wiggle room on this point just yet, with stadium availability an issue beyond March.
Compounding the issue is the limited advertising campaigns and promotions.
Even Robbie Slater, one of Fox Sports’ principal cheerleaders of the league, implored FFA officials not to leave the A-League to fend for itself.
The A-League is suffering from the FFA’s focus on the World Cup bid, but they cannot continue to expect Australians to simply jump on the A-League bandwagon when the AFL and NRL seasons end.
It’s like expecting people to start watching a soap opera halfway through and embrace it.
- The ghosts of soccer. This debate has raged here on The Roar of late. There is a genuine sense amongst many football fans that “new football” has burnt bridges with “old soccer” and the A-League and its clubs have lost these fans for good.
Particularly noteworthy is the belief that fans have no interest in supporting the new, generic A-League clubs when their clubs were excluded from the new look national league.
There needs to be an olive branch extended to these clubs so they can be incorporated into the national spotlight (FFA Cup?), and hopefully these fans can change their view on the A-League and start to embrace its clubs.
This won’t be easy but is essential. There is a whole football community out there that the A-League needs to connect with.
- New football’s place in the Australian sporting landscape: where does it stand?
From the chest beating proclaiming its inevitable rise to the top of Australian codes (Craig Foster and co) to those preparing the obituaries (Rebecca Wilson and everyone at the Daily Telegraph), there is genuine uncertainty about where football and the A-League currently stand in this country.
The football community can’t even agree on its name, with the old “football or soccer” argument wheeled out with Craig Foster and Mark Bosnich presenting opposing viewpoints in papers over the weekend.
When the sport doesn’t know where it is, how can it know where it has to go?
- Technical standard argument. As mentioned earlier, the technical standard is rising, but the perception that the standard is poor has stuck.
And when stacked up against the football we are seeing more of from around the world, the A-League doesn’t always match up well – not to mention the lack of star power compared to what we see on ESPN, SBS and Fox Sports. Prices in the $20-$40 range then appear exorbitant for what’s perceived as a poor product.
- High cost of going to matches. Ticket prices have been in the spotlight and remain a concern.
This is relative, however. What’s expensive to me won’t necessarily be to you, and the A-League’s fanbase can’t be described as either upper or lower class. Clubs such as Melbourne Victory draw from a wide socioeconomic spectrum.
But families only have a certain amount of income to splurge on attending live sport, and the A-League, for non-hardcore football fans, is down in the pecking order in terms of weekend activity options, especially when weighed up against what’s perceived as “better products”, such as AFL, NRL and co.
- Fox Sports. With only 34 per cent penetration, Fox Sports’ limited reach restricts the A-League’s potential market to one-third of Australia (and you can divide that further to take out those with Foxtel but not Fox Sports).
And for those with Fox Sports, watching each match live and uninterrupted in HD from the comfort of your couch is a lot easier than getting to the game and spending your hard-earned dollars on transport, tickets and dodgy food (especially when you are already paying a significant amount for Foxtel).
- New and generic clubs. A-League clubs are still in their formative years. How can we expect fans to have a connection with these clubs to the point where they commit to memberships and spend each weekend with them when they have such little shared history?
Relationships take time to build.
The last point is perhaps the most salient.
When the A-League was launched, amidst the hype of the football ‘revolution’, there was a belief from the custodians of the game that the league and clubs would just naturally grow.
This belief stunted the league’s growth for the administrators didn’t work hard enough to connect with NSL supporters and entice new fans.
What they failed to appreciate was how long it would take for them to connect with fans.
The A-League will only truly come of age when the kids who have grown up only knowing the Victory, Fury, Roar, Glory, etc, reach adulthood, with the ghosts of the past not impacting their loyalty and connection to their clubs.
In the meantime, the league must do its best to overcome these impediments, with a free-to-air presence, even if it’s just a well-promoted highlights show, crucial to its growth.
This will be especially challenging if the World Cup bid is unsuccessful and the league goes forward without a 2022 Australian World Cup on the horizon to excite the country. So much rides on that decision.
The A-League desperately needs the support of the wider football and sports community to overcome the impediments outlined.
The message is simple: support the domestic game, with its imperfections, or stand by and watch it die. It’s your choice.