Streamlined A-League draw is a winner
Perth Glory's Shane Smeltz the difference for his A-League club
Football Federation Australia has cut the fat off the A-League schedule, for the betterment of the 2012/13 season draw.
Gone are the unpopular Wednesday night midweek fixtures; the cumbersome finals series; community round matches between teams with no connection to the host community; and ‘Super Wednesday’, where five matches were played back-to-back on a non-public holiday Wednesday.
In is a more streamlined draw where the first month contains most of the important match-ups to start the season strongly; a number of fixtures spread across the country on the important summer public holidays; and, most significantly, the new-look finals series.
Rather than the top two from the home and away season earning a double chance and playing over two legs for the right to progress directly into and host the grand final, they will instead have the first week of the finals off and enter at the semi-final stage against the winners of the third to sixth placed elimination finals.
The old two-tier format overly favoured the top two, while also setting up the stale prospect of the same two clubs playing each other in three out of the four finals weeks, as has happened on occasions over the last several seasons.
Now there will be a greater cutthroat element to the finals series, rather than an elongated drawn out process where the grand final hosts only faced one do-or-die match in the decider.
As FFA CEO Ben Buckley says, it avoids “the repetitive nature of the previous system” while intensifying the semi finals “that will provide the platform for a highly energised and uncompromising cup style finals format”.
The home and away season starts with the Melbourne derby, with the Sydney derby held-off until Round 3. Rather than take my idea of starting with the bang of the two derbies to open the season, the FFA has instead spaced out key fixtures in the first month of the season.
With the Melbourne derby, Sydney derby, grand final replay (Perth Glory versus Brisbane Roar), Adelaide United versus Melbourne Victory, Wellington versus Sydney FC (Wellington’s biggest crowd earner) and Newcastle versus Central Coast in the first three rounds, there are major fixtures in each of the five markets and more.
There is also a better spread of timeslots for clubs. Adelaide United, for example, has more Saturday and Sunday afternoon slots rather than a plethora of Friday night matches, to the benefit of those who can’t make Friday nights and young families. But in saying that, Newcastle Jets has four of the last five Friday night matches of the season…
Fans voted against midweek fixtures by not turning up in big numbers, so their reduction to just significant dates in summer is a sign that the governing body isn’t trying to cram unpopular yet convenient timeslots down fans’ throats, rather working on a better solution.
While ‘Super Wednesday’ proved popular for Fox Sports subscribers, any matches held during a non-public holiday day robs fans of seeing their club in action. The two fixtures on New Year’s Eve and three on New Year’s Day are far more fan-friendly and less television-biased.
Elsewhere, a fixture in Newcastle on Good Friday and one in Melbourne on the Monday night before the Melbourne Cup is worth experimenting with, while the double derby fixture on Australia Day could be the start of a worthwhile tradition.
The maximisation of summer and its holidays, a time of the year when cricket and four weeks of tennis provide the only sporting competition, is impressive in the draw and is vital for the league’s growth.
Popular with most, there were some criticisms of the draw, however.
The absence of Friday night matches in Round 15, 23 and 26 takes some of the consistency away from timeslots – something the league should deliver each round so there are regular Friday to Sunday matches on weekends.
Community matches have been reduced to Launceston, Dunedin and Campbelltown and possible regional home matches for Adelaide United and Perth Glory.
While they were hit and miss last season, the community matches could have been more successful had more thought gone into the motivations of taking certain clubs to certain communities (why did Newcastle Jets host Adelaide United in Bathurst, of all places?). They have a place to further broaden the game’s horizons, but need to make sense for the home team with a clear link between the community and host club.
Also, the Good Friday fixture could have been better utilised in Melbourne, where the AFL’s hesitancy to stage matches on the religious holiday leaves a void in the major market that the A-League could exploit.
But nevertheless the draw is a winner; eradicating many of the negatives of the previous draws and playing to the strengths of the league – better utilising the growing rival and derby fixtures at key points of the season and the opportunities afforded by summer dates.
Unburdened by Gold Coast United home games, which averaged a paltry 3546 last season, the solid A-League draw should also help improve on the 2011/12 home and away crowd average of 10,490, depending of course on how well the new Western Sydney club can build a fanbase from its wide and varied catchment area.
Now with the draw out it’s time for the FFA to fill in the TBAs (to be announced) and bring the Western Sydney club to life, finally.
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.
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