Want to fix Australian football? Concentrate on the A-League
121 Have your say
Roar players celebrate following the A-League season 7 grand final between the Brisbane Roar and Perth Glory (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
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The wave of optimism sweeping through the A-League proves what a healthy appetite there is for football in this country.
But there are still solutions needed to fix some of the problems in our game.
Of those I would propose to help football in this country, it’s a promising sign that several have recently been explored.
One of my biggest gripes with the A-League in recent years has been the mismanagement of the marquee rule.
For too long it has been used as a loophole by clubs to sign high-earning players who bring next to nothing in terms of revenue-raising potential.
The fact television companies in Italy and Japan have shown an interest in broadcasting Sydney FC games after they signed Alessandro Del Piero demonstrates this doesn’t have to be the case.
In terms of revenue, the failure to separate the A-League from Football Federation Australia has had a negative effect on clubs.
Not only has it denied clubs the chance to generate their own revenue streams independent of the game’s governing body, it has also contributed to the negative characterisation of the A-League as a ‘plastic’ competition.
It’s hard to escape the portrayal of matches as ‘Franchise A versus Franchise B’ if clubs are controlled by a single parent body, so the sooner FFA relinquishes control of the A-League and/or clubs are allowed to develop organically, the better.
Part of that organic development should also involve a better relationship with fans.
It seems every marketing initiative revolves around capturing the ‘family market,’ yet the most loyal supporters – and those most likely to pump their hard-earned cash into clubs on a repeat basis and bring along friends for good measure – are the season-ticket holders and active supporters who show up rain, hail or shine.
By treating such fans as an afterthought we ignore one of the most compelling reasons to attend a football match – namely the unique atmosphere – yet ticket pricing and marketing almost always revolves around enticing more families through the gate.
That’s not to say making families feel welcome isn’t important, but it’s a welcome relief to see a renewed emphasis on selling memberships and building club cultures – as evidenced by the decision to play the first Sydney derby at Parramatta Stadium – instead of trotting out the familiar marketing mantra that ‘families come first’.
Indeed, the need to get as many fans through the gate as possible stems partly from the financially crippling stadium deals many clubs were lumbered with as part of centralised negotiations when the A-League kicked off – a problem which also requires some strategic solutions once stadium deals begin to expire.
Likewise, there’s no doubt the A-League still needs to gain a deeper foothold in the mainstream sporting market and a free-to-air television deal is crucial to that.
That’s to take nothing away from Fox Sports, who have practically subsidised the first seven years of the competition and done a superb job broadcasting it, but screening games on free-to-air provides an avenue to the league for the 70-odd percent of Australian households who don’t have pay TV.
Indeed, those who watch the game on TV are far more likely to attend matches and pay for merchandise than those who are completely disconnected from a competition they never see.
Speaking of disconnections, it’s plain to see there has been a failure to convert vast swathes of recreational players into A-League fans.
To that end the FFA and those involved in the game could do more to highlight the fact that the standard of the A-League is better than a lot of Australians think.
When the naysayers trot out the line about the best talent playing overseas, as they persistently do, it should be pointed out time and again that the situation is the same for all but two or three leagues around the world.
It doesn’t stop fans in Japan or the United States or Belgium or any other country from turning out to support their local team, so why should it stop Australians?
Not enough has been done to connect grassroots football to the A-League, and until young kids start turning out at training and talking about A-League games instead of the latest round of NRL action, that will remain a frustrating issue we should be doing more to address.
After all, the more generations we inspire to take up football and stick with it, the higher the standard of the A-League and the national team will be in years to come.
And while establishing a clear pathway between the three is easier said than done, the first step is to convince stay-away fans the A-League is a better competition than they give it credit for – via word of mouth, through positive marketing and by getting some of the action on free-to-air TV.
An FFA Cup competition might add to the A-League’s exposure but it’s unlikely to persuade rusted-on fans of lower league clubs to switch their allegiance.
What it could do, however, is extend the length of the season – particularly if major rounds are played before or after the regular A-League season – and help break up the monotony of the current fixture list.
That might in turn convince some more Socceroos to head to the A-League rather than the Gulf or Major League Soccer and thereby contribute to the domestic game.
Because much as the national team flies the flag for Australian football internationally, it’s the A-League which will prove key to the health of the game going forward.
Get the A-League right, and there’s no reason to think the round-ball game won’t flourish well into the future.
This is the first in a five-part Solutions series running this week on The Roar. Our football experts will be answering this question with their own take on the game: “If you were in charge of football in Australia, how would you fix the problems you see and make football a bigger professional code – and could this help the National Team? What are your Solutions to the big issues Australian football is facing?”
Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he has settled in Brisbane and has been a Roar columnist since December 2008. Follow Mike on twitter @Mike_Tuckerman