What is the A-League’s potential?

Nick Symonds Roar Rookie

By Nick Symonds, Nick Symonds is a Roar Rookie

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    The A-League is often compared to other leagues around the world but it isn’t as big as it can be.

    But before I go on I’d like to mention that this one’s a bit lengthy and full of detail so you might like to make a cup of coffee. It’ll take around 20 minutes to read through.

    Now I’ll continue…

    Rather than looking at where the A-League is at right now, I’d like to have a look at where it could get to eventually. The main metrics that I’ll use are population, average league attendance and league revenues compared to those of other nations.

    Population and League Attendances
    First of all, I’ll start with Australia’s population compared to those of European countries.

    Australia has a population of 25 million and this often comes up in discussions as a negative thing and is frequently used to argue against Australia having a second division.

    But how small are we really?

    How does Australia’s population compare to European countries?

    Well, let’s have a look at the list of nations in UEFA by population.

    The first group are the seven largest nations in UEFA. Of these only five are a serious threat being England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

    Russia is the largest but they don’t perform well and Turkey which is third largest is in a similar position.

    1 Russia 144,031,000
    2 Germany 82,900,000
    3 Turkey 79, 817,849
    4 France 66,991,000
    5 Italy 60,589,445
    6 England 54,786,300
    7 Spain 46,423,065

    Ukraine and Poland are at eight and nine in terms of population but again aren’t much of a threat.

    8 Ukraine 42,850,000
    9 Poland 38,494,000

    Then this is where Australia would fit in as a European nation as the tenth largest but likely the sixth strongest among the top 10.

    Australia 25,000,000

    After this, you come to a group of seven nations made up of Romania and Kazakhstan who are both weak as well as Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic and Portugal. Only The Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal are strong form this group.

    10 Romania 19,822,000
    11 Kazakhstan 17,543,000
    12 Netherlands 17,003,777
    13 Belgium 11,259,000
    14 Greece 10,769,000
    15 Czech Republic 10,535,000
    16 Portugal 10,311,000

    Then you come to another group made up of 12 nations with populations under ten million.

    Only five from this group being Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Slovakia are have quality teams.

    17 Sweden 9,858,794
    18 Hungary 9,835,000
    19 Aerbaijan 9,651,000
    20 Belarus 9,481,000
    21 Austria 8,608,000
    22 Switzerland 8,265,000
    23 Bulgaria 7,185,000
    24 Serbia 7,103,000
    25 Denmark 5,673,000
    26 Finland 5,475,000
    27 Slovakia 5,426,000
    28 Scotland 5,404,700

    The final group is made up of nations the size of Sydney or smaller while Estonia is just larger than Adelaide.

    Norway, Ireland, Croatia and Wales are okay but the rest are lacking. There are a few more nations after these but they aren’t worth mentioning apart from Iceland who beat England in Euro 2016 despite having a population of just 332,529.

    29 Norway 5,194,000
    30 Ireland 4,630,000
    31 Croatia 4,230,000
    32 Bosnia and Herzegovina 3,750,000
    33 Georgia 3,707,000
    34 Moldova 3,564,000
    35 Wales 3,063,456
    36 Armenia 3,010,000
    37 Lithuania 2,906,000
    38 Albania 2,887,000
    39 Macedonia 2,071,000
    40 Slovenia 2,065,000
    41 Lativa 1,979,000
    42 Kosovo 1,867,000
    43 Estonia 1,315,000

    Population Summary
    If Australia was part of UEFA we would be the 10th largest nation and likely be the sixth strongest from the top 10.

    The only nations to have any concern about would be England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, and Croatia. Australia would be in the top 12 European nations.

    Not bad.

    League Attendances
    Now let’s turn to average league attendances, but this time from across the world, not just European leagues. Since I’m looking at where we want the A-League to be I’ll only use top flights to do a comparison apart from the EFL Championship.

    The top two are Germany’s Bundesliga and the EPL who are the only two leagues larger than the AFL which would be third.

    Bundesliga 41,511
    Premier League 35,822
    AFL 33,188

    Then you have Mexico’s Liga MX and Spain’s La Liga. I’ve also included the BBL which would top both.

    Big Bash League 29,433
    Liga MX 27,800
    La Liga 27,700

    After that, there’s the Indian Super League and Chinese Super League which are in the worlds two largest countries by population.

    Indian Super League 26,376
    Chinese Super League 24,159

    When you come to the fourth group you find Serie A and the MLS followed by Argentina’s Primera División and Ligue 1 in France.

    You also have England’s second division, the EFL Championship.

    Serie A 22,164
    Major League Soccer 21,692
    Argentine Primera Division 21,374
    Ligue 1 21,029
    Football League Championship 20,119

    The fifth group which the A-League is part of is made up of 5 teams who all draw less than 20,000 per match, plus the NRL.

    Eredivisie 19,094
    J1 League 17,803
    NRL 16,063
    Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A 15,809
    A-League 2007-2008 14,610
    Scottish Premiership 13,998
    A-League 2016-2017 12,294

    League Attendance Summary
    Currently the A-League is the 15th highest attended top flight worldwide and if the A-League was in Europe we would have the 8th highest attendance which is pretty good.

    But although it’s good it’s not as good as it can be and there are a number things holding down numbers.

    The A-League’s average attendance is held back by clashes with other codes or events, hot weather in the middle of the day, late matches, lack of P/R and teams playing each other three times a season.

    There’s also the lack of fan ownership which is a major part of the Bundesliga’s success and likewise with safe standing.

    Also like the MLS experience Australia’s stadiums are too large and not football specific. If clubs start to build and own their own this could increase attendances by 50 per cent as they did in America.

    This would bring the average attendance to 21,915 based on the 2007-2008 season, just below Serie A.

    The A-League average is also skewed by teams like Melbourne City, Wellington Phoenix, Newcastle and Central Coast. Then you have Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth who are far from their full potential.

    Even Sydney FC draw poorly if you exclude the derbies and Western Sydney are playing on an oval. Melbourne Victory are the only team looking good at 22,008 but even that team is well down from it’s best average season attendance of 27,728.

    In the case of Brisbane Roar it’s also down to bad management putting off fans. I once saw a list of all the poor management decisions which went over two pages. Later I realized that if you put them together the list would literally be as long as your arm.

    Things are so bad at Brisbane Roar it might even be a good idea for FFA to pay for their stadium fees to give them a leg up.

    Roar captain Matthew Smith (centre) celebrates the teams minor Premiership following the Round 24 A-League match between the Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (APP Image/Dave Hunt)

    (APP Image/Dave Hunt)

    I’d also like to see Brisbane Roar change their home uniform to maroon to reflect their Queensland status. While it might not be the same as State Of Origin they are seen to represent Queensland the same way that Sydney FC are seen to represent New South Wales and Melbourne Victory are seen to represent Victoria.

    The health of average attendances across the league is underwhelming but there are fixes to most problems. Match scheduling is the first thing that can be improved to avoid issues of heat, clashes with other codes or events and late finish times.

    Expansion of the league so you can have a regular home-and-away season is another big one. Provided that FFA’s budget stays the same each team will also have less of a burden to pay individually and the additional content will increase TV revenues.

    Poor management is a killer for a teams support and bringing in fan ownership like they have in the Bundesliga would help reduce the sense of disconnect and powerlessness. This should be an expansion requirement.

    Broadcasting the A-League on 7, 9 or 10 and they’re associated cross promotion will also improve attendances.

    Adding a national second division is an unknown for Australian sport but so was the idea of a national league. There are a number of ideas around how a second division can be achieved with The Pecking Order being a prominent one.

    Adding a national second division has a number of advantages. Firstly it brings together “New Football” with “Old Soccer” and brings back fans of those old clubs as well as bringing in people from new regions.

    Secondly, it increases the interest in matches at the lower end of the table with P/R battles.

    Thirdly it increases the talent pool by providing new pathways and by pitting the best players below the A-League against each other.

    Fourthly, there’s also the product differentiation from other codes and the sense that Australia will be a mature football nation which comes from having a fully connected pyramid between all tiers.

    But the big thing to increase attendances, of course, is to have football specific stadiums with safe standing areas owned by the clubs themselves.

    This is expensive to achieve which brings me to the final A-League comparison which is league revenues.

    League Revenues
    Australia compares well to other nations in terms of population and average attendance which itself can grow considerably but league revenue is the area where there is the greatest disparity.

    I’ll leave out the A-League from the figures below since overseas and streaming deals haven’t been finalized and the amount of money clubs will receive is still under dispute.

    The figures are arranged by revenue per club which I find more interesting and all figures are in Euros.

    The first group is made up of the EPL, Bundesliga and La Liga. Out of our range.

    Number of Teams Legue Revenue (Millions) Revenue Per Club
    English Premier League 20 4,865 243
    Bundesliga 18 3,240 180
    La Liga 20 2,437 121

    The second group all generate less than 100 million per club going from 96 down to 48 million.

    Number of Teams Legue Revenue (Millions) Revenue Per Club
    Serie A 20 1,917 96
    Ligue 1 20 1,485 74
    Russian Premier League 16 803 50
    Campeonato Brasileiro 20 958 48

    The third group sees a big gap in revenue per club from the last but they are all close to each other, ranging from 30.1 down to 26.6 million.

    I’ve included the combined revenue of both the AFL and NRL just to show how much money goes into them.

    Number of Teams Legue Revenue (Millions) Revenue Per Club
    EFL Championship 24 723 30.1
    AFL and NRL 583
    J1 18 532 30
    Super Lig 18 520 29
    Liga MX 18 509 28
    Major League Soccer 20 536 27
    Eredivisie 18 478 26.6

    The third group of just two leagues is made up of the CSL and the Swiss Super League. However the figures for the CSL are out of date.

    It’s also worth noting that in the Swiss Super League teams play each other four times for a 36 round, 180 match season.

    Number of Teams Legue Revenue (Millions) Revenue Per Club
    Chinese Super League 16 336 21
    Swiss Super League 10 206 20.9

    The fourth group is where the A-League clearly has the capacity to be a part of with the AFL and NRL included for reference.

    It’s also worth noting that the AFL is the only league in this group with 18 teams.

    Number of Teams Legue Revenue (Millions) Revenue Per Club
    AFL 18 342 19
    Belgian Pro League 16 303 18.9
    Primeira Liga 16 298 18.6
    Danish Superliga 12 203 16.9
    Austrian Football Bundesliga 10 161 16.1
    NRL 16 241 14
    Allsvenskan 16 166 13.8
    Scottish Premiership 12 149 12.4
    Ukrainian Premier League 16 158 11.2

    The following shows the number of matches per season depending on the number of teams:

    A-League = 135 matches or 12 teams X 33 rounds = 198 matches
    14 teams = 182 matches
    16 teams = 240 matches
    18 teams = 306 matches
    20 teams = 380 matches

    League Revenue Summary
    Increasing the league’s revenue is the biggest hurdle for the A-League to overcome but I don’t think it’s insurmountable.

    Although the AFL and NRL are large there are still big companies in Australia who could own or sponsor A-League teams with significant backing if they wish to do so.

    The top five largest companies in Australia are, BHP, Wesfarmers, Woolworths, Commonwealth Bank and NAB.

    Then you have a range of other significant companies going alphabetically such as AGL ENERGY, Amcor, AMP, Atlassian, ANZ, Boral, Brambles, Bank of Queensland, BlueScope, Cbus, CIMIC Group (formerly known as Leighton Holdings), Coca-Cola Amatil, CSR, Energex, Ergon Energy, Fairfax, Fortescue, Greater Bank, Grocon, Harvey Norman, Insurance Australia Group, Lend Lease, Macquarie, Meriton, Multiplex, Newcrest Mining, Officeworks, Optus, Orica, Origin Energy, Rio Tinto, Santos,Snowy Hydro, Suncorp, Telstra, Toll Group, Transurban, Westfield, Westpac, Woodside Petroleum, OZ Minerals and WorleyParsons.

    That’s quite a list. These are the companies that teams need to be targeting, not smaller companies like The Coffee Club and Webjet.

    Then you have global companies like Red Bull and Audi who either own or have paid large per centages of the cost of stadiums who could take interest in the A-League.

    Alex Brosque Sydney FC A-League Grand Final 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Finding wealthy owners to bankroll teams is another issue for the A-League. Unfortunately wealthy owners often cause a lot of problems themselves as many fans of their victims can tell you.

    But maybe teams don’t need wealthy owners at all. Maybe TV revenue and sponsors could be enough by themselves and they could just increase or decrease their involvement as they see fit without running up debt on the clubs credit card.

    Tennis players and golfers don’t have billionaire owners so why should football teams? Fans should own teams as is the case in Germany, only in full. There’s nothing new about crowd funding.

    Or perhaps cities could buy teams themselves outright as has been suggested in America. This has also been suggested by Kevin Sheedy for Tasmania if they want an AFL team when he said that, “The only way they could ever get a team is if the state owned the team, much in the way the people of Wisconsin own the Green Bay Packers.”

    Ownership models aside the elephant in the room when it comes to revenue is the competition from the AFL and NRL which draw significant amounts of money from sponsors and broadcasters in Australia. But this doesn’t make it
    impossible for the A-League to increase it’s own revenue however.

    Unlike the other codes the A-League has the potential to attract large global audiences and TV deals. For example, the J.League announced a 10-year ONLINE streaming rights deal worth US$2billion with UK media content company Perform Group.

    Online rights are a big area for revenue in the future but one which hasn’t been fully taken advantage of.

    There could also be other big opportunities as well. The MLS have just rejected a US$400 million a year TV offer by MP and amp; Silva which would have quadrupled what they currently receive from FOX Sports.

    The deal was rejected because MP and amp; Silva demanded that the MLS put in place promotion-relegation. If we brought in P/R here in Australia and MP and amp; Silva were interested in a league with real potential for growth then maybe they could put their money into the A-League instead.

    There is real potential for growth in the A-League for anyone who’s interested.

    In particular, the A-League could attract a large overseas audience if billionaire owners are ditched and clubs have to live off TV rights money and sponsorship deals. This could give the A-League cult status among anybody who has ever had a grievance with the owners of their own club, either here or abroad.

    100 percent fan ownership!

    Final Conclusion – What is the A-League’s Potential?
    Looking at population, average attendances and league revenue I think the A-League has strong potential but has significant room for improvement.

    With our population we would be the 10th largest nation in Europe and one of their top teams.

    When it comes to average league attendance the A-League is the 15th highest attended top flight worldwide and if the A-League was in Europe we would have the 8th highest. There’s a lot of room for growth and potentially
    the A-League could have average crowds of around 25,000 people per match.

    League revenue is the biggest hurdle to overcome and is the biggest question over the A-League’s future. But I think that it should attract TV revenues at least as much as the NRL domestically and as much as or more than the J.League overseas.

    The current NRL deal is worth AUD$360 million a year while the J.League online streaming deal is worth AUD$250 million a year. I think the A-League can match both of these figures.

    $360 million a year from domestic TV rights would be enough to give 18 A-League teams $10 million each per year and provide $36 million a year to FFA. It would also be enough for two more divisions of 18 teams with second division sides getting $6 million a year and third division sides getting $2 million a year.

    $250 million a year from overseas over ten years could provide enough revenue for 18 football specific stadiums at $100 million each and a further 18 for every second division side at $38 million each.

    Sydney FC fans Football A-League Grand Final 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Alternatively the MP and amp; Silva bid for MLS rights would be worth about half a billion a year and could stretch even further. Then there’s Google to think about with online streaming.

    While the AFL and NRL receive huge government handouts from taxpayers I think the A-League should set the bar high and pay for all it’s own stadiums. I’m sure that would win over a large number of fans from the public.

    With all of the above in mind I think the A-League should aim to be on a par with leagues such as the MLS, J-League and the EFL Championship. I think that’s achievable.

    With investment all of this is possible but it seems the only people who can see it are those from overseas, not those in government or at Australian TV networks. But if they can see the potential for growth then I’m sure they would be willing to open their wallets if the opportunity arose.

    All FFA need to do is make a wish list and a budget for all the things that the A-League needs to grow and have an open tender process for potential broadcasters and online distributors willing to invest. Then just wait and see who bites.