It’s the white elephant in the room Football Federation Australia (FFA) needs to address: Gold Coast United and its unsustainable supporter base.
Reports from the Queensland press this week suggest the FFA will soon meet with United officials to “address several matters, including where the team will play games next season” in a bid to “re-badge and re-invigorate” the club.
Something needs to be done.
Crowds at Gold Coast United’s last three home games: 2081 versus Melbourne Heart, 2,135 versus Wellington Phoenix, to the weekend’s season low of 1723 versus Adelaide United.
Their season average, currently at 3704, is in danger of reaching last season’s all-time low of 3434 if things don’t improve. It’s not surprising given the decision to replace their established star names – Jason Culina, Shane Smeltz, Bruce Djite and more – with youth players this season.
And without North Queensland Fury to deflect some of the poor crowd criticism, their figure stands out in a league where every other club attracts an average of over 8000 with the potential to regularly pull crowds of five-figures.
Heading into this season the club slashed ticket prices – $20 adult tickets and $5 for kids – and promised a renewed community engagement push. But they were starting from a very low base at a time when the Gold Coast Suns AFL club had stormed Surfers Paradise with 11,141 members in their inaugural season.
By comparison, Gold Coast United has fewer than 400 members.
Then there were the own goals – more own goals.
Not learning from the PR-disaster that was the 5000-person crowd cap, three sides of Skilled Park were yet again closed to the public following what the club described as ‘unsavoury events’ during the Boxing Day clash against Brisbane Roar.
United’s active supporter group, The Beach, so vital to the club and contributing so many of their fans and members, were again kicked out of their home at the north end of the stadium.
At that same fixture, thousands of fans missed the start of the game when a larger than expected crowd turned up, with not enough ticket booths open to cope with the 6927 crowd.
The reasons why Gold Coast United struggles to attract a crowd have been examined in depth – transient population, greater competition from the entertainment/nightlife industry relative to other centres, poor transport to Skilled Park, and more.
But the club has compounded that challenge with these own goals, and they couldn’t afford to do so in a region with such limitations in an incredibly fickle market.
Worrying is the assertion from CEO Clive Mensink that “the negativity out there is unwarranted”. Unless the club and FFA pinpoint the reasons why crowds are sliding from an already low amount, what hope is there of readdressing the situation and “re-badge and re-invigorate”?
According to the report in the press, “There have been suggestions that the poorly supported club will next season be renamed Queensland United and play home matches in Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and the Gold Coast” – a suggestion club owner Clive Palmer refutes.
Turning the club a Queensland-wide travelling club could alleviate some of the heavy costs of renting Skilled Park, but what would it really do for its ability to attract a wider fan base?
Few sporting franchises worldwide exist with multiple bases for the lack of central home alienates between its core supporters and the club. Another problem is taking the club into smaller bases than the Gold Coast. It appears to be a face-saving exercise rather than a practical long-term solution.
And why would, for example, Townsville support a club that last season was a local rival to their own North Queensland Fury; supporting a club that received a stay of execution from the FFA while their own club was killed off, despite better crowd averages.
If Gold Coast United proves untenable yet the FFA wants to retain a Queensland presence, surely the best solution is to revive the Fury rather than relocate United to Townsville – pending adequate financial backers, of course.
As long as Palmer, who still retains the license for the club to stay in the A-League for a further two years, remains interested and is willing to prop up the club, Gold Coast United appears safe, unless the FFA imposes some criteria the club needs to live up to. If Palmer withdraws his support, who would invest in the club given its supporter base?
Perhaps the key is for Palmer to get the Gold Coast out of Skilled Park and into a boutique stadium that not only gets the club out of the heavy rent it pays – the motivation for the crowd cap – but also one that suits the size of its fan base. There is no hope of attracting a bigger crowd to an event so lacking in atmosphere, such as current home games at Skilled Park.
Whether he has the funds and will to do so is up to him, but it’s a big ask of a man who has already invested a sizable amount of his personal fortune into the club.
Each time a Gold Coast United home game is televised with the camera pointing to three near empty grandstands and microphones picking up meager cheers, it does untold damage to the A-League brand. This is why FFA intervention is necessary.
On the field Gold Coast United has contributed much to the league – finalists in their first two seasons and, until this season, consistent challengers to the more established clubs, which is an impressive feat for an expansion club.
They provide the A-League with a much-needed derby versus Brisbane, just an hour down the road – the benefits clear in the rivalry they have built up and the crowds their clashes attract. It’s certainly not to the level of the Melbourne derby but perhaps on par with Central Coast and Newcastle.
If they retain their current squad, they have the makings of a championship-premiership-winning team in a few seasons. But with so few of those young and developing players signed beyond this season, there appears to be little hope of that coming to fruition.
The club is fast approaching the point of no return, if it hasn’t already; where it needs to be either uprooted and moved or allowed one final governing body-backed push to penetrate into Gold Coast’s consciousness.
Whether it can remains to be seen. But something needs to be done desperately.