Put fans at the centre of everything. That’s my suggestion for how to fix Australian football and, more specifically, the A-League’s ills.
In professional football there are only two groups of people that matter – players and fans.
Even without a league there’ll always be players (just ask the extraordinary women who made up early Matildas squads what it’s like having to pay your own way to a training camp), but it’s the fans who allow them to be professionals and live their dreams.
In the search for better viewing numbers and attendance figures at A-League games, we can forget what it is we’re actually looking for – fans.
With its passionate active support, football inherently makes the fan king. Supporting a football club is essentially about healthy tribalism, about belonging.
Here in the UK when I see someone wearing an A-League or Socceroos piece of clothing, I head straight over to talk to them. When I see someone wearing a Hawthorn Hawks top, I take little notice.
With the greatest of respect, Aussies are everywhere here and while the AFL and rugby folk come from the same place as I do, they’re not my tribe.
Anyone who has a club they’re deeply passionate about will understand the sense of belonging and pride that comes with watching your team represent the community you come from.
It’s not easy, but any league with designs of being self-sustaining and backed by thriving support has to recreate that.
So when I say put fans at the centre of everything this is how I’d do it.
The matchday experience defines whether you come back to the stadium or not and how often you do so.
There are a number of different things the A-League can try – starting with replacing meat pies with souvlaki/cevapi/panini (including a vegetarian option for Ernie Merrick and myself thanks) – but they will always be artificial.
We need to play up football’s strengths and one of its most natural components is active support.
These fans don’t just need to be tolerated, they must be encouraged to grow and flourish naturally.
The ongoing tifo battle between fans of the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders in the MLS is a perfect example.
Even before a ball has been kicked, there’s already a huge payoff for attending one of these games.
Engaging your fans off the pitch
A-League players have some amazing stories. Let’s share them.
You’re a lot more inclined to care how the rookie left back from your team fares if you know his back story.
Media departments not only need to be creative, but A-League clubs and Football Federation Australia need to be open. The lack of regular mixed zones after games is a key point of contention.
The Arizona Cardinals in the NFL put out a weekly podcast service that includes an in-depth interview with the head coach the day after every game and a brilliant radio show co-hosted by two players.
A-League clubs don’t have these kind of resources, but the point remains – players and coaches must not just be available, but welcoming to engaging with their fans through the media.
Access to players
While recent fan days held across the league were fantastic successes, there should always be a place for fans around the club.
If a fan wants to come watch his team train and ask for an autograph, they must be welcomed.
At German Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach, fans gather around the entrance of the team’s training pitch before a session starts.
As the players take the 100-metre walk from the stadium facilities to the pitch, they are left alone by the fans, except to be cheered on. After training, players sign autographs and pose for pictures. Every day.
A similar story occurs at Schalke’s stadium complex where, after training, players are obliged to walk through the club restaurant and greet any waiting fans.
If it’s good enough for one of the highest attended football leagues in the world, it’s good enough for the A-League.
Put back into your community
If you want to build connections with your fans, then make them proud of you.
Professional sport has the ability to unite and connect in ways most other facets of society can only dream of.
Be creative. American charity United Way has a player from each NFL team recruiting volunteers to be readers, tutors and mentors in an attempt to cut the high school dropout rate.
To make things a little bit more fun, they’ve faced every player and team off against each other to see which NFL side’s fans are best at putting back into their community.
The PFA and A-League sides have taken positive steps along these paths already, but let’s take it further.
If we put the kind of innovative thinking and hard work that brought Alessandro Del Piero into the A-League into these areas, the results would be a game changer for a young league still trying to find its place in the Australian sporting landscape.
This is the fourth in a five-part Solutions Series running this week on The Roar. Our football experts have been 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?”