I am the guy standing next to you at international fixtures, cheering on the Socceroos to the point of exasperation; the idiot clenching his…
“The sport has grown so much, the code has grown so much that our biggest games, our marquee matches need to be played on the biggest stages.”
Those were the words of a certain A-League chief Damien De Bohun when reflecting upon the 2014-2015 A-League grand final.
From one perspective it is a completely reasonable sentiment. However from another perspective it is a perspective that misses half the equation.
A clue to the other half lies in comments that can also be attributed to De Bohun that boutique stadiums created an “atmosphere unparalleled in Australian sport”.
From this perspective, far from being a ‘farce’, it is indeed a perfect narrative fit for the inaugural 10 years of the A-League.
The unintended effect of the stadium confusion is that the 2015 grand final should turn into a form celebration both of – and for – the football fraternity. The atmosphere intensity serves as a fantastic reflection on how far the culture has developed in that time.
The A-League teams are often derided as ‘plastic franchises’, but as teams they are given organic credibility in that each team in its own way has been very much infused with soul by the football fraternity in each city that has embraced their teams.
My own experience as an inaugural fan of both that grand final in metropolitan Melbourne and then the FFA Cup round of 32 in an obscure stadium in suburban Melbourne illustrates some important issues looking ahead.
What struck me when looking around the stadium at the A-League grand final was the amount of children who would have been under 10 who were present at an ‘all-members’ event (and I was in the active area).
These are children who have no memory of the pre A-League days of football being some kind of ‘minority’ sport ‘rife with “ethnic tensions’ which is only on the calendar every four years when the Socceroos would compete in a playoff spot to make the World Cup.
These are kids who grow up not only with football as a major professional sport being second nature in terms of their media interaction with it but there is no ethnic tension cultural cringe they have to overcome in order to attend games.
Indeed I refer this principle back to my more recent experience at Jack Edwards Reserve in Oakleigh.
I certainly knew I was in a different place when firstly I was having to watch a national competition in actual wintry conditions.
Secondly, having to get my tea flask continually filled up in the canteen area and being surrounded by non-monogonous food and club officials speaking to the regulars in some obscure eastern european dialect I couldn’t comprehend.
And then of course there was the presence of the infamous ‘nut man’.
Far from being put off I actually loved it all as a natural part of the FFA Cup experience.
Numerically the crowd of just over 1300 may have been nothing to write home about, but it felt like a proper football experience and I enjoyed the quality of it all.
As a general football fan as I was happy to cheer on and celebrate the progress of a Victorian-based team as it increased the probability of seeing more FFA Cup football in the future with the associated benefits to the Victorian football economy should an A-League team be drawn by the locally based team.
So then, important to recognise a feedback loop where I as a national level fan contribute to the grassroots football economy and grassroots football fraternity feeds into my enjoyment as a football fan.
The narrative for the next 10 years for football needs to be along the lines of bringing new football and old soccer full circle and healing the rift.
Not only healing the rift, but the two segments can actually play a role where the professional tier fan-base and the grassroots reinforce each other in a feedback loop and the fraternity gains strength as a result.
The FFA Cup then is the perfect competition to serve this purpose.
Looking ahead, the FFA need to be more conscious over the next 10 years in placing their emphasis on maintaining the sociological integrity of the fraternity in place of an emphasis on enticing generalist sports fans.
This is the second element of the aforementioned equation.
That is the quality of the football watching experience and not necassarily the scale which the FFA need to absorb into its organisational culture.
It is important to recognise that the power in football crowd growth lies mostly through word-of-mouth and generational growth.
Word-of-mouth is resilient to negative media attention and it is pretty much a case that A-League membership growth will occur from the inaugural generation bringing their children and grandchildren rather than convincing generalist sports fans to overcome a cultural cringe.
The overbearing security approach and over-reactionary policies put in place to negative media attention by the FFA in the league’s first 10 years did more harm then good.
This ruined the quality of the live experience, and served only to put off committed fans and likely did little to entice generalist sports fans who were unlikely to attend games anyway.
From this perspective, rather than aiming for growth and looking to make the A-League bigger by pumping resources in trying to entice generalist sports fans, it is of greater benefit to focus resources sideways on improving the strength of interest in football.
This means focusing the energy of the fraternity inward and consolidating interest, as measured by the frequency of attendance of already engaged fans/members as opposed to how many new fans have been attracted.
On the surface this seems counter-intuitive, but it is aimed at ensuring recession resiliency via the live fix.
This is achieved by nurturing the FFA Cup as a substantial dual competition. Having a dual A-League/FFA Cup system not only allows for the new football and old soccer demographics to reinforce each other.
It also opens the door for the FFA to have a competition in which they have a hands-on role while A-League owners can have autonomous control over the A-League, thus helping to heal the FFA/investor rift.
In the meantime, I was able to get over my irritation that Melbourne Victory were once again drawn to play away in suburban Sydney via the fact that I will be able to enjoy a game at nearby Heidelberg United.