The A-League needs to be more exciting: that is the message from a lot of diehard football fans Down Inder and also, more importantly, from fringe football fans.
The fanatics will always turn up to support their teams, but the flakey fans will leave in a heartbeat if things aren’t exciting enough or worth their while.
So what can be done to revitalise a competition that is becoming stale and somewhat boring? Expanding the league to 12 and 14 teams is an obvious answer, as is creating a second tier. This, though, is a long-term solution and costs money the game doesn’t appear to have at the moment. What can be done in the short term?
The answer in my view is twofold. First, bring more flair and excitement to the league. Second, get more fans into the game with better value prices.
To satisfy the former we need to recruit more players from Asia. One of the few upsides of seeing the Socceroos struggle against Asian opponents this World Cup qualifying campaign has been to see how much speed and skill players from various Asian countries have.
Japanese star Keisuke Honda, who currently plies his trade with Pachuka in Mexico, is an absolute joy to watch. He has been a thorn in the Socceroos side in years gone by, and it would be a huge boost to the A-League to have a player like him weave his magic around pitches in Australia.
Shinji Ono was a wonderful marquee for the Western Sydney Wanderers in the first two years of the club’s existence. That Eastern flair he brought to the league boosted the Wanderers, their fans and the league in general.
Chanathip Songkrasin from Thailand, nicknamed ‘Messi Jay’ in homage to the Argentine legend, was all class for the War Elephants in their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign despite them finishing last in their group. He ran Australia ragged in the 2-2 draw in Bangkok last November in a result that ultimately cost the Socceroos direct qualification to Russia.
Seeing him touch and tease the ball as he danced around Aussie defenders with finesse and intelligent positioning was football at its finest. There are likely more players of his mould in the Thai League T1 who are just waiting for an opportunity to play in a higher profile competition. The A-League clubs should send scouts to flush them out.
As far as the Middle Eastern players go, Omar Abdulrahman from the United Arab Emirates is an exciting and vibrant young player who makes the Emiratis one of the most thrilling teams to watch in Asia. He plays for Al-Ain and is on good coin no doubt. He would be well worth the investment for an A-League club.
Omar Al Somah and Firas Al-Khatib from Syria were major problems for Australia in the first leg of the world cup qualifier in Melaka due to their searing speed and classy moves. Hopefully they can bring this class to the A-League one day.
The marquee players that have come from Asia in the A-League’s short history have a reputation for adding excitement to the competition, which leads to excitement in the stands.
There are players from Europe who have also added this, but the bulk of them bring more of a physical presence to the league, and while that is important, we already have that in abundance. The Australian way has always been to outmuscle opponents.
Bringing in foreigners from Europe or the UK who add to this is unnecessary. Fans are sick of seeing players smothered in tackles and brought down with tough physical challenges; they want to see more dare and dribbling around and through opponents combined with speed and quick footwork.
Asian players will bring this to the league. They will also help develop more skill and flair in Australian players by inspiring them to do the same.
We also want to see young kids in parks and fields around Australia practising their dribbling and finesse rather than putting their bodies into opponents to beat them. This will hopefully lead to a more vibrant Socceroos team in the years to come as well.
The second thing needed to boost the A-League is to get more bums on seats to create a better atmosphere. This is much easier said than done. Adding that skill and flair as mentioned above will help, but what will be most helpful is to make the games cheaper to attend.
The German Bundesliga has led the way in filling the stands by making tickets dirt cheap. The average crowd for the Bundesliga last season was 41,500. It looks amazing on TV, thus generating more TV revenue, which is the major source of revenue for football clubs these days.
Offering cheaper seats to potential A-League fans would indeed help bring them through the gate. While a lot of clubs will argue they rely heavily on membership revenue – and they would be right – some forward and long-term thinking is needed.
First and foremost any kid 12 years old and under who is registered to play football in the MiniRoos program should receive a free membership to an A-League club of their choice. Kids are not going to go on their own to a game, meaning mum, dad, uncle, aunty, grandma or grandpa will need to take them. They will need to buy tickets or memberships to attend.
The average cost of a family of four to attend an A-League game is over $100. This amounts to over a $1,000 for a season, and that is far too much in this day and age when the cost of mortgages, school fees and groceries are increasing. Reducing this cost by giving free memberships to kids and cheaper tickets for adults would go a long way to enticing more fans to go.
The Big Bash League did this for kids who play Milo in2Cricket and it worked a charm. Making the kick-off times more family friendly would help too – 7:50pm is far too late for Friday and Saturday nights. Even making kick-off around 7pm would be better for young kids and would still fit the games into TV prime time slots.
Make no mistake, the A-League is in desperate need of rejuvenation. How the Socceroos World Cup campaign pans out will also play a huge role in how our domestic league fares next year, but failing a good result, get those Asian players in ASAP – our game needs it in a hurry.