There is only one thing a bidder needs to be in the running for an A-League expansion licence, and today I can present it to you.
I acknowledge that I am contributing to a massive problem on this website’s football tab by writing this article – that is, the same articles and topics being discussed on a regular basis on original topics such as ‘how the A-League can eclipse the AFL’ and of course anything to do with expansion.
But this is important. There is only one question that any bidder needs to answer in the race for a licence. If they can show that their answer to this question is better than the other bidders, then this bidder should be awarded a licence.
This has nothing to do with internal club politics, who owns the club or whether the bid is being bankrolled by some investor in China or the Middle East, although those things can help.
The question is: how do these clubs intend to build a fan-base, more specifically, if these clubs are bidding in places where there already is a licence, how do they intend to draw support in a saturated market?
While I acknowledge that this is an incredibly simple question, when you break it down, there are multiple possible answers.
We often hear that the supporters make the game. There is no denying it. If any of these clubs want to be successful, they have to draw supporters in.
This is a considerable problem in any sport when new teams are admitted into the competition. As football supporters there is one value above all else that we place an extremely high importance on: loyalty.
So when two new teams are introduced into the A-League in October, why would anyone switch? There is nothing that football fans hate more than betrayal. We see this whenever a player leaves to join a club’s rivals, and it would make the supporters seem incredibly hypocritical if they did the same.
There are three main reasons someone would change sides.
The first is the promise of trophies. These people are your classic bandwagoners – the concept of loyalty is completely foreign to them. These are people who would change from supporting Melbourne Victory to following Melbourne City when they win the derby and then go back to Melbourne Victory. As supporters we heavily condemn this approach, but when you look at common reasons why people change their clubs, this is one of the top ones.
The second is the perceived lack of ownership of a club. As football fans we like to believe that we are the backbone of a club. We pay the tickets and merchandise, so we believe that we are owners of the club. When there is a significant disconnect between fans and board members, the fans’ enthusiasm for the club will diminish.
I spoke to a few Brisbane Roar fans on Expand the A-League‘s Facebook page about a second Brisbane side. Many of the fans were frustrated over the Bakrie Group’s mismanagement of the clubs funds, promising to invest millions into Brisbane Roar when the owners had been $9 billion in debt anyway. If a second Brisbane side was to be introduced, many of them would consider jumping ship.
However, it can be argued that there is a significant disconnect between the FFA and the fans anyway and that this is not a club-specific issue. While I acknowledge that the FFA’s management of the A-League is a significant contributor to this disconnect, the Western Sydney Wanderers of old had an excellent connection with their fan-base. From getting supporter groups to make decisions on club logos, philosophies and playing kits, the fans felt as if this club belonged to them. They felt supported by the club. It is only recently thanks to a few deluded individuals in the Red and Black Bloc that a disconnect is growing.
The third reason is perhaps the one that is most accepted by football fans: geographical location. The reason Western Sydney was a more successful club in terms of attendance when compared to Melbourne City is the fact that Western Sydney clearly established their region of dominance. This is later certified by their own stadium that is not shared by their state rivals, unlike City.
When Melbourne City were established as Melbourne Heart, was there any reason to support them other than they were another Melbourne side? Sure, now they are a part of the City Football Group, but before then there was no geographical reason or sense of ownership about the club.
If supporters move one state to another or one region to another, then changing their football team is also a possibility. It may not be common, but I would believe that it is an understandable motive. They may miss the home-ground atmosphere, they want to connect with their new community or they just like the look of something different.
So what does this mean for our expansion sides of South Melbourne, Brisbane City, South Sydney and Wollongong?
The first is that a clear regional divide needs to be established. It is for this reason that their own separate stadium is a must. By establishing a regional divide, supporters who are in the area but have been forced to support the original club now have a genuine reason to switch their club.
For the most part these have established their geographical divide. South Melbourne and South Sydney are obviously representing the south of their states while Brisbane City are set to be based in the north-west of Brisbane. Wollongong would have the entirety of the Wollongong region.
The second is that a sense of ownership, community and connection needs to be established with the new clubs. This is the single biggest reason why expansion clubs fail from the beginning.
Let’s take a look at Wellington Phoenix. It is no secret that the Nix hardly attract attention in New Zealand, so why would a club bother to try and create a connection between fans if there was none there in the first place?
This is something that would concern bids surrounding Queensland. Reports suggest that Gold Coast United are considering a return to the A-League. That would not be advisable. The last experiment in the Gold Coast failed spectacularly because the enthusiasm and connection between the clubs were not wanted in the first place.
Many franchises struggle in the Gold Coast, including in the NRL and AFL, and while I acknowledge what I am about to say may be a generalisation, I question whether people on the Gold Coast have an interest in live sport.
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This argument is also working against South Melbourne. South Melbourne will establish a connection with fans, but the majority of them will be of Greek ethnicity. I question how South Melbourne can distinguish themselves as the club that represents the south of Melbourne, not the club that represents Greek Australians. By marketing themselves as the old NSL club, then they risk alienating a significant proportion of the South Melbourne population.
The NSL failed because it did not attract mainstream attention; it sent a message that if you were of this ethnicity, then this is the only club that you could support. Interestingly some of the clubs in the NSL that did not market themselves as of a particular ethnicity but as ‘family clubs’, such as Perth Glory and Adelaide United, and they recorded outstanding crowds and were invited to become part of the A-League.
On this basis Wollongong or South Sydney would have a significant case to be a part of the A-League. The only question that remains over Wollongong is whether the connection established in a country region is strong enough to result in decent crowds and profits for the FFA. Newcastle have shown us this season that this is possible.
Above all else, however, when the FFA finally announces the bids that are going to be successful, I implore these clubs to involve potential members in some way or another in the decision-making processes. Give them a chance to be at the start of the history of their club. This will give them the sense of ownership that they desire and by extension create a passionate supporter base that will remain enthusiastic for many years.
There has been much debate over which expansion side should be chosen and why. However, the moment a club can present how it intends to win over the Australian footballing public and mainstream sports fans better than any other bidder will be a moment the FFA cannot afford to pass.
It does not matter if the club does not initially seem as profitable, because with a proper fan-base comes better atmosphere at games, and a better atmosphere results in more sponsorship, which will ultimately lead to the profits that FFA are seeking.
Football is nothing without the fans. It is these bidder’s responsibility to persuade us to side with them.