When Melbourne City became Melbourne City, the fortunes of the southern capital’s second team appeared destined to change.
If you’re an impassioned follower of the A-League, it’s hard not the see the league in the way a loving parent does their slightly awkward teenager performing at a school talent show.
This is not a competition in its mature prime, or its boyish early years. The acne, the hunching, the shuffling, the mumbling, the occasional abandonment of social graces; all this can obscure the appealing parts, the skill and grace and thrilling potential.
Swept up in a wash of pride and unconditional love, it can be hard for the parent to understand why the other audience members aren’t as enraptured by what, to you, seems a rather spellbinding rendition of Mr Brightside by The Killers on the electric guitar dad picked up for a bargain at a garage sale.
Then again, the reality of a general slump in attendance and viewing figures is hard to ignore and, like someone suddenly turning on the lights at a nightclub, the objective state of things can suddenly be illuminated, and be startlingly depressing.
A-League clubs have to grow their popularity; the league, relatively speaking, is still young and fledgling. It cannot be allowed to stagnate, or go backwards, for too long.
Trusting the numbers
It was with this in mind that my eye was caught by the Roy Morgan A-League club popularity report.
It shows that all but three clubs have dropped their supporter numbers, with only the three NSW clubs posting gains, and only Sydney posting a gain of more than four per cent.
Melbourne City have posted a drop of 25.4 per cent, the highest among Australian clubs – Wellington’s was greater, but the survey was only done among Australia-based fans, so the result is probably unrepresentative of Wellington’s actual supporter-ship and its fluctuations.
City’s fanbase, and its size, has been a subject of discussion around the league for some time, not least because it is dwarfed so strikingly by Melbourne Victory’s mammoth supportership.
Trying to explain Morgan figures is an interesting exercise: looking across the other clubs’ figures, it’s hard to assert that on-field results are the main factor for growth, or indeed that bad results are the main factor for decline.
Central Coast’s popularity apparently grew between June 2017 and June 2018, despite sacking the manager and finishing last in the 2017-18 season – the survey period ended before the Bolt-mania began, in case you were wondering.
Similarly confounding was Victory’s slight drop in numbers despite winning the grand final from third place, the first team to do so in the league’s history.
Only Sydney, and to a much lesser degree Newcastle, have enjoyed growth off the back of a successful year.
Speaking plainly, the Morgan figures were presented alongside another set of figures indicating what proportion of A-League fans would be willing to upgrade their mobile phone; Roy Morgan sell market research data, and you can’t sell individual A-League clubs to the public as easily as you can sell new iPhones.
When contacted, Melbourne City implied its own data was not in keeping with the Morgan results. The FFA and A-League clubs jointly collect month-by-month data, which is more focused in its scope and intention.
The Roy Morgan survey is a snapshot, year-on-year, and extrapolates out a smaller sample size, a common – if criticised – practice in market research. The sample size used is listed as 14,836, and that number was consistent across both the yearly surveys.
While it may give more of a glimpse into general popularity outside the A-League bubble, the degree to which it is compromised by ulterior intentions – as well as its basic accuracy – is justifiably questioned.
When contacted, an FFA spokesperson issued a statement saying the Federation couldn’t comment on the Morgan figures “without an in-depth understanding of the methodology of their report”.
Other shadowy figures
It was pointed out to me that memberships were perhaps a more reliable measure, but let’s look into that. The membership rankings are plainly listed on the A-League website, but that seems a little too easy to take as a concrete indicator of overall fan health.
Memberships are an odd metric; it feels as though they are less affected by the bluster than other metrics are, like TV ratings or attendance, because members are registered and locked in largely in advance, and are as a result stabler figure, more concrete, and slower to react to external fluctuations.
Perhaps it might be interesting to look at the difference between the listed membership numbers, and the average attendances from the most recent season.
We can safely say that clubs should be expected to have their match-day crowds outstrip their membership numbers; non-member attendees who buy single tickets are of course common and are an important indicator of immediate, spontaneous interest in the team. So, the question is which teams are drawing non-member crowds, and to what degree?
Going off last season’s average attendances, only Melbourne Victory’s and Western Sydney’s average attendance figures fell below their current membership count. As to why, well, the Victory has a massive membership count of 24,220, and mobilising a group that large is difficult to do on a weekly basis.
This doesn’t excuse the average attendance drop from the season before last, which is concerning – 21,888 to 17,489 – and the club will be no doubt hoping that the recruitment and excitement for this season will bump that back up above 20,000.
Western Sydney’s stadium issues more than explain its under-performance, as well as the rather lacklustre season they laboured through in 2017-18. For both clubs, setting a high bar one year can mean attracting a lot of eyes, and then failing to clear it the next.
The other clubs all outperformed what you might call the rusted-on attendance bloc, but the teams that finished first and second last season are the most noteworthy. Sydney averaged a crowd number 35 per cent higher than its membership tally, and Newcastle’s average attendance was 34 per cent higher.
This is almost certainly due to their great seasons, and strong-but-not-stratospheric membership counts. The rest either outperformed their membership numbers only marginally – Melbourne City and Brisbane – or had positive results that might be more correctly explained not because they had a good season, but by the fact that their membership numbers are low, with Adelaide the best of that bunch.
For City, having achieved its best-ever league finish last season, that they failed to perform as well in this way as Sydney or Newcastle is a concern.
A tale of one City
Focusing more closely on City, let’s look at them irrespective of the figures. There has been a creeping sense – stoked entirely by the development, extraction and loaning of Aaron Mooy and Daniel Arzani – that the club is acquiring the look of a feeder club. They seem a club designed entirely to act as a talent farm, uncovering footballers in a disconnected market, developing them, and at the first sign of potential profitability, whisking them away to a bigger shop window before an eventual sell-on.
It’s likely Mooy and Arzani will never play for Manchester City, and could probably have played for Melbourne City for a season longer than they did, especially Arzani.
There is no disguising the commercial process at work here, and what’s being pondered is the extent to which it is damaging Melbourne City’s ability to attract and retain fans.
City are certainly trying to lure in new supporters: pre-match events, family days, friendly games, player ‘q-and-a’s, speaking and mentoring programs, and the City Cup, a 50-team competition put on for boys and girls teams from around Victoria. These initiatives are all designed to rake in more supporters.
Of course, scrubbing Tim Cahill’s name from City’s books perhaps had an effect on recent popularity too; seeing Australia’s most recognisable footballer up and leave in a huff can’t help but affect enthusiasm, if only among the sizeable normie crowd.
Then again, Cahill was hardly a club legend at City, and his playing time had tapered off as the 2017-18 season went on.
And if a drop in supporters can be explained by Cahill leaving, the same logic can be applied to Arzani’s departure.
Although nowhere near as well-known as Cahill, Arzani was still the most exciting winger in the league last season, a player whose neon feet built not just crippling sense of unease in the minds of A-League defenders, but also enough momentum to earn place in the World Cup squad.
City developing young Australian talent, and offering them a ready-made conveyer belt to European opportunity isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself – or indeed in relation to the national team.
But why would someone buy another City season ticket when their favourite player might be plucked up by great dangling claw above as soon as he catches the eye?
What if 15-year-old Idrus Abdulahi catches fire this season for City, like Arzani did last season, and is thrust into the spotlight? Would it be worth City fans becoming attached to him?
The player churn in the A-League is bad enough as it is without this new process adding to the flux.
City have rightly pointed out they don’t enjoy the same defined geographical bounds – helping to lash together a fanbase – that the Western Sydney Wanderers have successfully used to build the league’s third-highest membership count after entering a contested market.
This is a key point. Forging an identity is important – it’s attractive to unconverted potential fans – and in football, one of the default methods is to self-define down geographical lines.
When Crystal Palace fans sing “we are from south London, we are from south London, you know it’s true, we’re red and blue” over and over in their slightly tumbledown stadium under an affront of freezing sleet, it’s the ‘south London’ part that keeps their souls warm and the song rolling on. Geographical tribalism is a natural spouse to sports fandom.
City don’t really have that. The club plays on the same grounds as the Victory, and because the FFA instated a ‘one-city-one-club’ policy when the A-League was started, the Victory’s status as the Melbourne team didn’t leave any geographical wiggle room. It was a short-sighted decision, in truth, and one that seems even more foolish when you consider how closely bunched – and yet distinctly vibrant – Melbourne’s AFL clubs are.
When Melbourne Heart came in, they weren’t a true city rival, with their own patch, and their own natural supportership; it was the little brother, inheriting the hand-me-downs, cast immediately in a dark blue shadow. City, to some extent, remain so cast.
Hitching our wagon to a stud
There is, too, the question of marquees. As much as sugar-hit signings are losing their sweetness in the A-League, the impact of Keisuke Honda shows the public still do react well to big-name marquees, and that it’s possible for a marquee to fulfil both on-field and marketing criteria.
City have – in theory, anyway – the biggest budget in the league; why aren’t they driving recruitment with blue-chip stars?
Ritchie De Laet is a talented player who has already made an impact, scoring in City’s opening weekend win in the derby.
But he isn’t a name, even in football households, and as a fullback doesn’t occupy the traditional glamour marquee positions of striker or attacking midfielder. The choice to sign him was clearly wholly based on on-field criteria, made down wholly sensible lines.
But considering the recruitment of its city rivals, the money it has at its disposal, and its place as a distant second in Melbourne, the fact City didn’t clap back at Victory and Honda with a big name marquee of its own is a little disappointing.
The A-League is a unique competition, operating in a unique environment, and in Melbourne City, has a unique participant. The rhythms of the league can be hard to track, and the metronome is easily thrown off the beat.
Football has a deep, rich history in Australia, but the A-League was confected very recently and has slowly been gathering layers, building up not just a distinct patina but a layer of armour.
To track the progress of the league, though, is to track the progress of its clubs, and because the derbies have become the league’s tent poles, the state of the city rivalries that fuel those derbies is always worth inspecting.
The issue of popularity – internal and external – can threaten to become a complex for the A-League. Such is the existence of an entity awkwardly hunching and mumbling and shuffling its way through adolescence.