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A-League independence is almost here but how commercially daring can it be?

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Expert
5th August, 2019
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No doubt the recalcitrant little brat that is the A-League will be shortly called to the headmaster’s office at Fox Sports and asked to explain itself.

With ever-growing concerns around ratings metrics and the broadcasting giant beginning to feel the economic squeeze of an ever-changing digital media, a ‘bang for your buck’ discussion looms.

The A-League representatives will offer a reasonable defence, citing the cronies at the FFA as having held back growth for some time, they will undoubtedly offer the most clichéd of all promises and insist that things will be different from now on.

In fact, they are correct. As the A-League moves to an independent model and the franchises themselves take on an increased role in its financial decision making, football clubs will now control football money and will be attempting to grow the league as never before.

In essence, the conversation between Fox and the A-League is anabrupt one. The broadcaster will remind the clubs that it paid a bundle of cash for the rights and that very few people are watching.

The newly independent A-League will cite FFA mismanagement and assure Rupert Murdoch’s suits that with football brains now controlling the purse strings, the marketing strategy and subsequent monetisation of the game will improve.

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It is something that we all hope for, yet just how ambitious can the A-League be with the increased funds to which it now has access?

The answer lies somewhere between a continuing promotional flat line, where fans see little effort to engage with new markets and a commercial sell-out of the game – complete with empty buckets of chicken, dance troupes, pyrotechnics and annoying music.

Finding a middle marketing ground that changes the face of the highest tier, yet at the same time manages to keep the traditionalists and loyal fans committed and happy is a challenging task.

Here’s hoping that the consultancy firms engaged to analyse the landscape and design and implement the new marketing strategy do not encourage the clubs to engage in some of the folly that other sporting codes have adopted.

The day I walk into a venue and see one of those gigantic rubber fingers, receive one of those annoying clacking devices that drive you mad when used in chorus, or hear Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ warbling away in the background, please sign me up for lawn bowls.

Whatever decisions are made and however additional funds are eventually used in an attempt to grow the game, football must remain football and resist short-term, crass commercialism.

The focus must be on the fans, with the number one priority being to encourage safe, noisy and passionate active support. A sense of tribalism has been difficult to nurture over the course of the first 15 years of the league.

Western Sydney Wanderers' fans

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

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In effect, the franchises were new communities and many football lovers across the land still preferred to engage with more ingrained, familiar and traditional ones. That built a considerable chasm between the NSL heritage, the modern-day NPL competitions, and the house Frank Lowy built – the A-League.

As such, the potential boom in club memberships, attendances and fan engagement that the stream-lined new league hoped to bring failed to materialise. In fact, across many criteria, growth has moved into the negative.

Now, with long sought-after independence achieved and – hopefully – a clear and strategic vision to reconnect football’s spokes back to one central hub, the game has the opportunity to look after itself.

Creating that aforementioned tribalism and morphing clubs into valued communities where fans find meaning and a sense of belonging must be the fundamental driver in the way the league markets itself in the short term.

Forging those feelings has also been difficult to achieve in recent times with overzealous security hampering the game-day experience. The accessibility and size of venues continues to be an issue, and ticket pricing policies should be high on the agenda of the number-crunchers when they begin pencilling in their new spreadsheets.

That is not to say the professional Australian game has been dull. Far from it. There have been flashpoints where the sense of community embodied in passionate and parochial active support sent tingles down the spine.

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The Brisbane Roar in its prime and the Wanderers in full flight are two clear examples, both showed what football can become in this country.

Now with greater autonomy, the powers-that-be will attempt to change the marketable face of the A-League, sell it better than it has ever been sold before and advance the beautiful game.

Reconnecting with people and communities, and allowing fans to support in their preferred and traditional footballing way is the key.

Let’s hope we avoid anything that looks like a cheap, short-term sell-out.