The A-League is now approaching its 15th season. Put simply, there are a lot of problems to be solved that John O’Neill and co. would not have expected to exist 13 years on from the heady days of the fabled 2006 World Cup campaign.
In that time, we’ve seen North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United come and go, the problematic NZ team re-locate from Auckland to Wellington, and two new teams introduced into the Melbourne (City) and Sydney (WSW) markets. Don’t even try to count the number of ownership changes.
Despite being Australia’s most popular grassroots sport for as long as the ABS have been collecting the stats in this area, football is still struggling to capture the hearts and minds of the public at the domestic professional level.
With the exception of a notable Ange Postecoglou-inspired boom in Brisbane and a similar personality-inspired Mariners’ season under Graham Arnold, the league has been dominated by Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC with eight championship titles between them. When factoring in Brisbane’s purple patch, three clubs account for 11 of 14 championship titles won to date. Perth Glory, Melbourne City, West Sydney Wanderers and Wellington Phoenix are yet to trouble the historians even once here.
Recent attempts to boost the A-League brand have failed to have the impact hoped for. A series of awkward marriages and improperly formed concepts have contributed to the current malaise afflicting the league.
There was Manchester City’s bland attempt at bolting on a brand identity to Melbourne Heart. That has failed to have the on or off field success to the levels they would have hoped for, as they appoint their fourth permanent coach ahead of the new season. The fact is that they appeal only to fans of that EPL team. No self-respecting Australian-based Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool fan is going to support a Man City branded team (or vice versa). The same criticism aimed at their cashed-up benefactors of buying success in the EPL is aimed at their Australian offshoot, and only serves to emphasise the lack of soul associated with the club.
The Western Sydney Wanderers’ fairytale Asian run had zero impact on the league, other than to rob it of its players as A-League players experienced a boom in popularity in export markets such as China, South Korea and the Middle East. Any transfer fees harvested were understandably grabbed by owners keen to stunt the flow of money out of their pockets as they have struggled to balance the books.
Tony Popovic’s departure seemed to leave the club rudderless and without direction. The once vocal and intimidating Red and Black Bloc significantly diminished, along with their on-field presence.
The situation is not helped by the lack of top-quality recognition in the Socceroos. Aaron Mooy and Mat Ryan are great pros, but they’re hardly household names in the same way as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Bresciano, Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill and co. A successful and recognisable national team goes a long way to creating interest in the local product.
The FFA Cup has been reduced to a damp squib of the game-changing concept it was hoped to be when introduced. No NPL team has made the final, let alone won it. This year, only one NPL made the semis, and they were beaten 5-1. Winners do not gain an Asian spot, and the final itself is just another game between two A-League teams who will play each other for more meaningful league points three or four times in the year ahead.
Fan fatigue is another problem. How often can we expect fans to keep turning up to watch the same small number of teams battle it out? The AFL have 18 teams, the NRL have 16, yet football proudly boasts of its credentials as Australia’s national code with a confirmed 12-team league expected in 2020/21.
So, what are the solutions?
Optimists will look at the introduction of further expansion through yet another set of teams in Victoria (Western United) and New South Wales (Macarthur) as providing a boost to flagging interest. Pessimists would be forgiven for reporting a sense of déjà vu as new franchises are tasked with the job of providing the silver bullet to revitalise the tired competition.
Certainly, Geelong represents a new market, though Canberra and Tasmania must be wondering what more they must do be seemed worthy of a team.
We need to fix the Y-League to demonstrate a more obvious pathway between NPL and A-League teams. The last season saw A-League youth teams play four other sides twice for a total of eight games, with a couple extra if they made the finals. That is laughable, and can’t be allowed to continue.
There has not been a genuine marquee since Alessandro Del Piero. A genuine superstar would help – think an aged Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Gianluigi Buffon.
With all due respect to a great servant of the game, would the return of an aged Mile Jedinak – playing so deep he’s stood next to the goalie to protect his diminished legs – really put bums on seats, or is he just robbing a developing local youngster of a spot?
Can we increase the number of foreign players into the league to reduce the less-than-inspiring recycling of some mediocre Aussie players joining club number four or five?
Should we increase the salary cap to allow an improved level of import?
Scrapping the cap seems to be a popular theory on how to improve the game, but with so many clubs struggling financially inside the current model with dwindling commercial returns, the logic behind this seems flawed to me.
With clubs like the Mariners, Adelaide, Roar and Phoenix running on the smell of an oily rag, it is unclear where this extra money would come from. Rather, the concept seems more likely to feed the already stifling domination of Melbourne and Sydney, two of the few clubs able to potentially actually ramp up their spend.
The much-mooted two-tier promotion/relegation system is similarly flawed. Although it would create more drama and interest, the teams are simply not robust enough to survive relegation and its associated lack of income. The result would be a boom and bust economy – a nightmare scenario that could see the league quickly implode.
The answer could come from an unlikely source. Fox Sports have been the golden goose of the A-League since its inception. The most recent six-year, $346-million deal looks difficult to comprehend in hindsight, given the struggling TV viewership.
Their willingness to increasingly relax their grip on the rights and allow more free-to-air content via a new deal struck with ABC will hopefully see the game reach a new viewership who were simply never going to stump up for pay-per-view content. While match-day crowds are important, it’s TV eyeballs that really bring in the dollars, as the NRL model clearly demonstrates.
But the game never fails to shoot itself in the foot in this country. Whether it be lacklustre, low-brow foreign appointments to the national team position, failed expansion teams, board room bickering, or active fan group quashing, there is always some off-field drama which seems to dog the headlines.
In an ironic twist this week, the A-League owners used their new independence – free from the constraints of FFA HQ – to demonstrate their inability to handle their newfound power in a collective, constructive way. Their failure to agree a radio marketing strategy between themselves just as the new season is due to start was perhaps as predictable as it was troubling.
Rather than blame the AFL and NRL influence on media coverage – which some observers will have you believe is responsible for the relatively low profile of the sport at professional level in Australia – perhaps a bit of navel-gazing and self-realisation would yield better results.
The answers could be closer to home than we think, if we are prepared to look in the mirror for answers, rather than glare accusingly out of the window.