After years in the doldrums there are finally some green shoots starting to appear for the A-League in the early stages of season 2019/20, and some of the sights we’ve seen in the stands give hope for the future.
From the 15,000 at Hindmarsh for the FFA Cup final to the 29,000 at Bankwest Stadium for the Sydney Derby and the 12,500 at Leichhardt Oval, the solution is simple: boutique stadium plus full stands equals a winner.
How long have we been saying it? The A-League needs more boutique stadiums. The A-League doesn’t necessarily have a crowds issue (although falling crowds were a concern), it has a stadiums issue. Get that right and a lot of things instantly improve.
So why, with one of the best football stadiums in the country, does Melbourne Victory insist on continuing to play at Marvel Stadium in the Docklands?
Obviously, money is the answer, with the stadium deal reportedly far better than the one on offer at AAMI Park. And in a league that isn’t exactly flush with cash, it’s understandable.
But at the moment, when the league is trying to reconnect with the fans, I’m not sure it’s a strong enough argument anymore. Some things need to be done for the good of the game, irrespective of the cost.
The clubs have claimed they need to invest $120 million over four years to bring the A-League back to life.
Part of that investment should be Victory bosses tearing up the contract with the AFL-owned stadium and committing to playing all home games at what the fans consider their spiritual home – AAMI Park – built next door to the old Olympic Park, where Victory played their first ever games as a club.
Who could ever forget that 2005/06 season and the buzz we all got when the sold-out signs went up at Olympic Park? It wasn’t the biggest stadium in town, but it was small, intimate, and more importantly, it was full.
When the Victory first started hosting fixtures at Docklands and were regularly attracting crowds of 30,000-plus, you could understand why the club opted to play games at the venue, even if it was ill-equipped for football.
But those crowds are a distant memory aside from the Melbourne Derby, and even those Melbourne Derby crowds aren’t as big as they were with only one of the last four attracting a crowd of more than 40,000. From 2012 to 2016, all eight derbies at the stadium had crowds bigger than 40,000.
A few more stats. Since the 2016/17 season the average crowd for games at Docklands has been 30,094 (2016/17), 23,410 (2017/18), 25,895 (2018/19) and 23,873 (this season).
Take out the derby games and those numbers, not surprisingly, fall significantly: 23,952 (2016/17), 20,314 (2017/18), 18,847 (2018/19) and 19,048 (this season).
Only three times in the last five seasons has the crowd been over 30,000 for a non-derby game – twice against Sydney FC (Australia Day) and once against Western Sydney (season opener).
The fans are the biggest stakeholders in this discussion and it appears they are voting with their feet.
Those are all respectable crowds and averages, but how much better would they be in a 30,000 boutique stadium instead of a cavernous 55,000-seat AFL stadium?
Think about how electric the atmosphere would’ve been in the Westgate Derby with Western United over the weekend, where a smidge over 20,000 turned up, if the fans were right on top of the action at AAMI Park.
There is a reason the Christmas Derby at AAMI Park is the best derby of a season: the aesthetics and the spectacle in the stands is something to behold. Sun-kissed stands, heaving terraces, pulsating football. It’s football heaven.
This is the A-League’s point of difference, and while the FFA unforgivably went away from that to their own detriment, the clubs have made it priority number one: bringing the fans back. Especially the active fans.
All the marketing experts in the world can come up with BBL-style match-day experiences and activations, but nothing beats the beating throng of a football crowd. That’s still the best match-day experience and it’s something you can’t manufacture.
The recent Sydney Derby was the best example of this. Sure, that fixture has had bigger crowds, but if you were asked to choose between the 60,000 at ANZ Stadium or 29,000 at Bankwest Stadium for atmosphere and spectacle, there isn’t even a choice.
Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes less is more.
There can also be no doubt that full stands positively affect the quality on the pitch, too. The players feed off the energy of the crowd and the spectacle is far better.
Adelaide United don’t win the FFA Cup final 4-0 without that home crowd behind them. The momentum and energy from the crowd created a tsunami.
The greatest error the FFA ever made was in not booking Docklands Stadium for the 2014/15 A-League grand final, which forced the match to be played at AAMI Park.
And while 20,000 fewer people were in attendance, the experience on the day was greater than anything you could get at Docklands. Just ask the people that were there and watching on TV. It was pure football.
Adelaide United experimented with playing games at Adelaide Oval a few years ago, and while they often got bigger crowds than what was possible at Hindmarsh, their fans were vocal in their displeasure. When the new owners came in, they listened. Adelaide Oval was off the table.
It was a small but significant message they sent. Football over profits.
For their fans and for the good of the league, it’s beyond time that Victory’s owners did the same.