When the A-League first started, Melbourne Victory were the only team in the city, but since then two more sides have been added and Melbourne City could be in peril.
As the first A-League team in Melbourne, Victory had a five-year head start and quickly drew large crowds – soon becoming the best-supported club in Australia. This success was followed by calls for a second team to create a derby.
The next team to join was Melbourne Heart. The resulting Melbourne Derby was an instant success, but the problems for Heart began as soon as they were founded in 2009. Playing out of the same stadium as Victory and lacking any sense of identity, they struggled to attract fans outside of the derbies and this was matched by their struggles on-field.
After several years of poor results and poor crowds, Heart were taken over by City Football Group and rebranded as Melbourne City. As well as a change of name, the new owners also went about changing their kit to a shade of light blue – similar to Sydney FC.
Unfortunately, this change means City will never be able to represent Melbourne when they basically look like Sydney.
Imagine if a club like Girondins de Bordeaux took over Sydney FC and changed their colours to navy blue with a white chevron – would their fans stay with them? The absurd change of colours by CFG alienated a number of former Heart fans, who drifted away from the ‘Melburnian smurfians’ and their subsequent slide in crowd numbers was in large part a result of this.
But the club’s problems have become even more complicated with the introduction of Melbourne’s third team, Western United.
The new club are trying to emulate Western Sydney. Like the Wanderers, they went to their supporters to decide their name and colours and they also represent a clearly defined geographic area.
On top of that, they are also in the process of building their own football-specific stadium, which they won’t have to share with a rival club. So far, these simple things are paying dividends.
Western United have announced on social media that they now have over 4000 members, which puts them hot on the heels of Wellington Phoenix and the Central Coast Mariners, who have 4489 and 5349 members respectively. It’s still a way to go to catch City’s 8262 members, but that figure could actually be lower if some of those have now defected to the new side.
When it comes to attendance figures, City average 6462 compared to 6163 for Western United. The derby may have boosted the latter’s numbers, but in Round 5, City drew 5547 compared to 4558 for Western United.
For a top-placed side that’s been around for ten years now, City’s numbers look terrible. The way things are going, Western United could actually displace City as the second-best supported club in Melbourne, which could then lead to more of their fans walking away.
Yet things could get even worse for City as the A-League continues to expand. The Team 11 bid are still around and are one of the top contenders for the next round of expansion, with a series of strong points in their favour.
The region they seek to represent includes Dandenong, Casey, Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula, Frankston and Monash, as well as the Gippsland region. These have a combined population of 1.5 million people, making it larger than the population of Adelaide.
The area is highly multicultural, with two-thirds of all residents born overseas and coming from 160 different nations, most of which have football as their number one sport. It’s also working class, with a lot of social disadvantage thrown in, with incomes half the national average and an unemployment rate that is over double, which has led to high crime rates.
It also has an industrial identity with over 92,000 people employed in the manufacturing sector, making it the largest manufacturing zone in Australia and contributing $66.1 billion to gross regional product.
To top it all off, the Casey Football Centre of Excellence now has four pitches complete, and the plan is for a rectangular 8000-seat mini stadium to be be built at the same site for temporary use while their main stadium is constructed next to Dandenong Station. This would have an initial capacity of 12,000 but with the ability to expand later to 20,000.
With geographic separation from the CBD, demographics conducive to football culture, close access to rail and 4400 parking spaces from their proposed stadium – as well as a distinct, working-class and industrial identity – Dandenong are a formidable bid.
Victory wouldn’t be too fussed about Western United or even Dandenong coming in when they already have a clear identity and an established base. But it could be a different matter for City, and if they end up becoming only the fourth-best supported team in Melbourne, fans could walk.
City have never had it easy – but when their biggest unique selling point of being the only team to have a derby with Victory is now gone, there’s much less reason for fans to follow them.
Perhaps the biggest question is how CFG will react. Will they try and stick it out at AAMI Park and do nothing, or will they move to a new location?
There has been speculation that Melbourne City could one day build their own stadium and it’s hard to think of a better place than Dandenong. For Team 11 however, the biggest hurdle might be their financial backing. So, with City potentially needing a location to build a stadium and with Team 11 needing financial support, perhaps there could be common ground for a merger.
It’s hard to say what the future has in store for Melbourne City, but they are potentially facing an existential threat as the A-League expands and new clubs begin to take off.