With some of the doom and gloom going on around the state of the A-League based on this season’s crowd sizes, I think it’s important to have a bit of perspective.
While the A-League’s average attendance this season is no doubt poor, you have to look at the figures for each club to get a better idea of what’s going on.
Starting with the top four – who all have averages over ten thousand – you have Melbourne Victory on top with 18,017 followed by the Wanderers’ average of 14,923. Both clubs have had poor seasons.
Then you have Sydney FC with 12,312 and finally Brisbane Roar in fourth with 10,312. It’s important to note that of the clubs with the top four average attendances, three of them are having bad seasons – which won’t always be the case.
After this you have the middle three who like the first four, are all based in major cities. Melbourne City have 9,062 followed by Adelaide United with 8,767 and then Perth Glory on 8,416. In all three cases these clubs could do better with a bit of work.
Then in the final group you have the usual suspects of Wellington Phoenix, Newcastle Jets, Western United and Central Coast Mariners. The problems with these clubs are already well documented, but the Jets, Mariners and even Wellington have each had season averages over 10,000 in previous seasons.
Furthermore, Western United should be able to increase their average to over 10,000 once they move into their own stadium in Wyndham.
The big cause for concern however is the overall average for the league, which sits at just 9,816 at present. This figure is bad by itself, but it looks utterly abysmal compared to the sort of crowds that the AFL and NRL can attract. It’s easy to see why it raises so much concern.
But here’s the thing. We shouldn’t compare the A-League to the other codes, we should compare it to its global peers. If you look at the A-League compared to other top flight competitions it was actually the 19th highest attended league in the world last season.
Or if you use the A-League 2007-08 season as a metric then it would be the 15th. But even with this season’s current figures it’s still the fourth-highest attended top flight in Asia after only those of China, Japan and India.
It isn’t that the A-League gets bad attendances, they’re actually respectable by global standards, it’s that they only look bad because the stadiums that matches are played in are too large.
This is where we need to focus on improving.
The main offenders when it comes to oversized stadiums are Sydney FC, Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets, Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne City.
In the case of Melbourne City their highest ever average season attendance was just 11,047 and unfortunately this often looks terrible at AAMI Park, especially outside of the derbies. Ideally, they should move to a new location and build their own 15,000-seat stadium.
Newcastle’s best effort was 13,389 and whether they like it or not a 33,000-seat stadium is too big for their needs. Like Melbourne City, a stadium with around 15,000 seats would be more appropriate.
For Wellington Phoenix the “Cake Tin” is a terrible stadium, plain and simple. It has 30,000 seats and is oval shaped, but with strong political resistance against building a rectangular stadium they’re basically stuck with it. The only way to deal with this situation might be to drop the Phoenix from the A-League.
Wellington have failed to meet the metrics to renew their licence automatically, meaning that they will have to rely on the other A-League clubs supporting them to remain in.
However, the lengthy and complicated process requires negotiations with and approval from New Zealand Football, OFC, AFC and FIFA, before FFA and Wellington Phoenix can sign a new licence agreement.
It seems like a lot of work just to give Wellington a licence that would last until 2034, when there are so many Australian bids who would do a lot more to grow the domestic TV audience and crowd averages in Australia.
The other clubs will have to think very carefully about what is best for the next TV deal when Wellington’s licence expires at the end of the season.
When it comes to Sydney FC, things get interesting. The NSW government have removed the curtain for the upper tier that was part of the original design plan and Sydney FC have voiced their disapproval.
In fact, they have said that they would not have given their support to the plan if the curtain had not been a part of it. Their stadium deal at the new Moore Park runs until 2027, at which point they will reassess whether or not to remain there. Given that they could build their own stadium with the savings they would make by not paying massive costs in rent at the new stadium, they might just decide to do this.
Finally, there’s Brisbane Roar. Since they entered the league, their 50,000-seat home of Lang Park has been very hard for them to fill to a meaningful level. Thankfully however, they are now pushing to build a new 12-17,000-seat stadium close to the CBD to improve the atmosphere and optics.
It seems like the A-League is now at a turning point similar to what happened with the MLS. At one point, the teams making up the league were playing at stadiums with 60-80,000 seats that were 80 percent empty and were being bled dry financially by the costs of the rent, which had to be paid for by the owners, who then pulled out of their clubs.
Since they have started building their own however, the MLS has really turned around and is now seen as a big success.
With the crowds it has had across its history, the A-League has bounced up and down between being the 15th to 20th-ranked top flight globally, as well as being the fourth highest attended league in Asia. The A-League’s crowds might not look good when compared to other codes, but for the sport they’re perfectly fine.
There’s no reason to apologise for this and considering all the many challenges that the A-League faces, I think that its crowds are actually a testament to the passion of Australian fans.
Those same fans now need to make their voices heard and demand that the clubs who take part in the A-League have stadiums that are both appropriately sized and that are affordable to use financially. Build the right sized stadiums and the crowds will fill up the stands.