Now in its 16th season, the A-League is showing strong signs that it is coming of age.
There have been many occasions throughout the A-League’s short history where the rhetoric among fans and pundits would have led you to believe the competition was teetering on the brink of collapse.
And who could blame them?
With the demise of the NSL serving as a gloomy reminder, the A-League era has seen three clubs kicked out, licences stripped from several club owners or simply handed back, mass fan protests against overzealous security and policing, and consistent anxiety over dwindling attendances and TV ratings.
The onset of COVID-19 towards the end of 2019-20 seemingly brought all the troubles to a head as the league was suspended, players were stood down, sponsors pulled out and the league’s primary broadcaster – probably its biggest source of life support – seemed destined to pull the plug on the competition.
Yet time after time, the league has proved its resilience in overcoming whatever is thrown its way. The pandemic was no exception, with the league clinching a new broadcast deal (albeit a one-year contract for nearly half the value of the previous deal) and finishing its 15th season in entertaining fashion.
Rather than crippling it, the challenges and critiques the league has faced over the years have emboldened it, encouraging it to evolve from the novelty competition it began as.
And so it is that now, not long after things seemed at their darkest, we’re seeing glimpses of a new dawn for the A-League.
The competition is now in its 16th season, and if the first few games are anything to go by, it’s going to be a sweet 16.
Time will tell over the next few seasons, but for the first time in years there’s a real sense the league is on an upward trajectory.
Here are ten reasons why the only way is up for the A-League.
At long last, the great “unbundling” has happened. After an ugly governance war with Australian football’s national association which dragged on for years and stymied the league’s progress, club owners secured independent control of the A-League from Football Australia (né Football Federation Australia) on the last day of 2020.
Adopting an independent model essentially means the owners are properly incentivised to invest in the game. It’s not a particularly unorthodox move – many successful leagues around the globe are independent, such as the English Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga.
The A-League club owners – who’ve pumped millions into the game over the years – have long argued that independence would allow them to attract more investment, set up their own commercial deals and better market the league. Well, now that the handbrake is off, it’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is. There are promising signs already, with flashy adverts for the league starting to pop up on billboards and bus stops across the country.
The terms of the league’s unbundling also seem to provide a nice balance of power, with Football Australia retaining just enough say to ensure the club owners’ inherent conflict of interest won’t get in the way of key initiatives such as the league’s expansion, a domestic transfer system, and the possible introduction of a national second division and thereby promotion/relegation.
Having just grown to 12, there’s already hunger for more teams in the league, with talk of it eventually expanding to 16 teams.
The prospect of expansion can be exciting for many, particularly football-loving residents of unrepresented regions and travelling supporters of existing clubs who look forward to away trips to new destinations.
There are many locations with lots of untapped potential for an A-League team, such as Canberra (surely the nation’s capital deserves a spot), a second team in or around Brisbane (perhaps Ipswich/Western Corridor for a more distinct geographic identity), Wollongong (a region with a rich football history and a picturesque stadium), or Tasmania (which has long been crying out for more sporting representation).
While there have been failed expansion clubs in the past, such as North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United, the success of the Western Sydney Wanderers and early promise shown by Western United and Macarthur suggests the competition has learnt from past mistakes.
National second division and promotion/relegation
Until recently, the prospect of a national second division in Australia was unthinkable.
With A-League clubs themselves often strapped for cash and starved of crowds, it was difficult to fathom how another 10 or more clubs in a lower-tier competition could attract fans and TV viewership, let alone afford the substantial costs of operating a professional football club and traversing this wide brown land with full squads. The mere notion of relegating an A-League club to such a league seemed akin to a death sentence for such a club.
It wasn’t until the bids for the most recent round of expansion poured in that we started to see an opportunity. There were ambitious bids from all over the country, including existing clubs from the NSL era such as South Melbourne and Wollongong Wolves. Crucially, many of these bids were backed by people with deep pockets, and with only two expansion spots available, it seemed wrong to deny so many of these the chance to invest in the local game.
A national second division could provide such an avenue for investment, and now there is serious work underway for introducing one. The lower-tier league could be left to find its feet for a few years, before promotion to and relegation from the A-League is implemented.
Promotion/relegation would really ramp up the level of excitement in the A-League and provide it with a real point of difference to the AFL and NRL.
While the jury is still out on whether the introduction of a second division and promotion/relegation will definitely happen, it does now seem to be less of an if, and more of a when and how.
Domestic transfer market
One of Football Australia’s top priorities at the moment is the creation of a domestic transfer market, which could open up a huge source of revenue for clubs from the A-League down.
Australian clubs generated a paltry collective sum of US$1.9 million (A$2.5 million) in international transfer fees last year, far behind the likes of Japanese clubs at US$29.4 million (A$38 million) and Korean clubs at US$26.6 million (A$34 million).
Every year, we see so many Aussie players leaving clubs for free, and clearly this needs to change.
The salary cap is obviously a big factor, but by implementing a domestic transfer market, Australian clubs from all levels of football will be incentivised to develop promising young players and tie players down to longer contracts in the hopes of being able to command bigger transfer fees from clubs at home and abroad.
Competition for broadcast rights
Fox Sports have supported the A-League since day one, but have become increasingly indifferent towards the competition in recent seasons amid poor ratings and falling subscriber numbers.
However, the emergence of alternative broadcasters in recent years may actually put the A-League in a decent position to negotiate a better TV deal at the end of this season when the current contract with Fox Sports ends.
Potential interested parties to rival a renewed Fox Sports offer could include Stan Sport (who recently snapped up the rugby union broadcast rights), Optus Sport (boasts an impressive line-up of Australian football alumni as presenters and may wish to complement its EPL coverage), British streaming platform DAZN (recently launched in Australia primarily as a boxing platform but broadcasts football in a number of other countries) and Football Australia itself (encouraged to set up its own Netflix-style streaming platform for Australian football).
It sets up the potential for a bidding war over the broadcast rights to the league, which could drive up the value of the TV deal beyond its current $30 million per year value.
Boutique stadiums in vogue
When it comes to A-League stadiums, size matters – that is, bigger is not not better.
Too many A-League clubs have been playing out of cavernous stadiums that are far too big for them with fans often surrounded by empty seats. It looks poor on TV and dilutes the unique atmosphere of football.
Despite being one of the most successful and most supported clubs, Brisbane Roar at the 52,000-capacity Suncorp stadium has been a prime example of this. Until now…
Roar have made the bold decision of moving their games to a stadium about 40 kilometres north of Brisbane with a capacity of just over 11,000. Their first round match this season, as well as two games at the venue last season, all drew a crowds of over 9000 which looked and sounded fantastic in a ground that size.
Meanwhile, Western United have plans to build a 15,000-seat stadium of their own in Melbourne’s west, which would be a great size for them to grow into. For derbies against Victory or City, this stadium shouldn’t be too hard to fill. If the build turns out to be a success, this could encourage other clubs to aspire to building and owning their own stadiums, instead of perpetually renting state-owned grounds shared with other sports.
The late start to this season means fewer games will be played in the summer heat, which should see a substantial improvement in the quality of the matches.
Watching – let alone playing – matches in over 30-degree heat can be a torturous affair, with the games often played at snail’s pace and players less willing to push forward with speed.
In contrast, matches played in winter, such as those we saw played in July and August at the end of last season, appear to be much more exciting, with the ball zipping along the slicker surfaces at greater speed while players appeared more inclined to make lung-bursting runs forward.
The A-League’s move towards a winter season will also better align it with the NPL seasons and the Asian leagues.
As good as the Big Blue, F3 Derby and Original Rivalry (Adelaide United vs Melbourne Victory) fixtures were in the earlier seasons, the introduction of Melbourne Heart (now Melbourne City) to the league in 2010 demonstrated the immense value of having real local derbies in the league. The crowds, passion and atmosphere of derbies are on another level to regular fixtures – spectacles that even fans from other parts of the country are willing to travel to to witness for themselves.
The addition of expansion clubs Western United and Macarthur FC to the league has effectively tripled the number of true local derbies from two to six:
•Sydney FC vs Western Sydney Wanderers
•Melbourne Victory vs Melbourne City
•Western United vs Melbourne Victory (new)
•Western United vs Melbourne City (new)
•Macarthur FC vs Western Sydney Wanderers (new)
•Macarthur FC vs Sydney FC (new)
The larger crowds and better TV ratings of derbies should help boost the A-League’s overall average for such metrics.
The kids are alright
An often-heard criticism of expanding the league is that doing so would dilute the quality, since there are apparently very few footballers in Australia good enough to play professionally.
But the start to this season is proving that there are a lot of talented young Aussie footballers out there that can match it with experienced foreigners in the competition – they just needed to be given the opportunity.
The likes of Calem Niewenhof (19), Lachlan Rose (21), Josh Nisbet (21), Alou Kuol (19), Ramy Najjarine (20), Dylan Wenzel-Halls (23), Noah Smith (20), Connor Metcalfe (21), James Delianov (21) and Mirza Muratovic (21) have been up there among the best players we’ve seen in the first few games of this season.
Such players are likely to give Graham Arnold an Olyroos selection headache when he picks his team for this year’s Tokyo Olympics.
More local coaches
Aside from Carl Robinson at Western Sydney Wanderers, every A-League team currently has an Aussie citizen as their head coach. This represents the highest concentration of Aussie coaches since the league’s inception.
In the past, there was a tendency for clubs to go on a worldwide search for a new manager, but perceptions seemed to change following the dominant successes of Aussie coaches such as Ange Postecoglou, Graham Arnold and Tony Popovic. Many clubs have ostensibly come to realise that often the best coaching talent is right under their noses.
While CVs of highly-credentialled managers from overseas still tend to come flying in for every A-League coaching vacancy, many of these are now getting snubbed in favour of local candidates who tend to have a better understanding of Australian football and more respect for it.
The list could go on and on, which underlines just how promising things are for the A-League. Some other reasons for optimism worth mentioning include:
2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand
This is going to be huge, and will surely dominate Australia’s sporting headlines from July to August in 2023. All that extra media attention on women’s football should hopefully draw more fans to the W-League and the A-League, especially if the Matildas perform well.
Growth of Asian football
Football in Asia is rapidly developing – probably more so than any other region – and Australia is blessed to be a part of it. With the extraordinary amounts of money being spent on football by the likes of China and Japan, we’re seeing many more stars of world football making the move from Europe to Asia. The standard of football in Asia is growing fast, and this should challenge A-League clubs to improve to be more competitive in the Asian Champions League.
How is it that despite barely any marketing or media coverage – not to mention pandemic fears, crowd limits and mask-wearing requirements – fans are still showing up to this season’s A-League games in their thousands? Perhaps it’s because the A-League has a core base of rusted-on devoted fans that can’t be shaken off. This core base – which has proven to be incredibly engaged with digital media – does not rely on mainstream television to know whether or not a game is on.
The sizeable A-League fan communities on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit provide all there is to know about the league, in addition to the wide range of well-produced Australian football podcasts. It’s a strong base to build upon, with many of these fans likely to pass their fanaticism onto their children and grandchildren, fostering a multigenerational fan following.
No doubt there will be further challenges ahead for the A-League, but given what it’s just been through, there’s now a sense of invincibility about it. It may not have the best football players in the world, but it has a unique Australian flavour that should be embraced. It’s Australia’s best football competition, and it’s only going to get better.