If there was ever a more perfect example of the complexity and dichotomy that exists within the top tier of men’s football in Australia, Match Week 5 of the Isuzu A-League provided it.
On Friday night at AAMI Park, just 2353 people rocked up to cheer on the high-flying Western United, as they snuck past the consistently competitive Adelaide thanks to a 44th minute Connor Pain goal.
On Sunday afternoon, a mere 2691 made the trek to Campbelltown Stadium to see the ladder-leading Macarthur FC produce the remarkable and beat the Newcastle Jets with just ten men.
After falling behind late in the first half, the Bulls showed exactly why they look the team most likely to rock the Melbourne City boat this season, with two second half goals that spoke of character, fortitude and resilience.
Despite both being entertaining matches, the paltry number of fans who witnessed them live will never be a good look and continues to provide critics of the league with ammunition to launch its way.
Looked at in isolation, it would be easy for the ill-informed to suggest that the entire competition is on its knees, struggling for air and destined to fold in the short term, based on the fact that the two teams who currently sit atop the ladder played vitally important matches in front of a handful of fans and in stadiums that effectively resembled ghost towns.
Conversely, it would also be quite simple to form an argument that suggests the A-League is well and truly alive and well, after the stunning spectacle that the Melbourne Derby provided on Saturday night.
Everyone knows that Melbourne City will be looming into sight when the whips are cracking and the business end of the season arrives.
A swathe of Melbourne Victory fans were hoping to be able to say precisely the same thing about their team, as they entered the first of three matches against a traditional rival that has been the best team in the country for some time now.
All of the above combined to produce the most stunning of contests that swung in momentum countless times and ended with a frantic, chaotic and desperate finish that left fans of both clubs and neutrals gasping for air.
Frankly, it was the most exciting game of A-League Men football I have seen in some time.
And what a stunning comparison it drew, with the matches involving the league’s current top two teams drawing just 5044 people in total and the Network Ten live Saturday night fixture providing one of the best A-League spectacles ever seen on free-to-air television.
There were 19,640 people at AAMI Park privileged enough to witness the match and the noise they made and atmosphere they provided had social media alight in the hours that followed.
The general consensus was that Saturday night showed exactly what the A-Leagues can and should be in time, with Network Ten’s support and involvement the potential game-changer, as football moves decisively towards a new era.
Perhaps that was best surmised in a social media post I read during the match. A hardcore NRL fan I am connected with tweeted, “Having a rum, just flicking between the cricket and the A-League.”
That would no doubt be music to Ten’s ears and one can only hope that there were many others doing the same and destined to dabble in some further channel-surfing as the season continues.
As promising as such behaviour will be for the A-League owners and host broadcaster, the question of whether weekends like the one just past actually translate into more or less eyeballs on the game becomes relevant.
On one level, the free-to-air coverage was a win, even though the numbers may not be mind-blowing just yet. From a long term perspective, that is abundantly clear.
Yet with the remainder of the matches broadcast on Ten’s streaming service Paramount+, one wonders on the actual number of people who have taken up subscriptions and are using the service on a regular basis.
In short, few turned up to watch Western United and Macarthur FC on the weekend, yet how many others were sitting at home and following the matches from the comfort of their lounge room?
With multiple fans grouped together and watching the game, as well as account sharing that must be the bane of streaming services’ existence, accurately accounting for interested fans in the digital space is near impossible.
The actual television audience for the Western and Macarthur games may well have been poor, promising or pleasing. Yet accessing such data is near impossible. Contrastingly, the derby had it all, a big crowd and at least one casual A-League fan sneaking over for a peak.
Frankly, I would love to know just how many people are engaging with our now owner-steered A-League Men’s competition.
At the moment, I cannot tell whether it is more or less.