The A-League Men’s and Women’s competition have always been entertaining. Games have plenty of goals as well as thrills and spills. Up until recent years there was plenty of tribalism as well.
There was a time we would get 40-60,000 at Sydney A-League Men’s derbies regularly, Victory versus City and the Big Blue in the Men’s would also top 30-40,000 and even 50,000 (December 2006).
However, in recent times dwindling crowds has taken away from what is usually a quality product in terms of providing value for entertainment.
New clubs Western United and Macarthur Bulls have attracted a large amount of criticism. Some of it justified, some of it unfair.
With the new clubs, apart from Covid which is the obvious cause of low crowds, the disconnect between grassroots and the A-League season’s is the major hurdle.
New clubs especially need to connect with their communities. While Western United and Macarthur have done this, albeit with limitations due to Covid, the timing is the major problem.
Community football generally goes from March to August. A-League clubs sending players to schools and community clubs is fantastic during this period of time, but the issue is, by the time the A-League season starts (in recent years this has been December), community footballers have well and truly moved on to summer activities.
A kid seeing an A-League player in July isn’t going to connect as well with that player in December.
The APL have made it clear they are aware of this disparity and will try to use technology to interact with fans. While technology is wonderful, will it ever be as good as that one-on-one human contact? Most definitely not.
The reality is the A-League has to be played in summer, it can’t compete with the AFL and the NRL. Grassroots football has to be in winter, summer is far too hot for amateur footballers who are not conditioned to play.
So what is the solution? Quite simply, get back to what we had a few years ago when we had 40-60,000 fans coming to games. A time when Foxtel paid nearly $350M for a TV deal.
So what was so good back then? Quite simply it was tribalism. Fans felt they were part of something, they felt the colours out on the field represented them.
Western United and Macarthur came into two-team towns. Both clubs are trying to find an identity, but the problem is, their regions already had one. Bringing them in somewhat fragmented this.
However, both clubs still have the opportunity to fix this. Western United will be fine when they eventually get their new stadium. They will have a clear geographical identity which will distinguish them from Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City (who are now in SE Melbourne).
Macarthur FC have created a western Sydney rivalry which in the years to come, will only get better.
By connecting more with the region – reducing prices is a start – they will create a healthy divide with the Wanderers. There is no reason why Campbelltown can’t be a two team region in the long run. There are enough football fans in the region to validate this going forward.
Active fans was a big thing too back in the A-League hey day. The atmosphere generated in the stands was electric and brought much attention and exposure to the game. Sadly some of this was negative. This led to overpolicing which eventually sucked the life out of active groups, who are nowhere near as exuberant as they once were.
No one is suggesting we bring back anything untoward or nasty. Quite simply, let’s bring back that electricity in the stands. Affordable tickets, connection with club management and a bit more liberty with how these fans show their support is a good thing.
Safe flares, music and tasteful banners should all be encouraged with clubs supporting this initiative. Channel Ten and Paramount Plus can undoubtedly help the cause by engaging fans to be part of pre or post match features.
Affordability is obviously the logical solution too for getting bums on seats. It must be said though with Western United, they have given away memberships and tickets but still find it hard to get fans to go. As mentioned above, once they get a stadium they will be fine once they build that geographical difference.
The Bulls on the other hand have charged fans ridiculous prices. A family of four had to pay nearly $100 for General Admission for last night’s derby with Sydney FC. Those were the cheapest tickets. Juniors alone had to pay nearly $30.
For a working class region affected by covid, this is a major stretch.
Many have pointed to the Bulls apparent $1 stadium deal. The Bulls management would be regretting releasing that information. It is a distortion of the reality. The club incurs far more costs to run a home game.
They need to pay for security, policing, covid safe protocols and other match day operational costs. This goes well beyond $1.
Factoring in the club is struggling with engagement, there is at least an explanation as to why the club is charging excessive prices.
It isn’t ok though, and the Bulls will need to address this soon.
Perhaps the best way for clubs to engage fans though is to not be aloof with fans and the media. For some odd reason football loves to keep its secrets and go overboard with privacy.
With fans, responding to community visits from clubs and schools is a start. As mentioned above, the timing of the seasons is a problem. Perhaps clubs can run summer tournaments at their venues or sponsor summer evening competitions at community clubs or even schools. Send players out there to coach or referee and connect with the kids.
Players also must be coached on how to engage with fans on social media while maintaining safety and privacy for themselves and their families.
Some players do it but not enough. There is no reason why players can’t give a glimpse into their private lives and what makes them tick, without intruding too much on them.
The AFL does this cleverly, and while occasionally it causes problems, generally speaking it’s well done and works well.
Players like Patrick Dangerfield and Tayla Harris do it brilliantly.
As for media engagement, commercial confidence is often a line thrown out by clubs and FA when they don’t want to answer a question. The APL needs to now manage this.
While confidentiality is important at times, giving information to the media to help them give accurate information to those interested won’t do any harm. It also nips in the bud incorrect rumours.
Also allowing better access to players and coaches, other than post match media conferences, would help as well.
We want more than just on-field stories, we want a bit more drama. The side stories that happen at an every day level can be made interesting.
For example, last year the relatively trivial Port Adelaide versus Collingwood jersey drama was given far more attention than it really needed. But it was brilliantly used by the AFL to build a rivalry between the two clubs. It was the focus in the lead up to the game between the two clubs.
David Koch and Eddie McGuire played their roles brilliantly in the drama.
Jersey tradition is close to the heart of fans, but the amount of traction that story received probably was disproportionate to how much it actually mattered.
But the point is, it was a brilliant strategy and made sure an otherwise routine game had that much more meaning.
We need stories like this in the A-League. The occasional zinger between Sydney FC and Wanderers off the field or Victory and Adelaide would be sensational theatre. Clubs though are too shy about engaging in this banter as it can be seen as bringing the game into disrepute.
But this sort of stuff connects fans to clubs and brings in that tribalism.
Danny Townsend, the APL CEO, has made it clear the digital app ‘Keep Up’ and the $140M equity deal with Silver Lake will see more connection with fans and the media.
Townsend is an outstanding CEO in football as can be seen with his success at Sydney FC. His mind is clever and he is one that is always willing to engage with fans on social media and on an every day level.
Other CEOs can take a leaf from his book.
The A-League is worth it. Fan engagement is vital. Let’s get back to what made it successful while enhancing it with new ideas.