Based on a rough headcount, there was around 130 people watching the final matches of the NPL Women’s Youth League 2 season at Cook Park in the Sydney suburb of St Mary’s last Sunday morning.
Yet sadly, despite the obvious passion for the game on show across the three junior matches I watched, it is likely the majority of the parents, players and supporters will be infrequent attendees at both A-League Men and Women matches in the coming seasons.
The reason behind such a conclusion? I asked them.
A few recalled attending Matildas matches from time to time and some remembered going along to the A-League Women grand final at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium last season, but all bar one answered a firm “no” when it came to whether they were club members intending to be regular attendees at A-League games in the 2022-23 season.
While somewhat anecdotal, my rudimentary questioning and line of enquiry is something I do often, and I rarely identify card-carrying A-League club members moving in NPL circles.
The connections between community football, youth players, their parents and the professional tiers in Australia are threadbare at best and non-existent for many.
Sunday’s Australia Cup semi-final between Sydney United 58 FC and Brisbane Roar enunciated that fact, with thousands of young United fans helping to bring the afternoon to life in their attempt to overcome the odds and triumph over A-League opposition.
Not only were the supporters hopeful of a spot in the decider, there also appeared to be a clear sense of the traditional tensions between NPL teams such as United and the A-League clubs that they still so deeply resent and dislike. In that sense, United’s victory was all the more satisfying for them.
It is this chasm and conundrum that lies at the heart of reconnecting the different arms of the Australian game; something not done with a wishful wave of a magic wand.
I felt a million miles from the A-League as I sat with my daughter at Cook Park watching the young women play on Sunday morning. No doubt, the majority of the people looking on felt the same. The odd player might attend a Wanderers game from time to time but, based on my enquiries, most will not and despite being less than a 15-minute drive from the impressive home base of the club, it was astonishing to note the absence of a Western Sydney presence at the ground.
Surely it seemed logical – particularly with a new men’s season around the corner, a soon to be expanded women’s competition and the women’s World Cup just months away – to set up a tent, meet and greet the fans inside the ground, and offer tailored membership deals to the players and their families.
Well it seemed logical to me.
Perhaps a five-game pass for $50 or a 30 per cent discount on membership? A little merchandise can go a long way. Sign up on the spot and receive a member’s pack that includes a Wanderers cap, a phone case, a signed team poster and a key-ring?
Perhaps those not keen to commit to any of the above could be given a couple of complimentary tickets?
Done consistently across a six-month NPL season, the chances of such a marketing strategy being successful seem reasonable and with multiple venues being used across the Wanderers’ catchment on any given weekend, its potential effectiveness seems considerable.
Instead, after speaking with club officials of the home team, it was sad to be informed that there had not once been an active Western Sydney presence at a home match in 2022. I called a contact and coach at a neighbouring club and was informed of the same.
Without any intention to identify the Wanderers as the only culprit when it comes to failing to make adequate attempts to connect the different facets of the domestic game, I find myself concerned when anecdotally informed that a similar story is unfolding more broadly across the nation.
If that is indeed the case, fears around the future of the A-Leagues should remain high, with a simplistic reality existing that until Australian football at the NPL level jettisons its mistrust and scepticism of the top tiers, the game will remain fractured and inherently broken.
The day the majority of young NPL players and their families become ticketed members of A-League clubs will be a watershed for football in Australia. When the hundreds of thousands of people attending NPL matches through the winter months begin to believe in the A-Leagues, change will have finally come.
Unfortunately, we appear far from that point right now and A-League clubs have a significant role to play in shifting attitudes and behaviours.
More aggressive and targeted marketing could produce the first steps required for football in Australia to reach its full potential via a demolition of the significant disconnect between NPL competition and the elite A-Leagues.