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Opinion

A-League report card: Frustrated fans, crap scheduling, Socceroo mystery men and wasted money, but the brand is strong

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Expert
14th March, 2024
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The millionth A-League attendee for season 2023-24 should walk through the gate tonight when Western United and Melbourne Victory meet at AAMI Park in Melbourne.

Another six rounds of action should see the final attendance figure for the home and away season reach somewhere near 1,330,000, a slight improvement on 2022-23 yet likely to end up being down on the pre-covid season of 2018-19 by around 10 to 15 per cent.

In that season, 1,529,994 people come through the gates to watch the ten teams, Sydney FC won the title, beating Perth in the Grand Final at Optus Stadium, Roy Krishna scored 18 goals and Steve Corica was in his first year at the helm in Sydney.

How times change.

David Williams of Perth Glory celebrates after scoring

David Williams of Perth Glory celebrates after scoring. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

The two additional clubs have expanded the competition to six matches per round and made scheduling a nightmare when the A-League Women is also factored in.

Playing three top flight Australian matches at the same time is simply absurd and as a result, junkies like me have missed more of the live action that ever before.

Wednesday and Thursday nights must be used more frequently next season to spread the action more thinly, with this coming Sunday highlighting the madness of the schedule with no less than four A-League Women’s matches kicking off across a two hour period.

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The explosion in the women’s game is real. Attendance is up 66 per cent from 2023/24, local clubs have seen the boom first hand in excellent interest and participation right across the country, yet the ability of young fans to watch more and more football across the entire league is sadly lacking.

The branding of the women’s competition has been productive, with names like Emily Gielnik, Chloe Logarzo, Cortnee Vine and Lydia Williams providing a neat link between the show-stopping Matildas and the domestic competition.

Cortnee Vine. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

With a free junior pass now offered to all Australian kids under the age of 16, the APL has partially achieved what will be some specific long term objectives in bringing up the attendance numbers and also establishing a women’s league that can begin to attract a tier of international players from abroad that sits just beneath the upper echelon.

In all honesty, as the Matildas one by one ventured abroad and signed European contracts, the A-League Women’s standard plummeted drastically. All credit to the club owners and the powers at be for working together and attempting to raise it back up.

That improvement in on-field play has come of the back of the young players who continue to stand out as future Matildas; names like Maddie Caspers and Talia Younis are going to become household ones in the future and there are plenty more across the league that make the product an entertaining one to watch and a wonderful nursery for the national teams.

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Those young players are also doing the business in the A-League Men, yet the challenge of connecting the competition to the Socceroos and the players abroad is a tricky one.

Very few casual Socceroo observers are familiar with names like Ajdin Hrustic, Gethin Jones, John Iredale and Nathaniel Atkinson. Us hard core football folk certainly are, yet I am constantly asked “Who’s that guy?”, by well-meaning sports fans happy to watch the national football team in big games.

It is pleasing to have players like Mathew Leckie, Bruno Fornaroli, Rhyan Grant and Jamie Maclaren still producing at the A-League level as recognisable Socceroo faces, yet domestic enjoyment would be trebled if Garang Kuol, Harry Souttar, Maty Ryan, Craig Goodwin, Jordy Bos and the rest of the overseas based men returned and single massive contracts to play in Australia.

Harry Souttar of Australia celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the AFC Asian Cup Round of 16 match between Australia and Indonesia at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Socceroos giant Harry Souttar celebrates scoring at the AFC Asian Cup. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

All we need is another nine or ten billionaires to by the A-League clubs, sign-up the majority of the Socceroo squad and 20 or 30 international superstars to pad the competition and Australian football would change forever.

Let me dream.

Instead, the APL wasted a bucket of money on the appalling KeepUp website that could well win an award for the most mindless decision made by a sporting body in Australian history.

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Recent events involving grand final decisions, police involvement at matches and concerns from fans that the passion and celebratory culture of football is not understood in Australia, have those spending their hard-earned as concerned as they have ever be.

Whilst people are enjoying the matches across the league broadly, there does always seem to be an ostracised group or two that damages the brand in the media and affects what could be decent attendance figures if everyone was rowing in unison.

Last season it was Melbourne Victory fans who stayed away, many good Western Sydney folk are doing the same as we speak and Newcastle and Perth fans deserve medals if they are still turning up after long periods of frustration.

As has been the case since the pandemic, the football on the pitch has been inspired by the young local talent. There are few questions about the effort or skill being broadcast on the still unreliable Paramount+ platform.

Yet the A-League, as it always does, is trucking along well and taking a couple of steps back before taking another two forward.

One day it will get there. I’ll be dead, but it will happen.

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