Flagging interest bursts A-League’s bubble

The A-League has long been lauded as the ‘next big thing’ of Australian sport. The Giant, we were told, was finally awakening, set to conquer everything before it and consign Australian Rules and the rugby codes to the annals of irrelevancy.

The Giant obviously decided to hit the snooze button.

After flirting with the lofty heights of mainstream status and masquerading as an immediate threat to the dominant football codes, the A-League has reacquainted itself with the NBL and ANZ Championship as a Big Friendly Giant better suited to the cosy terrain of niche competitions.

It seems like only yesterday that the game’s followers, who have never been short of hubris since the 2006 World Cup, predicted that the round-ball game would envelop the land down under and have Andrew Demetriou and David Gallop shaking in their boots. Fast forward to this week and Melbourne Victory owner Geoff Lord is crying foul at the A-league’s scheduling, suggesting an October kick-off is required to avoid going head-to-head with the AFL.

“The games…in my view started too early and got caught up in the AFL finals,” Lord said.

“They’ve been down interstate as well per game and I don’t know whether the earlier start and longer season might have some impact.”

Lord then proposed a knock-out competition to be held during the festive season: “They could run a knockout cup and they might sell it to free-to-air television,” he said.

So, as well as admitting that it can no longer tackle the big boys, the A-League is also devising gimmicks in order to reinvigorate flagging interest in the product.

Crowd figures have fallen dramatically, with the Victory averaging just 17,567 fans to its first four games compared to last season’s average of 24,516. Gold Coast United, meanwhile, is averaging just 6,463 to its matches, a dismal number considering it’s the new glamour side of the competition and has the backing of Clive Palmer. Television ratings are also mediocre, with just three of this season’s games featuring in the weekly list of Top 50 Subscription Programs.

FFA chief Ben Buckley insists there is no cause for concern, stating “Our average attendance is down, but that was always to be expected based on the fact we had two teams from relatively smaller cities coming into the competition.”

Smaller cities? The Gold Coast is currently being targeted by almost every sporting code in the country, and the Titans have no such problems putting bums on seats at Skilled Park. Besides, it’s not just the new Queensland teams that are struggling. The Brisbane Roar attracted just 7,677 fans to its match against Sydney FC last weekend, well short of the 15,000 required to break-even at Suncorp Stadium.

While the 2010 World Cup is sure to add some much-needed buzz about the game, the league’s expansion plans are concerning. Next season will see the introduction of a second Melbourne franchise, which has offered no point of difference to the Victory and appears to be progressing at a snail’s pace. Then there will be a new West Sydney team, backed by a group which one rival bidder described as a “pack of Johnny-Come-Latelys…that didn’t exist a month ago.”

The A-League has been covered in bubble-wrap for most of its existence, escaping criticism from the media. Expect some bubbles to start bursting soon.

Empty seats provide the backdrop for the Gold Coast Vs Wellington game at Skilled Park.

Empty seats provide the backdrop for the Gold Coast Vs Wellington game at Skilled Park.

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4 Comments

  1. I felt a need to respond to this.

    I’m a little concerned about the current state of the A-League, but there is a number of soft arguments in this blog and I thought I’d just point them out.

    The A-League moved it’s season to a summer competition partly because of the two dominant codes in this country. I’d argue this was for two reasons – to lone up with the European/FIFA seasons and to avoid the head to head with AFL/NRL. This is not a shift of a code aiming for world domination Dr. Evil style. This is a concession that this sport wants to be the dominant niche sport rather the biggest. I think that’s a very reasonable goal, and I think things are going along OK to solidify this position.

    Geoff Lord is right. I have been to every Victory home game this year, and the crowds have been very ordinary. That said, I think there was six Victorian clubs and the Melbourne Storm in the respective AFL/League finals. I don’t like this explanation, it’s not a great excuse, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where they have gone. I figure the oxygen’s been cut off in terms of media, the other codes dominated the psyche in this town especially. That said, so far MVFC has not played Sydney, Adelaide or either of the new clubs at home. We have played Brisbane twice, Newcastle, Wellington, I think the Mariners. This does not flatter your average attendance figure. This week the Sydney game on a Friday night will get a big crowd – it has a theme ‘U-Nite’, it has been promoted well, and Melbourne have won the last three, unbeaten in five. Gerard Whatelely thinks 40K, that’s a bit optimistic for mine, but less than 30K would be disappointing. Judge the average figure at the end of the year is what I am saying.

    In terms of Melbourne football, next year we will have a new team and a new stadium, and with a bit of luck, will have MVFC in the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League. A world class stadium, a fierce cross town rivalry, the only real one in the league, and perhaps the continents best teams visiting with big prizes on the line? Sounds to me like the biggest year in Melbourne football history. Oh yeah, and that little comp they are running in South Africa.

    The knockout cup on free to air sounds to me like a great idea. I’d love that. I don’t know how realistic it is, but I’d love it. And gimmick? A knockout cup competition is hardly a gimmick Michael. The FA Cup is a knockout cup comp, the oldest soccer competition in the world. I know it’d wouldn’t be the FA Cup, but the concept is not a gimmick.

    On TV ratings, I say let the money do the talking. The new deal will be negotiated soonish. The current deal was worth $120M to the FFA for all A-League, WCQ and ACQ games and national team friendlies. This was the best dal on the table in terms of coverage they went for less money than they ould have to get the best coverage for the fans and I’d argue it has been successful. Good coverage or death, Michael. The next deal will be big. It will be much bigger. Triple, even. Maybe even some free to air stations will get involved, provided they can cover it well that would be great.

    On the expansion teams, attendances are low. This is not great, but these towns are not crazy hairbrain schemes dreamed up by FFA. They are the towns that every code wants to be in and needs to be in. These are long term projects for all the codes. How many fans will GC17 get to it’s first game? Probably more than 7K but that’s not the point. The fact is GCUFC has a head start on GC17 and the West Sydney mob will have a head start on WS18. They have chosen to move quickly, some would argue at the expense of the vetting process, but we will see. I don’t know how this will turn out, but I stress these are long term projects.

    There are things I’m worried about. Quality and engagement are the two biggest ones. We are a capped league, I understand that and I support that wholeheartedly. But we need to figure a way to prevent or slow the talent draining into Asia and the Middle East, and we need to compensate the players we must let go by embracing Asian players in the A-League. Allsopp was sold, I think it was a great deal, we have great depth at the Victory, but when even some of our ordinary A-League players look like going, then we need to put our heads together. Shane Smeltz a remarkable player and is a credit to our league, but it is important he stays till the end of the year and then goes for big bucks, like $1M. It will be a good look if he hangs around, then the league can bask in the glory of the biggest transfer in the competition’s history, and GCU can buy a couple of new players.

    Most other leagues in Asia have a 3+1 rule, three overseas players and one AFC region player allowed on rhe list, I think. This how for example Josh Kennedy is playing for Nagoya in the J-League. I think this is brilliant. We need more Asian players in our competition – it will expand our brands and our audiences, will improve the quality of the league and will open the public’s mind to Asian football. I think we need to embrace this – MVFC has led the way – we have signed Surat Suhka and a new bloke Suksomkit in the last fortnight. I applaud Gary and Geoff and Ernie for this, we need to be involved in the region for a number of reasons, and it seems really only Melbourne is playing ball.

    Some points for you to consider,

    Jonathan,
    Chief Media Director for FFA and Melbourne Victory FC.

  2. Thanks for the response Jonathan, I knew I would hit a nerve!

    I have considered your points and I stand by my “soft arguments.”

    1. The FFA is a bullish organisation which is not going to settle for niche status. It shouldn’t settle for niche status – soccer has an enormous advantage over the AFL and NRL as it’s firmly entrenched in the flows of globalisation and is the flavour of the month in Kate Ellis’ department. You have used the Melbourne Storm’s finals appearances as an excuse for Victory’s dwindling crowds, which I find quite desperate considering your opinion of the Storm and their place in the sporting landscape is less than flattering.

    2. You obviously weren’t happy with the term “Gimmick”, and I agree it isn’t perfect. If Lord’s proposal came at a time when the A-League was enjoying success, the knockout competition would come across as a positive indication that the league is ready for further expansion. However, it was mooted in the context of trying to explain waning interest and reeks of a knee-jerk attempt to rejuvenate a product which is just 5-years-old.

    3. I agree, the FFA should reap a decent TV deal from Fox Sports/FTA in the near-future. However, this is hardly a reflection of the A-league when exclusive international matches are included.

    4. In your defence of the Gold Coast, you mention GC17 to justify your argument that the region requires long-term commitment. You conveniently overlooked the Gold Coast Titans, who have done in an excellent job in gaining support. Also, last week’s game between GCU and Wellington attracted just 4200 fans, which was even less than the NBL game in Townsville that night. What’s going to happen when they don’t have a star-studded line-up, or Clive “you’re racist, he’s racist and she’s racist” Palmer decides enough is enough? There’s no way that team is sustainable in its current form, meaning there is a heavy reliance on the benevolence of a private owner. You know the perils of that reliance. In terms of NQ, they have just lost a major investor. Worrying signs up there, and I don’t think you can say Townsville is a region which requires long-term commitment considering the Cowboys and Crocs have already established a strong sporting culture in the area. In fact, the Crocs have made a profit in every year of their existence.

    5. I am well-aware of the benefits of a fierce cross-town rivalry. However, my personal experience also tells me that these rivalries only become “fierce” when the new kid on the block is a successful club posing a serious threat to the incumbent’s throne. How long will the Heart take to achieve this position? Where is their supporter base coming from, and what will they stand for?

    Your optimism for the future is understandable. As I said earlier, the game of soccer is in an enviable global position and the World Cup will provide another boost. However, at this moment, the A-league is yet to capitalise on this and continues to operate under some serious question marks. It is only now that these questions are starting to be asked.

  3. They have settled for niche status for the time being I’d argue. I think that is perfectly reasonable. Only time will tell what the shape of sport in Australia will look like in twenty to thirty years, I have a feeling it will be dramatically different. I think that the FFA should aim to have the Socceroos to be the most important team in Australia. hey are probably only second to the cricketers right now, the argument with the Wallabies would be an interesting one, but I think in the long term the Socceroos will be better placed than the Test team to be ‘the team’. That is where the ‘bullishness’ needs to manifest itself, as well as maintaining a healthy domestic league filled with young up and coming players, senior Socceroos and quality imports.

    My point with regards to the Storm was pertinent and relevant regardless of my opinion of the team. Media oxygen was taken by the Melbourne AFL teams in connection with the Storm’s success. They took up space in the papers especially in a News Ltd paper, the dominant paper in this town, which you have argued gives disproportionately generous coverage of the team and clearly has an anti-soccer agenda.

    Which team, the Victory or the Storm have better captured the public imagination? I’d say the Victory, but I’d be so blatantly biased that my opinion would be useless. An average crowd figure would only tell part of the story.

    We must remember that the A-League has more in common with the NBL than the AFL – both NBL and HAL are Australian domestic leagues which are inferior in quality and have lower interest levels than the AFL and NRL, which are effectively the highest level for each sport. The International Rules and the Kangaroos are a mile behind the grand final and the Origin.

    Lordy is an owner. He has an asset, he wants to strengthen it. Good on him for it. It’s not the ideal time to be introducing the ‘cup’ but it seems to me like a handy tool to get some coverage out the the unconverted people.

    On television, it is quite possible that we will have a separation of the A-League and Socceroos matches in the next agreement which will give us a better indication of the value of the A-League. I think it’s insane to have Socceroos matches on pay. They have a market position, currency, momentum. Put them on SBS who will show them and you capture the imagination and the wider public. That’s how you get the flow on effect. I understand why they signed the deal they did at the time, I support it with hindsight. Ideally all games of soccer, club and national, will be on FTA next agreement. I don’t think it’ll happen, but that’s eventually the goal I’d strive for if I was FFA. Time will tell on television Michael.

    Of course the Titans have done well, goodness me. Put a new rugby team in an area of Queensland without one, hey presto! You get crowds. It is a rugby state. They are rugby people, have been forever. There will also be a lot of Mexican expat Victorians who will go to GC17 games. There is no comparable culture in Queensland. In fact, for a rugby state, which it undoubtedy is, they are a underserviced state in terms of teams – until recently the had two teams in the competition. Victoria has ten AFL teams. The nearest team to them before the GCT was the Broncos. I do worry about the future of these teams, but they are very young teams. FFA may have to support them financially, which will hurt but will become easier when the new rights deal hits the table. The fact is the A-League didn’t have a choice. It needs to be in these markets. It is now in them. Perhaps attendances aren’t that important. NSW has a TV sport watching culture, perhaps Queensland is the same.

    Yeah, look, time will tell on the new Melbourne side too. With a bit of luck they are good in the first couple of years, but I tell you I am looking forward so much to being in that new stadium playing the new mob. I can’t wait. It will be invigorating for soccer. I don’t know anything about their identity, anything about who or what they will stand for, they are probably coming up with that for themselves right now. We’ll see.

    Only time will give us the answer to these questions. I can sit here and whittle away precious essay time defending the league as much as I want, but frankly, it won’t change much. I agree there are some warning signs, and I am a little stumped on them myself some days. But I maintain there is no need to hit the panic button just yet. As long as FFA administrators keep their shit together then it’ll be fine.

  4. Wow thanks Jonathan and Michael for that exchange.

    Mike Wrublewski was adamant that a niche competition (in his case Sydney and the NBL) can not and should never split a market in an effort to create local derbies. One or both teams are doomed by the expansion. If the league insists then the new team should bring a venue with them so the sport gets something if it all goes bust. Western Sydney Razorbacks were supposed to bring a stadium that Western Sydney will never see.

    The second Melbourne HAL team is a mistake until the rest of the expansion takes place. But that’s a done deal.

    Secondly expansion is always forecast in some linear fashion. It is how the league deals with obstacles and setbacks that be telling.

    People overestimate what can be achieved in 1 year and underestimate what can be achieved in 5 years.


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