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.