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.


Plagiarise at your peril


The New NBL will soon take shape with applications for licences set to open this week. While the interim administration told current owners prior to last month’s vote that any club who could meet the new criteria would be included, the Illawarra Mercury’s basketball writer Tim Keeble reported this week that “it is looking more and more likely next year’s league will feature no more than eight sides…”


If this is an enforced maximum, one can only assume that the league, perhaps through the pressure of Fox Sports, is ‘doing a Julie Bishop’ and plagiarising the A-league’s blueprint.


Yet, if the interim board were to take a step back and analyse the A-league, they will see that the league’s realities are currently falling short of its perception. This is not to say that soccer is in a “sad, sad state” as Rebecca Wilson’s deservingly criticised article in the Daily Telegraph was titled. It’s ethnic cleansing has tidied the game’s image, it has extracted $140m out of Fox Sports, garnered solid media coverage and the Socceroos now rival the Wallabies and Australian cricketers as the country’s most prominent national sports team. However, the A-league is in a slump. As reported in The Australian, Round 14 was the second consecutive weekend where none of the four games reached the 10,000 mark, while this season’s aggregate is already down nearly 150,000 on 2007.


While the league had previously been a strong performer on Fox Sports, there are also danger signs in this season’s television ratings. Take the following analyses of ASTRA’s official ratings figures as an example. Remember the farce that was the Rugby League World Cup, the tournament no one gave a rat’s toss bag about? Well, a live game between Fiji and Ireland had 36,000 extra viewers than the live telecast of that week’s Perth Glory Vs Newcastle Jets clash, or 146,000 more when including replays. 


Also, for the week commencing November 16 2008, the A-League’s highest rating game was Melbourne Victory Vs Central Coast Mariners on a Friday night. Yet, it failed to top a “World Series Cricket Classics” filler screening two nights later. For those thinking there must have been more people watching TV on the Sunday night: wrong. There were almost 100,000 more Pay-TV viewers on the Friday night. Speaking of cricket, a Ford Ranger Cup game during that week – the national competition that couldn’t draw a crowd with a HB pencil – had a cumulative reach of 819,000. This was more than triple the Victory Vs Mariners’ 256,000.


The significance here for basketball is the main reason for the A-League’s lean patch. Earlier this week, respected soccer scribe Michael Lynch was interviewed on SEN and attributed the code’s halt in momentum to its tired 8-team format. Similarly, Kevin Muscat’s ghostwriter wrote a fluff piece last Sunday in The Age – the Melbourne Victory’s official newsletter – saying:


“The A-League’s two extra teams –Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury – have…come at a perfect time. After four seasons with eight teams, people are used to playing against the same opposition over and over again with such a short turnaround between meetings.”


This is the true lesson to be learnt from the A-League: eight teams is not a league. It’s a tournament. The unpredictability caused by concentration of talent is nullified by the repetition and predictability of scheduling. Take a look elsewhere to see what constitutes a league: the NBA has 30 teams, the EPL has 20, locally the AFL will soon have 18, and the A-league itself will have 12 by 2012.


Will the New NBL learn from the A-league’s greatest flaw, or will it plagiarise it for the sake of appeasing a faceless television executive in Sydney with more dollars than basketball sense?


Time will tell, but the shot clock is ticking.