There’s been much debate recently about the state of the beautiful game in Australia; in particular why in year 12 of the A-League did we see some of the lowest ever attendances? It seems some fans are starting to talk with their feet as they choose not to watch a sport that they once loved.

We are seeing question after question about the structure of the competition. Why are there are no international breaks? Why did two Australian teams get thrashed in the Asian Champions League? Why can’t the league become independent?  What’s happening with expansion? Will there ever be promotion and relegation?

Everyone has an opinion about why football is struggling ranging from a poor-quality product, dire marketing strategies, inadequate administration, outdated governance structures, the implementation of a failing coaching curriculum and huge multi-purpose government owned stadiums to name a few.

As someone who has been involved in the game as a fan, player, coach and employee, Sally Freedman shares her thoughts about why the game is finding it tough in an exclusive two-part series.

Part 1: Summer, fan experience and stadiums

Playing the sport in summer

We all know that temperatures in Australia in summer often reach 35-40 degrees. Is this really conducive to fast, entertaining attacking football? Ask 22 fit professional, technically skilled footballers to run around for 90 minutes in extreme heat, and in my opinion, no matter how good they are, from a fan’s point of view, the game will (at times) look slow and some might say boring; or as a friend once said to me it’s like watching the Premier League in slow motion.

Not only this, but can we expect fans to sit comfortably in the stifling sun for 90 minutes? The answer is no and this leads on to my next point.

Fan experience

My expertise lies in fan engagement and I’ve written a piece which explains what fan engagement is and importantly how to get bums on seats and keep them there. 

I’ve been fortunate to watch football all around the world. My global travels have taken me to Euro 2004 in Portugal, the World Cup Germany 2006, the Olympic Final at Wembley in 2012, the World Cup Brazil 2014, the AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015 and most recently the Euro 2016 Final in Paris. I’m a seasoned football fan or some might say junkie!  From these experiences, I’ve gained some valuable insights about good and poor fan engagement.

One of the most memorable matches I attended was the last year’s Euro 2016 final in Paris. I arrived at the Stade de France around 7.30pm, some 90 minutes before kick-off.

As I entered the stadium that saw France lift the World Cup trophy in 1998, the noise was absolutely deafening.

With an hour to go until kick off, I found my seat behind the goal, just eight rows back from the pitch. The Portuguese fans were to my left. As I sat down, I thought to myself I hope I see at least one goal at this end. Wouldn’t it be good if Portugal scored in front of their fans. Maybe Eder’s ears were burning!

The closing ceremony before kick-off was spectacular. From the brass band, to the dancers, to the fireworks. Such precision. Such noise. Such colour. Goose bumps all over. The outpouring of emotion, passion, noise and belief from both sets of fans were spine tingling.

Whilst I was enjoying the incredible atmosphere and trying to take in the unbelievable spectacle, I remember thinking to myself I’m about to watch the biggest game in European football in four years and there are probably over 1,000 people on the pitch 10 minutes before kick-off.

Contrastingly, in Australia I could often struggle to get permission for two fans to enter the pitch at half time – I’d have to fill out countless forms and obtain sign off from multiple stakeholders.

Australia is known for its rules and although they help make venues safe and play an important part in venue security, they also hinder fun and entertainment. Football is all about the picture above – bringing people together to create a sense of belonging, excitement and fun; amazing entertainment so fans go home and tell all their friends and family about the great day out they’ve just experienced and how they can’t wait to go back for more and next time they’ll take them with you.

Compare the above experience to an A-League match – I know, maybe an unfair comparison, as Euro 2016 final versus A-League round 12 isn’t really a fair match up, but bear with me.

One of the four P’s often talked about in marketing is Place – location is of paramount importance. Is the population big enough to sustain a loyal fan base? Are there enough football lovers in the area? Is the stadium easy to get to?

Talking of stadiums ...

Take Westpac Stadium in New Zealand – a world class 35,000 oval seater stadium sitting pretty in the harbour of New Zealand’s windy capital, Wellington.

As you walk to Westpac, you will most likely be faced with wind and when I say wind, I mean 100km per hour winds. As you battle the wind, you’ll walk along a barren concrete pathway which has nothing other than a few Wellington Phoenix flags blowing fiercely in the wind.  

You’ll progress to a ‘vanilla’ stadium concourse and be greeted by a few standard stadium over-priced unhealthy food options where you’ll enter an impressive seating bowl. Your first observation is likely either to be about the large number of empty seats, or about how far away you are from the pitch.

As you watch some football from afar, you’ll hear a few chants from the Yellow Fever and the one thing you might go home talking about - the sight of the Yellow Fever fans going crazy in the 80th minute, taking their shirts off (despite the freezing temperatures) should Phoenix be winning.  

Phoenix travelling fans took the opportunity to showcase this in Brisbane at the end of last season when they were beating Brisbane Roar at Suncorp in the last regular game of the season - but guess what? A few fans were evicted from the stadium for this very act.

My point proven – rules have gone too far and are hindering entertainment, fun and social interaction – all of which are primary reasons fans go to watch sport. 

Another example which emphasises the need for boutique stadiums is the 2017-18 draw that was released last week.

Brisbane Roar has been forced to host Wellington Phoenix at CBUS stadium in the Gold Coast in December this year as Suncorp is unavailable due to a visit from Beatles legend, Paul McCartney. They also have blackout periods forced on them due to the Rugby League World Cup and the Commonwealth Games.

In essence, without purpose built stadia, football comes second and ultimately looks unprofessional. This undoubtedly hinders the goal of making it the number one sport in Australia. 

Loyal fans are disappointed and lose any sense of belonging, and players play away from home for what’s supposed to be a home game and therefore lose their home advantage.

Part 2: Product, expansion, price, administration and solutions

Categories: Opinion | A-League | Football Business


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