Is the A-League dead?
The A-League is bleeding fans and TV viewers18 December 2017 | Sally Freedman
Those close to me know that I love football more than most.
Yet, after ten years in Australia and with experience working for two A-League clubs, FFA and the AFC Asian Cup, I am more disillusioned and uninterested than ever before.
I’ve attended live games and left. I’ve watched on television and changed channel after five minutes. It’s upsetting; people like me (and there are a lot of us in Australia) should, in theory, be the easiest group to convert into A-League fans – we understand the game, we follow the game, we love the game and we play the game. Yet, we’re not the slightest bit interested in going to watch the A-League right now. If football loving fans aren’t interested in engaging with the A-League, something very serious is wrong.
Is the product good enough?
If no-one buys a Cadburys chocolate bar, people don’t blame the people, they blame the product – perhaps it’s not good enough or people simply don’t like it. Yet, with the A-League, we rarely hear the quality of the product being a reason for low attendances. Instead we hear excuses; the fans are to blame – the community aren’t coming out to support us or there’s too much competition.
Let’s get real. If world class football was played week in week out in Australia, stadiums would be full. We’ve seen this with the Asian Cup, with Liverpool, with Manchester United and Juventus to a name a few.
Is the product entertaining?
Are there world class goals scored that are replayed around the world? Very rarely.
Instead the entertainment factor currently comes from an embarrassing mix of egos, politics and power with the FFA and FIFA saga. If it’s not the failing operational model, it’s the controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and if it isn’t VAR, it is either the worrying decline in TV audiences and live attendance figures or it’s the speculation surrounding the vacant national team Head Coach role, only six months out from the 2018 Russia World Cup.
These stories create a theme; a laughable one – yes, people right now are laughing at the state of the game in Australia. I try very hard to defend what’s happening, but I’m honestly running out of ideas.
People want to be entertained. They want to see fast, attacking, skilful play. They want to feel like they belong to a club. They want a club culture where their home stadium is their home (not shared with multiple sport codes).
I arrived in Australia in 2007 as a football loving crazy fan; the A-League has had all that time to connect me to a club, to provide me with entertainment – and from about 2011-2014, I enjoyed the A-League. Watching Brisbane Roar win the Grand Final in 2011 against Central Coast Mariners is one of the most exciting games I have ever seen live. With 15 minutes to go in extra time, everyone thought it was game over as Roar were 2-0 down; several thousand dedicated roar fans decided the mountain was too high and left Suncorp Stadium. But those that did are still regretting their decision to this day.
Roar got one back with around 10 minutes to spare from their Brazilian playmaker, Henrique and then sensationally equalised with only seconds to go through a powerful header from midfielder, Erik Paartalu. As the back of the net shook, the roar from the home fans was beyond loud, – it was as though the roof was going to lift off of Suncorp Stadium. With seconds to spare, the Grand Final would now be decided by a penalty shoot-out. With the momentum now favouring Brisbane Roar, it wasn’t Central Coast who prevailed, but instead, the resilient Brisbane Roar won the penalty shoot-out 4-2, giving them their first ever A-League trophy.
This game had everything – twists, turns, passion, excitement and entertainment. If you wanted to write a book about an entertaining football game, you couldn’t write a better script if you tried.
But where’s the excitement now? Is the product stale and if so, will expansion fix it?
Dwindling attendances and television ratings widely reported in recent weeks would suggest that fans are starting to talk with their feet. They’ve had enough and are deciding to spend their time and money elsewhere.
Several Premier League fans that last year subscribed to FOX Sports to watch live English Premier League have now switched to Optus. I fit into this category and as a result I rarely watch any A-League matches live. I occasionally watch some highlights on social media and I’ve watched a grand total of two games on One – and both times I’ve switched channels after five minutes due to the TV product being dire. Watching empty seats, poor quality football (and not even broadcast in HD), some cheesy adverts and some lack lustre commentary surprisingly didn’t entice me to stay tuned in.
I wrote a piece which looks at the merits of expansion and I still believe it is necessary to revitalise the game. However, expansion shouldn’t be based on knee-jerk reactions. Prospective new clubs must invest in thorough market research prior to launching so they can ensure they fully understand the demand. If there is sufficient demand (which is questionable given the current trend in attendances), then new clubs must try to build the club based on what the fans want.
Arguably, it will take some very brave people to enter a new team into the competition as it is now so it may well be a good few years before we see any new teams joining.
How strong is the brand? Do people know the games are on?
I’m currently working with 1,500 international sport mad colleagues at the Commonwealth Games - you’d think some of these people would fall into the A-League target market – they love sport, understand sport and have high disposable incomes.
However, if I had just one dollar every time I had to explain what the A-League was or that the season was in fact on right now and yes there are only 10 teams, and yes, teams play each other three times and yes, they play in summer in the heat, I’d be rich! And it’s not just the international colleagues asking me questions - I’ve had to explain to several locals also. Only last week, one Australian colleague was convinced that I was making the W-League up – surely Australia didn’t have a professional Women’s football league – if they did, he would know about it! I proceeded to show him the W-League website – and his words were – wow – I had no idea.
So, let’s revisit my original question – is the A-League dead?
Not yet, but it’s definitely dying. And in its current format, I don’t think it’s got much life left.