The boycott that hasn’t ended
Chris Egan says Perth needs an end to the 'Sage era' & a second A-League team to help get Perth Glory back on track18 December 2015 | Chris Egan
As the active fans celebrated the league wide boycotts ending, little attention was paid to the fact that Perth's footballing community has been in boycott at an alarming rate in 2015 and FFA bans reform has done nothing to stop the haemorrhaging.
Perth Football's history is littered with boycotts, but it is also a mature football market. Craig Foster said in 2006 at the time of the boycotts over FFA ownership that it was the "most sophisticated football market in the country".
There was a 500 strong fan protest with banners and marches to the ground over the impeachment of Bernd Stange against the fans will in 2001, and by 2002 Damian Mori was pleading with the public of Perth to end the boycott of games due to the administration chaos that characterised the last years of the NSL. These passionate football fans have never returned.
Perth Glory’s club legend Bobby Despotovski with Bernd Stange
I am one fan that has exercised his rights to boycott at different levels. This season I have been to one game (a freebie) and previous years I have refused to buy membership as an act of protest against the club. It's endemic within the story of Perth Glory for the fans to play an active role of moving the club in a direction it believes is the safe course.
In the years of heightened boycotts of the 2006-07 and 2015-16 seasons the crowd figures averaged in the 7,000’s, but generally the average of 9,500 hasn't moved in the period from 2002-2015. The fans that boycotted at the end of the NSL have not come back to new football. It's football, but not as we want it.
Damian Mori's commentary in 2002 in his commissioned opinion piece in the West Australian shows the concern the club had over fans boycotting the shambles of the last seasons of the NSL.
“I can understand that some people might have been turned off the NSL by the problems that continue to hamper the league, while the loss of TV coverage has also been a big blow to the competition. But I’m sure that before too long, with the help of the Federal Government’s inquiry into the sport, the league will be reformed.
“But Perth Glory needs to stay strong as a club and that needs the assistance of fans. I know supporters are entitled to show their dissapointment by refusing to come to matches. I only hope the opposite will be the case and we can show the rest of the league exactly where the game should be.”
The A-League wide boycott two weekends ago would have sparked fresh memories of incompetence of national leadership for many fans in Perth with unofficial crowd estimates in the low 4,000's Glory’s game against the Mariners.
But the crowd's do not tell the whole story of Perth's past. It does not show the entrepreneurialism that has shaped its story over more than 100 years; that has had Australian Rules Football at it's mercy; and competed for hegemony as the state's biggest code during three periods. 1900-1906, 1949-1955 and 1996-1999.
It is also home to the country's first statue dedicated to a football player, which was funded in part by state government money, for the loss of Dylan Tombides whose premature death from cancer tugged at the heart strings of the entire state. Nowhere else in the country is football so close to the soul of a state’s heart, yet its football team is breaking it in a thousand pieces.
In interviews for my book EST 1996, Paul Afkos put on the record that crowds during the early days were 5-6,000 larger than what was put as official crowd because of OHS regulations. This would put home crowds at a dilapidated ground at 23-24,000 a game. Crowds for the Glory were bigger than what Fremantle Dockers were achieving in their inaugural years. Had there been a TV rights deal and a professional league by the year 2000 the club could have been the biggest in the A-League.
However, it still can be.
The Perth active end is boycotting, but it is following a tradition and a culture that stands up to administrators and declares an ownership of the trajectory its football club and league will run under.
In placing football’s current plateau of support in the context of Perth's sporting past, I look to Australian Rules to provide a conversation that needs to be had.
In a state government inquiry in the late 1990's, it published data that from 1979-1995 Australian Rules crowds had stayed static. That was despite the success of the West Coast Eagles. 16 years of zero growth in crowd figures. The inquiry said that the Perth Wildcats had benefited from the fact it had been a national competition in the early 1980's but the movement of the Eagles to the AFL had just moved WAFL fans to a new club. It had done nothing to grow the ‘football pie’.
It wasn't until the entrance of the Fremantle Dockers, which returned the state to the endemic passion that surrounds all sports for games between Perth and Fremantle, that this pie grew. Today in 2015, the crowds are at the code’s highest levels in its history, sparked by administrators making a bold move despite zero growth in real Aussie Rules attendances in 16 years.
The mistake of reading into the past is to not learn from it for commercial gain.
There is an argument you put a second team in Perth regardless of the status of Perth Glory's crowds based on Association Football's similar heated rivalry between the capital city and port based town.
In the early 1950's test matches were played where clubs around the Fremantle area would play in a representative team against those from around the Perth area. With no ethnic division, the battle between the towns meant that ethnic background was irrelevant. The rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne is repeated on a local scale between Perth and Fremantle. All through my childhood and adult life a conversation has been "what do you like better, Perth or Freo".
The Sage era will end because the power of the fans is stronger than the power of his desire to run the club. The 5,590 figure that was reported a fortnight ago tapped into the ongoing heightened boycott of this season but also the latent one that the people of Perth started at the end of the NSL era.
The fans lost in 2002 have not returned.
The crowds are on a Perth tradition of plateau that impacts all sports in this city and enforces change.
In Australian Rules Football, the plateau forced a movement to the national competition and the creation of the Fremantle Dockers. For Glory it meant the original owner quit and instability has been a hallmark of its A-League story. This, in turn, circulates less success.
To captivate previous strong crowds in Perth requires bold vision. As the Sage era comes to its conclusion, the need to look outside the box and a potential second A-League side in Fremantle may be what sparks the football community.
This would then drive badly needed growth in A-League TV rights money.
In 1999 the Major Semi Final between Perth Glory and Marconi Stallions was played at prime time on ABC to an audience of 350,000 or 25% of the state’s then population. Over 40 people rang up the ABC to ensure it took off The Bill (a 1990's TV juggernaut) to put the Glory on live.
Perth loves football; don't misinterpret the crowds. It has been on a boycott since 2002 and has yet to come out of it. Administrators have to be bold and outwards thinking to see what happened in the period of 1996-1999 that will re-captivate interest.
It may be the little brother down the road entering a national competition on an adaptable Fremantle Oval (a la Perth Oval 1996-2004) that recreates the hype that the A-League so desperately needs. Australian Rules Football is forever scared about the sleeping giant which is Association Football in Perth.
It's time for big vision thinking and the end of the Sage era to show Australia the best of football from the west, not the worst.
perth glory, fan engagement, tony sage