A shift has been occurring in the football landscape. As FFA has been asleep at the wheel playing a political game around maintaining control of its Congress, interest and awareness in the A-League has dipped worryingly this season, only hastened by the poor use of VAR.

But that doesn’t mean that interest across football has dipped, with fans starting to take more of an interest in the National Premier League (NPL) scene, which is improving rapidly not only as an on-field product, but in terms of its marketing and awareness.

What has been so evident at the start of the 2018 NPL season has been the rapid rise in crowd numbers in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, with crowds in the four-figure mark becoming more common.

When the NPL in Queensland kicked off in the first weekend of February, a few questioned why it was kicking off so early - especially in the Queensland heat and humidity - but the crowds responded with 1,382 in Cairns for Cairns FC vs Gold Coast Utd, and 1,000 in Mackay to see the Magpies Crusaders (full name: Mackay and Whitsundays Magpies Crusaders United FC) make their top flight debut.

A week later, three of the seven matches reported crowds of over 1,000, with 1,032 turning up to Barlow Park in Cairns, 1,292 at Brolga Park for North Queensland United’s home debut, and 2,280 at Gold Coast United’s Station Reserve.

All the while, Brisbane Roar played in front of crowds of just over 8,000 and 9,000 in their two February home matches.

Some have attributed the greater interest in the NPL in Queensland, particularly in the regional areas, to a new structure, which includes new teams and a promotion and relegation system.

But there’s also no doubt, right across the country, that improved and increased media coverage has been a big driver in surging interest coupled, of course, with waning interest in an A-League which fans are feeling pushed away from by an administration that doesn't seem to care. It’s been great, for example, to see NPL previews and reports in some of the major metropolitan newspapers, particularly in Adelaide and Melbourne, where a good amount of column inches have been dedicated. Others are starting to follow.

But, equally, don’t underestimate the impact of the reports in regional news, where crowds in some areas have really picked up on the back of greater local awareness. 

Sadly, Sydney’s mainstream football media hasn’t quite kept pace with the shifting interest. While there has been some reporting across the FFA Cup scene, it’s often been the work of the Football NSW media team to deliver video highlights of every NPL1 game and an NPL2 game of the round, a weekly preview show and comprehensive match reports, and a few of us regulars across social media, particularly Eric Subijano, who have kept fans updated on the progress of the competition.

More recently, awareness has started to really pick up on the back of a growing interest in the live streaming of matches, as people get to watch, for free, games from across the country beamed live on Facebook and YouTube, or club websites.

The number of live stream viewers has been surging, triggering the state federations to increase their coverage. In Queensland, for example, there are now three live streams a week across their men’s and women’s scene, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In NSW, what started as an experiment of live streaming last season turned into a weekly affair, including all three grand finals in the men’s NPL and the women’s NPL 1 grand final. So successful was the uptake and interest in the streams that this year’s coverage has been extended to two live stream matches each weekend from the men’s NPL1, which will no doubt showcase the growing quality of the league. More on that later.

The opening round of the Victorian NPL last weekend featured three live radio streams as thousands flocked to games. Meanwhile, in Northern NSW, Bar TV provides excellent coverage.

Smart club have been quick to capitalise on the growing interest, offering affordable and even free entry in some instances, putting on food trucks and other activities around the game to entice fans.

Social and online media have been great tools for these clubs to spread the word, and many are investing wisely in in-house media, while the creation in Melbourne of the 24/7 Football Nation Radio has helped give these clubs air-time, which they have used well to articulate their knowledge of running football clubs, and their ambition.

Galvanised also by the establishment of the AAFC, these clubs are moving with the times, growingly rapidly, gearing up for a future that may soon enough include a national second division and even promotion and relegation all the way through to the top flight.

The birth of FFA Cup has certainly given them an opportunity for national exposure, and they’re relishing it, and keen for more.

While often confronting forces within the game and outside the game trying to maintain the status quo, clubs are working with councils and local government, investing in their infrastructure where they can.

These are things that the Asian Football Confederation wanted when the A-League was set up. While FFA has been reluctant to move, clubs are developing and demanding better of their governing body.

They have become better at using networks for sponsorship, building their financial base, and investing it in infrastructure and the on-field product, be that the playing squad or investing in ongoing coach education.

Footballers who five or so years ago only aspired to a career in the A-League are now realising that it often isn’t all it’s cut out to be, and that they can earn a reasonable living in the NPL, and do it at a semi professional level where they can combine it with other projects such as their own business or studies, or other paid employment.

A player good enough to perhaps fill a squad position and maybe earn $70,000 or $80,000 in the A-League is happy enough earning anywhere between $1,500 and $3,500 a week in the NPL, where they train three nights a week.

Combine it with running a business, or part time work, and they’re suddenly earning double what they would as ‘a professional’, and setting themselves up for life after football.

South Melbourne striker Milos Lujic was accused by some of lacking ambition when he made comments along these lines last year, but it is hard to criticise the logic.

A few years ago, when the FFA Cup launched, there was a massive gap between the A-League and the best NPL clubs. What I have seen as a close observer of both over the past four or five years is that the gap has narrowed significantly.

A few years ago, when Alessandro del Piero and Shinji Ono played in the A-League, and we started to see a wave of Spaniards come here, the standard lifted. Financially, due to the position of the Australian dollar and currency weakness across Europe, Australia was in a strong bargaining position.

That was before the Chinese Super League took hold and became the destination of choice in Asia. The FFA’s inward looking attitude and inability to engage effectively with Asia has only made the A-League less connected and competitive.

What we have seen in the past couple of seasons is that the A-League standard has dipped as clubs struggle to make ends meet and the FFA failed to deliver on its promised TV deal of $80 million a year. Combine that with an improving standards at NPL level, triggered in many ways not only by improving coaching and player budgets, but also by the growing number of football synthetic pitches (particularly in NSW) and you have a narrower gap between the top NPL sides and much of the top tier.

Whereas NPL games historically have been known more for their physicality, there are now a high percentage of games played on flatter surfaces that encourage greater ball play on the deck. This has certainly helped lift standards in NSW, and it’s starting to spread with the Bulleen Lions unveiling their new synthetic surface in Monday’s night’s season opener.

Having players of the quality of Panni Nikas, Danny Choi, Tasuku Sekiya, Sean Symons, Patrick Antelmi, Dejan Pandurevic and Joey Gibbs has certainly helped. Elsewhere, I have enjoyed the work of Sean Ellis, Harry Noon and Kenny Athiu during Heidelberg’s capture-all run, Anthony Costa kept banging in the goals in South Australia, while Keigo Moriyasu of Edgeworth Eagles did well in Northern NSW.

In South Australia we’ve seen the likes of Nikola Mileusnic and Ryan Strain step up from NPL, with Ryan’s brother Tom now pushing to join them.

Elsewhere this season the likes of Western Pride’s Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Olympic FC’s Jez Lofthouse and Shelford Dais and Avondale’s Kaine Sheppard have caught the eye. They’ll be joined by the likes of Takuya Nozawa, who played nearly 400 games in the J-League and won five titles there, at Wollongong Wolves, and Devante Clut at Blacktown City via Newcastle Jets, when the NSW NPL1 kicks off on March 10th with a blockbuster grand final replay between Manly Utd and APIA.

Standards are lifting, and people are taking notice. While some may be pulling back from the A-League until the FFA Congress is sorted, new leadership is installed and the game at the top starts to move forward again, it’s clear many are gravitating to the NPL scene, and that makes for a more vibrant whole of football. 

Tony Tannous is part of the Football NSW commentary team for 2018 covering the #NPLNSW.

Categories: Opinion | Local

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