Up close and personal with Australian football, part 2
Product, expansion, price, administration and solutions04 July 2017 | Sally Freedman
In the second of a two-part series, Sally Freedman looks at what’s going wrong with the A-League in Australia.
Part 2: Product, expansion, price, administration and solutions!
People go to watch sport for a variety of reasons. Some go for the social interaction it offers – they enjoy time with friends and family. Others see it as form as escapism to have some time out from the real world and some go to be entertained.
The reason I enjoy watching a game is partly linked to the appreciation and understanding I have of how good professional players are. For example, I could happily watch Broich or Castro all day as I admire their skills. Similarly, when I went to the Euro 2016 final, the one thing I was most excited about was watching Ronaldo play live.
Having attempted to play myself, I have some understanding of how hard it is to pull off an accurate 70-yard pass, how hard it is to strike a ball cleanly on the volley, how a great coach can make a huge impact with the correct tactical change at the right time and so on.
Admittedly, I don’t know how many other A-League fans go to watch the games for similar reasons, but I’m guessing there are a considerable number out there – especially those who regularly consume the Premier League and other European football competitions.
Don’t get me wrong, the quality has improved in the 10 years I’ve been watching the A-League, but so often, I’m recounting mistakes to my friends rather than telling them about a wonder strike or an entertaining end-to-end game.
We only need to look to the USA and to the Major League Soccer (MLS) to see what having a few mega stars (yes, a few) at each club does to their competition. Like it or not, they fill their boutique, purpose built stadiums. We saw it here with Alessandro Del Piero and we saw it in the USA with David Beckham. People want to watch good football – for that, we need stars (plural) in the middle of their career at multiple clubs and we need them to stay in Australia for a number of years.
Scrap the cap
Some suggest the salary cap is designed to create an even playing field, but it doesn’t look too even to me.
We have Melbourne City signing players with Manchester City and then loaning them back to their little sister, Melbourne City. Furthermore, if a Melbourne or Sydney club offer a marquee player $3 million, Wellington Phoenix might have to offer the same player $6 million to entice them to the windy city, sitting on a fault line, where demanding international travel forms part of their fortnightly routine.
What about expansion?
Some rightly ask what’s the point of expanding if we can’t fill stadiums with the existing teams? Fair observation. However, I believe the A-League needs to expand. Currently, the product is stale and if expansion happens in the right areas not only will it bring new derbies and new rivalries, it will also create more opportunities for young talented Australian players to sign a professional contract.
Interestingly, a recent Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) survey reported that 87% of players supported the idea of expansion and a potential second division. Out of the 100 players surveyed across all 10 clubs, the biggest challenge they listed was player payments and the salary cap (68%).
Time and time again we see empty stadiums - even for so called important games. Recent semi-finals attracted less than 10,000 and the FFA Cup final a couple of years ago attracted around 15,000 in a stadium that could hold 28,000.
Price is only one factor, but when you consider some recent examples from world football where fans have been able to secure tickets for international fixtures for as little as $15 (e.g. the AFC Asian Cup) it seems hard to justify an adult ticket price of around $25 to watch Central Coast Mariners play Newcastle Jets for example.
In England, the recently promoted Huddersfield Town are rewarding season ticket holders who have been a member for 10 years or more with the opportunity to secure a season ticket for the Premier League, yes Premier League for just 100 pounds. That’s approximately five pounds per game to watch the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Administration and ownership
There are countless examples that illustrate what happens when ownership goes wrong.
Blackpool fans at Wembley: 2010 vs 2017.
This is what the toxic running of a football club does to its fanbase. pic.twitter.com/yULP3yaOO3
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) May 28, 2017
Fans will eventually talk with their feet.
Brisbane Roar are the most successful club in the A -League having won the Grand final three times, yet in a city of 2 million people, they only have around 6,000 members. They are owned by the Bakrie group. It’s no secret that their fans are annoyed by the mess they have created. In 2016, we heard countless stories about both players and staff not being paid and their constant struggle to secure a permanent training ground, all whilst operating from a temporary shed as an office; hardly earmarks of a professional sporting club.
Essentially, there becomes a point where enough becomes enough and fans walk away. Brisbane Roar are doing their upmost to turn things around and win fans back, but if the ownership issues weren’t there, they wouldn’t be fighting to win back their once loyal fans.
Investment in administration staff
Clubs need to invest – in the right staff, on the field and off it.
A professional sporting club in today’s landscape cannot be professional with only four or five administration staff which several clubs have. Some local community football clubs have more paid staff than A-League clubs. For a club to be successful, expertise needs to be evident throughout the whole club. However, with clubs being under resourced, it’s inevitable that administration staff often become jacks of all trades, master of none.
What should we fix?
It’s all very well pointing out the errors, but how do we start to fix some of these issues?
Sadly, I don’t have all the answers. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d be doing my upmost to try and ensure:
- Projects are started to look at the build of boutique, rectangular, independently owned stadiums.
- The investment in staff that have best of class experience in fan engagement and user experience.
- The hiring of football directors that have the connections to sign world class players (yes, plural), so we begin to have a product worth shouting about.
- The prioritisation of expansion – it’s a must, but crucially, it has to be done right with investment in skilled staff, with detailed feasibility studies, economic assessments and market research. If after all this, there is evidence that there is sustainable demand for a new team in a specific area, then the build of one new purpose-built stadium may kick-start a new model of A-League club.
All of these will take a considerable amount of time; 15 -20 years at least. Maybe then football will reach its very ambitious goal of being the number one sport in Australia.
To quote Denis Bergkamp:
“When you first start supporting a football club, you don’t always support if because of a player or the trophies or history. You support it because you found yourself somewhere there – found a place where you belong.”
I wonder how many fans in the A-League would say their A-League club is a place where they belong?
Is a strong feeling of belonging even possible without a home?
Share your thoughts via Twitter with @FreedmanSal and @FTdotnews
Sally Freedman is a freelance writer for Football Today. Her global travels have included Euro 2004 in Portugal, the World Cup in Germany in 2006, the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, the Asian Cup in Australia in 2015 and the Euro 2016 Final in Paris. Sally has worked in sport management for the last ten years in a variety of roles and has experience working in professional football at the highest level, including Protocol Manager for the AFC Asian Cup Australia, Head of Fan Engagement and Marketing for Melbourne City Football Club and Wellington Phoenix Football Club and Project Manager for Football Federation Australia.