It is great that the A-League Grand Final on Sunday will see the two best teams in the competition take centre stage, especially as the FFA have secured a global television audience for the game. This is great news for the competition, but is it grounds for expansion of the league?
The key now has to be raise the standard of the competition as a whole and have the other teams reach the standards of Western Sydney Wanderers and Brisbane Roar. Last season was pretty much a three horse race with the Central Coast Mariners being a class act, but a loss of players and a change of coach has seen them fail to build on that success. Rejuvenating a team and sustaining success are never easy, and are even harder in a competition with no transfer fees and no competition of a standard close to the A-League underpinning it. It will be a long time before the NPL is an adequate second tier competition, and will take a great deal of investment to speed that process up.
This week there was an article in an East Coast newspaper stating that the A-League should expand, and that Sydney should in fact have a third team in the competition. This opinion is no doubt based on the outstanding success of Western Sydney Wanderers, yet no one will reveal how big the investment was in the newest franchise created by the game’s governing body. Let us think what the reaction would have been from football fans across the country had they failed to succeed, it would have been extremely embarrassing for the FFA. Western Sydney Wanderers had to be a success! There is no doubt on the pitch Tony Popovic deserves a great deal of credit and has shown that he is one of the best and most forward thinking coaches in the competition. However the truth is we are not comparing apples with apples, as Western Sydney have operated under different rules and different operating circumstances to the other A-League clubs.
The same article called for expansion of the A-League to 12 teams by the time the next TV deal comes around in 2017. Is that really a sound reason for expansion? To try and squeeze more money out of television. The hard truth is television stations are hurting, advertising dollars are not there, and it will be hard for all sports to get a vastly improved deal on the ones they currently all have now, when it comes time to re-negotiate. If Fox Sports turn their back on football – very unlikely – there is no way anyone will match their investment. This is unlikely as fans should watch closely as Murdoch-owned television stations across the globe are making very strong bids to own the rights of every national football league. Word is they want to create a 24 hour football channel. However once they have all the leagues locked in, they will have the power and dictate the terms to the leagues; it is also believed that they intend to make games pay-per-view due to the money they will have invested in buying the rights unable to be matched in advertising revenue. So be warned.
Should the A-League expand? Next year will be the tenth year of the competition. The league has so far seen three teams come and go so far, and several others teeter on the brink. Maybe John O’Neill’s one team one city plan in hindsight was not the best. Maybe teams need to be where the football has registered players in substantial numbers, and the club aligned to those people who are involved in the game.
CEO of the FFA David Gallop when revealing the television audience for the Grand Final explained the reason so many countries have purchased the rights was “The presence of marquee players has been the catalyst, but it’s the quality of play and entertainment value that has convinced broadcasters at home and abroad to invest in our rights. We have opened the eyes of the world to the Hyundai A-League and now fans worldwide they can watch all of our stars in action on a weekly basis, including Sunday’s blockbuster in Brisbane.” (That is not entirely true on many levels as the television rights in several countries are in some cases linked to a central contract; but that is by the by).
There are questions over the quality, yes there are entertaining games but sometimes the quality is poor. Stars of the A-league? Who are the big stars of the A-League? Who are the players everyone in the country would know straight away? Who would they recognise walking down the street? Alessandro del Piero, and Emile Heskey, definitely. Archie Thompson probably as for Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha maybe. How many of the “stars” are homegrown in Australia?The truth is the number of true “stars” in the game are very few. Guy Finkler is a star in Melbourne yet many around the country would walk past him and not even bat an eyelid.
The concern to some who have been around the game a long time is that the A-League under the stewardship of Frank Lowy is heading down a similar path as the National Soccer League, even though the television coverage hides the fact; Lowy has also learned second time around to have key media outlets on his side.
The NSL commenced in 1977 with an ambitious 14 team league. By 1981 clubs were looking at ways to cut costs as few profitable; the same applies to many an A-League club. The clubs voted for a Summer Competition back then, but the game’s administrators at the time, the Australian Soccer Federation rejected the idea. The league was tampered with and two divisions set up, but they reverted back to a one division 14 team league in 1986.
Interestingly as interest started to wane the NSL looked to import players as an easy way to attract media attention; sound familiar? It has been written that “their value was often questionable.” The glamour was only passing to true fans, as ultimately football is about entertainment and about the team not one player. The FFA have made it clear that they have financially assisted clubs bringing in overseas superstars in the twilight of their careers, but as much as they too may have created media attention how many have been a success on the pitch? The likes of Alessandro del Piero, Robbbie Fowler, Michael Bridges, Emile Heskey, have all been well below the standards that they set when at the top of their game. Some would say that Sydney FC suffered the past two years on the pitch having to carry an immobile del Piero, even though his vision sometimes won them games. Perth Glory owner Tony Sage, a sucker for a big name, admitted to the West Australian newspaper in February that French import William Gallas had not provided an adequate return for investment on the pitch. However he did claim that the international exposure created by the former France international’s signing had given the club value for money.
The NSL saw clubs come in and drop out of the league with a scary regularity. As mentioned the A-League has so far only had three teams drop out, but is it really ready for expansion? With two teams head and shoulders above the rest at the present time can the A-League afford to expand? Until the standard of the clubs at the bottom of the table improves and they become more consistent in their performances expansion could prove very risky.
Western Sydney Wanderers and Brisbane Roar have set the bar, and deservedly are the flagship teams in the competition. Let us hope that the football they serve up on Sunday in the Grand Final emphasises that point. As for whether it is an advert for the whole A-League competition, never forget one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Does the FA Cup final reflect the standard of every level of English football? These are one-off games and should be judged as such.