As The Hyundai A-League celebrates its 10th Anniversary, the success of Tony Popovic’s Western Sydney Wanderers overnight reaching the Asian Champions League finals has many sitting back and claiming that all is well with the game.
Western Sydney Wanderers achievement is truly remarkable and a credit to Popovic, his back up team and the players. For a team that is about to enter its third year in existence to make it through to a final to decide the best club team in Asia at the first time of asking is astounding. They become only the second Australian side to make it to the final following Aurelio Vidmar’s Adeliade United in 2008, who lost the final 2-0 to Gamba Oskaka.
They say one swallow does not make a summer, and neither does the success of one team make a League. Football Leagues around the World are littered with competitions that are ultimately between only three or four teams. That is not great news for fans in a league with 24 teams, let alone one with only ten.
Many will tell you that the A-League is in the best position it has ever been in, Others well tell you that the product started to lose its way after the fifth season. There is also now a groundswell of support claiming that the standard is inferior to its predecessor the NSL. Everyone has and is entitled to an opinion.
The interesting thing to do is make a short comparison between the two leagues, and mistakes made.
The National Soccer League was launched in 1977. Fourteen teams contested the first season, all on the East coast of Australia. Sydney Hakoah were the first Champions shading Marconi on gaol difference.
At the end of the first season Mooroolbark were replaced by Newcastle KB United. It took two seasons of the A-League before the first side dropped out, The New Zealand Knights; and this was in an 8 team league.
By the fourth year of the NSL with crowds steady but not growing to expected levels, discussions were held as to how the game could gain a bigger place in the consciousness of the Australian sporting public. Suggestions were to move to a Summer competition, which the A-League is. Another idea was to adopt a Franchise model and ease the financial pressure on the clubs. The A-League is a Franchise model, yet the financial pressures still exist. Many will argue that the Franchise model chosen was flawed, as it saw the clubs in the hands of private owners rather than clubs being owned by Corporations and businesses. There is also no chance of input from the fans. The financial losses eventually becoming too much for individual owners; hence so many changes of ownership around the league in ten years.
Just as the NSL had done in its early years the A-League looked to try and attract media attention by bringing in big name imported stars. It added a bit of glamour to the league and the success of Dwight Yorke at Sydney FC and Fred at Melbourne Victory overshadowed the not so successful other signings from Europe, of which there were far too many. It almost seems that clubs feel obliged to fill their foreign quota of players even though a great number hardly play.
By the ’80’s the performance of these imported stars in the NSL was in the main fleeting. They grabbed the attention for a few weeks, but their performances at the ends of their careers failed to keep the attention.
The same is true today, but now the cost of these stars on the wane is far greater. The spin is the big name players will bring in the crowds, the statistics say otherwise.
For Sydney FC’s first home game after signing Juventus and Italy legend Alessandro del Piero an amazing 35,419 went through the turnstiles. Yet in round 4 against the Glory – their next home game – a large number did not return, and only 22,128 took their seats. The following weekend the figure went down again to 21,531 against arch rivals Melbourne Victory. A drop of 13,291. This was never given any media coverage. Not mentioned by the club or the FFA, as obviously it exposed a flaw in their promotional strategy.
Sydney FC were not alone in these crowd drop-offs, the Marquee effect on crowds shows a definite trend. Perth Glory went from 16,019 to 12, 031 in their first two games with Robbie Fowler their highest two crowds that season. Melbourne Victory had 40,351 to Harry Kewell’s first game in their colours. There was only a small drop in the next game, most likely because they played cross town rivals the then Melbourne Heart (39,309), but more telling was their next home game when only 24,820 turned up!
Alessandro Del Piero has been hailed as a huge success for the A-League, but was he really? Sydney FC won nothing while he was there, and during his time he ended up seeing two coaches shown the door.
Many would challenge that the signing of del Piero was purely and simply aimed at trying to keep the A-League profile up when it was starting to wane, the same tactic Chairman of the FFA Frank Lowy used when he was involved in the NSL.
Del Piero’s salary is believed to have been a shade over AUD$4 million per annum. Sydney FC were not left to pay all of this with the FFA lending a hand – which in itself raises a myriad of questions of conflicts of interest – as well as a few other parties. However Not the Footy Show has been advised that accommodation for the family was paid for by the club and that did not come cheaply.
Sydney FC boast about the number of replica shirts they sold with del Piero’s name on, however they do not reveal that their star import also received sizeable royalties on those shirts and any other apparel sold with his name on.
Although Sydney FC did not have to pay for their trip to Italy on a pre season tour Mr del Piero was still making money, as the income that was generated by charging fans to watch del Piero train with his new club was levied and kept by Del Piero and his staff; this is explained as payback for them arranging the tour.
When one analyses the cost of signing a waning start such as del Piero the figures do not stack up. Sure he still had great vision and could pass a ball exquisitely, but he could not run and if anything hampered the structure of the team. Brisbane Roar have shown that signing a lesser known, but still talented players such as Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha is a far better investment. Yet the FFA still seem to want superstars to try and the reason is to keep the brand of the A-League in the public eye.
After ten years it is time the A-League stood on its own as a League. That it promoted and marketed itself for what it is, and stopped trying to be the English Premier League, because it is not and never will be. It is also time that new marketing techniques were used rather than repeating the mistakes of the NSL. The money blown on players who can no longer perform should be invested in young Australian players, you may be surprised, but fans of the game in this country want to see home grown talent thrive. They may take a few years to mature as was evident with the players given a chance at Brisbane Roar, but when they do the football is worth the entry fee.