It has been a well publicised fact that support for the A-League has diminished in 2017/18, and many have tried to explain why this has happened.
The A-League Club owners have their own ideas as to why this has been the case. One of the key issues has been the lack of marketing of the league by the Football Federation of Australia, the organisation that runs the league. They have shifted the responsibility onto each individual franchise, but placed restrictions on what they can do and how they do it.
Fox Sports regularly create promos to pull in viewers to each round of the A-League, but as has been shown in other sports and other fledgling leagues around the world that is not enough. Those running the League must have a marketing strategy and it has to be a strong one. Naming each round after a cause that is flavour of the month is not marketing. It is tokenism, and is something that many fans are sick of and have seen through. Having a round of football linked to Star Wars was for some the last straw.
The A-League clubs understandably want to run their own competition. After all these are the individuals and organisations that invest millions into each club every year in the main for no return, and in a very few cases for minimal financial return.
One of the key reasons that each and every club in the A-League struggles financially is because none of them own the grounds that they play at. They lease the venue, and with the lease arrangements are forced to use vendors whom the stadium owners have contracted, and their percentage of any profits are minimal. With the lease of the stadia they also have to cover other incidental costs on a match day. So before a boot is laced up or a ball is kicked they are behind financially.
There have been calls of late that clubs should be allowed to move from the massive stadia that they use to smaller venues if the crowds are not there. This will not only limit their losses, but will give the fans a more intimate match day experience. Yet as we have seen with the FFA Cup there has been a controlling hand over all levels of football, and unless a pitch is a certain size – even though FIFA states otherwise – or the lights have a certain lux level games cannot be played at these venues. The FFA are very strict on the suitability of stadia.
Yet as much as it makes perfect sense that the A-League should be run separately from the FFA there are many who are absolutely terrified that should this be approved it will be the start of the breaking up of the game, and it will return to the days of old, where each facet was run separately. Already the NPL clubs around the company want to break away from their state bodies, who would be next? Juniors, or women’s football? Many will tell you Futsal has virtually been cast aside by the FFA when they stopped funding this side of the game, and that this is in fact already being run better by independent organisations.
Sadly this year more so than in previous seasons the credibility of the competition has been put under the microscope. There are many who have disliked for a long time the idea of six teams in a ten team league making the finals, and having the opportunity of being crowned Champions. By having a team below the halfway point on the league table being given a chance to win the league is rewarding mediocrity. It is like giving every child in a junior team a trophy just for turning up all season!
With sixteen games gone and eleven left to play Sydney FC are twenty points clear of the sixth placed Western Sydney Wanderers, and second placed Newcastle Jets are 14 points ahead. The fact that we are still discussing at this stage of the season that the second and third last teams with just three each wins all season could still make the finals is embarrassing.
By all means have a finals series, but restrict it to the top four. Fans want to see their teams winning, but even fans of Brisbane Roar, and the Central Coast Mariners with three wins, Western Sydney Wanderers with four wins and Perth Glory with five wins, all know that their teams are not playing well and on current form do not deserve to be playing off to become Champions.
Understandably the owners may find this a bitter pill to swallow as their egos want to see them boast that their team is in the Finals, but sport has always been based on merit, and there is no merit in being so far off the pace.
Last week Perth Glory owner Tony Sage was quoted as saying that he had received the green light to take his team to play an A-Leage game off-shore in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. The question is why? If the club was being run successfully and the memberships they boast of were genuine season ticket holders, rather than people who have purchased a variety of ticketing packages, you would not even consider playing a game off-shore. Even if the stadium costs are cheaper and there are not the same restrictions placed on the club to host such a game, you are immediately alienating your core group of fans. It makes no sense whatsoever in football terms. It may however make sense for Mr Sage’s businesses, but the majority of fans could not give two hoots about his business, all they care about is their club.
Over a beer in the past week, with people who have been involved in the game their whole lives, some who had played professionally, it was sad to hear that all stated they no longer had any desire to watch the A-League. Why? How could people who are still involved with the game at local level not want to watch the highest level of football in the state?
This was something that was debated at length and the reasons were numerous.
One person, who at one time had been a member ‘for a number of years’ explained why they had taken out a membership, in their words “to support our local club” and “to support local football.” The reason they let their membership lapse was they said because “they woke up.”
As they went on to explain, with your membership you started to get less and less for your money. Unlike in the NSL when games were on a set day and at a set time the A-League television deal meant that games were on different days and at different times and sometimes it was impossible to get there. This individual also stated that with so many “membership packages” available why would you buy a season ticket, you may as well by one of the discounted packages for a few games. They then asked why would you buy a ticket these days when you can always pick one up for free?
The whole issue of membership was discussed at length, what in fact are you a member of? You are invited to the pre-season launch and the end of season awards as well as a few other functions but what is your membership worth? Do you have a say in what happens at the club? Can you have any influence on decisions made? The feeling was that you couldn’t.
Which led into the overriding feeling of disconnection. All felt that there was no longer a connection with the club.
The lack of media coverage and the quality of that coverage was cited as one reason why the Perth Glory are no longer one of the hottest tickets in town. The sport used to have a four page lift-out in the West Australian newspaper, penned by writers who understood the game.
There was also a feeling in the group that even though the club has youth sides playing in the local NPL competitions it is no longer a part of local football. The players and parents of these young boys turn up, play and leave. That is not what sport is about. They are now cocooned from what it is really like to be a part of a club. The feeling was that despite playing in local competitions the club now has no profile in the local game.
The lap of honour after a game come-what-may was another issue that rankled, as well as the players standing in the centre of the pitch joking with the opposition after a defeat. The feeling was this was insulting to the fans who paid their money to watch an at times disappointing performance. As for the lap of honour and the praising of the fans week-in-week-out, it was again branded as ‘staged tokenism.’ The feeling was that the relationship between the players and the fans is no longer genuine. It is orchestrated.
This was an interesting observation, as it was said years ago that the key to a successful club was to have every fan leave the stadium after a game thinking that they played a part in their team’s victory. How many A-League fans honestly feel that when they leave a game around the country? Melbourne Victory fans used to, but do they now?
These were the opinions of a small group of regular attendees who now no longer attend A-League games.
The message is clear, that what is being served up to the fans is in the main no longer palatable. The commercialism, and the sanitisation of the sport where the end goal is purely and solely financial, has had an extremely detrimental affect on the beautiful game.
The A-League owners want a bigger say at Board level within the FFA, they also want to run their own competition. Either way if they want to have a league competition in another ten years they need to also be pushing for fan representation on the board of the FFA, and if they do break away guarantee it on the new Board of the A-League. As has been shown overseas fan involvement can make a huge difference to a football club.
If the focus does not start shifting onto the fans, the lifeblood of the game, the people who pay their Foxtel subscription to watch the A-League, who buy these “Membership packages,” or even use a free ticket and come and support their team, then the numbers will continue to dwindle. If the A-league continues to reward mediocrity, and those who serve up under par performances and genuinely believe the fans want to have them applaud them post game, then those running the game are more out of touch than it is thought.
Football has always been a game that belonged to the man on the street. In Australia it was a game that unified people from all corners of the earth. It is time that it was returned to the people and then it may have a chance to live up to its much talked about potential; although there are still other areas that also need urgent attention.