Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A-League's declining crowds need addressing

Though streets ahead of the factional National Soccer League, peacefully and thankfully euthanised in 2004 after a fraught reign as Australia's national football competition, failing supporter bases for the A-League means once again the FFA is faced with the challenge of enticing and maintaining supporter interest.

In the NSL days much of the public was alienated by violence and the overly patriotic fans boasted by each club. Clubs were divided very much along national lines: if you were of Greek parentage you supported South Melbourne Hellas. Even 1/16th Croatian heritage meant a Melbourne Knights fan. It's the way it was. Furthering the league's violent image were the stories told by old security guards of the old Olympic Park: the most galling I heard was punters making sure their flares got into the game by hiding in a stroller beneath a sleeping baby. The A-League's come a long way just by renouncing the nationalistic culture endemic and integral in the NSL's supersession.

Shortly after the Perth Glory's Nik Mrdja banged in the winner that snared the 2004 NSL Cup, the twenty-seven year competition ended mercifully and without complaint - as pros say about retirement, "it was just time". The football public was promised more: an eight-team league. Partisan, but friendly crowds. The sport would burgeon Down Under.

But NOOOOooooooOOOOO! (Channeling John Belushi). The A-League, encouraged by a smart and sustainable start decided on expansion. The initial eight teams though each had enough recognisable faces and interest sufficient enough to support a reasonable fan base. Spurred on by the Melbourne Victory's incredible second season - on which laurels some argue the Victorian club still rests - where 50,000 regularly appeared in their Docklands home base, the A-League included franchises from North Queensland and the Gold Coast. The struggling Auckland-based New Zealand Knights, horrible nickname and all, were reborn on the South Island as the Wellington Phoenix.

While Melbourne and Adelaide have continued with strong crowd number, other A-League clubs have struggled - see the chart below. Last year the Victory boasted average crowds above 18,000 , Adelaide United drew 11,000+ and the Melbourne Heart with nearly 9,000. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Queensland franchises struggled; the appallingly-monikered North Queensland Fury's attendance barely reached 4,500 and Gold Coast FC appealed even less. The latter club's owner, mining magnate Clive Palmer, even caused controversy last year by locking out some Gold Coast fans rather than spend extra money opening other stands in their stadium. It's telling that in all of last season, the Melbourne Victory - with identifiable stars Kevin Muscat, Archie Thompson and Danny Allsopp - featured in eight of the ten highest-attended games. However they are not immune to the malaise which has engulfed football in Australia; their declining crowd numbers this year can be attributed to several factors, most notably the Melbourne Heart emergence as a second franchise for the city.

After last night's debacle, the FFA and A-League must acknowledge that change is needed for the A-League to retain its credibility. The 17-11-1 Brisbane Roar (sporting an awful mascot) defeated hapless North Queensland in front of only 1003 spectators. True, North Queensland has been devastated by a combination of natural disasters usually only seen in movies like 2012, but 1003 fans attending what is ostensibly a top-flight league is embarrassing and harmful for the A-League's future. It seems the Gold Coast fan base is to blame: they have also turned out record-low crowds on two other occasions this season. For a team playing such delicioius football as the Roar to draw such a pitiful crowd should finally close the book on the experimental expansion franchises North Queensland and the Gold Coast. They no longer deserve their teams.

The examples of league overinflation are obvious, patent and alarming. The NBA went from the ultimate in excitement to uninspired within a period of five years as undeserving cities received franchises: Vancouver, Memphis, Charlotte, Atlanta, Oklahoma City and New Orleans each have done enough to receive a team, but not enough to justify an owner spending money to create a winning team. The NHL is similarly afflicted: the Bettman Masterplan of expansion into the USA's southern reaches has been enough of a failure that several franchises are investigating selling their home games to cities who regularly sell in order to balance the books. By starting their Gold Coast and West Sydney franchises this year, the AFL should be heeding the FFA's mistakes even though their own brand is infinitely stronger.

It's time for the A-League to fold or relocate North Queensland. Unfortunately, there are limited options as to landing spots for the Fury - Auckland perhaps? The reality is that with North Queensland recovering from floods and the effects of Cyclone Yasi, football is likely to be the last of their priorities. The warning signs were there for the club after Robbie Fowler wasn't able to collect his paycheck and forced to move to Perth: now, as the Hornets did to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it's time the Fury bid farewell to their home base and perhaps even to existence. That they don't have a major benefactor like Palmer, crowd numbers notwithstanding, is why they may be doomed.

The Gold Coast, funded by one of Australia's wealthiest men, is a different story. They should have the population base to fund a club yet have struggled for attendance since Palmer bought the rights and recruited stars Jason Culina and Shane Smeltz. It's embarrassing that such a vibrant area draws so poorly and both Palmer and the A-League must take their shares of the blame for their failure to thrive. The A-League needs a base in the Gold Coast as it's Australia's most rapidly growing "city", yet Palmer's reluctance to spend means task of growing football's identity in South Queensland becomes the responsibility of the FFA and the A-League.

When compared to other sporting codes in Australia, the A-League does poorly in almost every aspect. Only the Victory and Adelaide have crowds with average attendance over the lowliest Rugby League crowds, the next lowest draw in the Australian sporting hierarchy. FFA should aim for a leaguewide average of 10,000 fans which would ensure a healthy competition as well as room for growth. Before any expansion can be considered, clubs need to be certain that they themselves can survive.

Hope though can be drawn from the struggling Scottish Premier League. The SPL includes twelve teams, with only two ever having a chance at the title, Celtic and Rangers. The remaining ten clubs have voted overwhelmingly to reduce the number of teams in the top division from 12 to 10, meaning each team receives a greater percentage of the league's TV rights money. A ten team league nearly indistinguishable from the current setup where the only interest is who will be relegated. The mooted Scottish setup, no matter how broke the clubs are, proves an allegedly elite league can exist with only a few teams. With Australian sport looking more to American models than to European, it appears unlikely that the SPL model will be adopted.

There has never been a more crucial time for the A-League.

1 comment:

  1. There is a healthiness to the a-league scene in Melbourne, but despite this the pie has not been grown just cannabalised with the heart eating into the victory's crowds more often than not.

    Watch this space next year with the new T20 format in the cricket - I am skeptical.