Thursday, March 8, 2012

The A-League: spread too thin

The furore surrounding Clive Palmer and Gold Coast United has cast more unwanted focus on soccer's position in the Australian sporting hierarchy. The club failing is bad enough, but for component on-field parts to auction themselves to prospective employers is like your soon-to-be ex auditioning potential replacements in front of your eyes.

Most galling of all is for this failure to occur in particularly high-growth area in the fastest-growing state in the nation. If football couldn't survive – demented patriarch or not – on the Gold Coast, there are few options left for A-League expansion. The league looks destined to stay in the same locations. And this may be for the best.

Realistically, there are only two more locations into which the A-League can try and expand naturally into a city with a population large enough to support the game. The league has already failed in both locations, Auckland and the Gold Coast. Despite it's size, Auckland also drags with it the baggage of New Zealand clubs playing in the domestic league of an Asian confederation member when the country competes in the Oceania confederation. Other possible expansion locations are also fraught with problems – the AFL's Cats countenance no rivals in Geelong, while Canberra boasts an enormous fly-in, fly-out population and lots of roundabouts.

Ben Buckley and the FFA, the sport's governing body in Australia and administers of the A-League, let the phenomenally successful second A-League season (2006-07) go to their collective bonces. The league attracted an average of nearly 13,000 fans per game that year, while collecting additional fuel from rivalries which solidified between the league's marquee clubs Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Adelaide United.

However, the Victory's remarkable crowd numbers masked the true situation. The now-defunct New Zealand Knights averaged a pitiful 3000 fans. More telling should have been that Melbourne's attendance comprised nearly 30% of the entire league gate. With renewed interest in roundball left over from the Socceroos' 2006 World Cup run and FFA decided to capitalise on soccer's newfound popularity and expand.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Since that year, four new teams have been created. Half of those have failed and now lie in ruin. A third, the Melbourne Heart is haemorrhaging cash, while the fourth, the Wellington Phoenix was born from the rubble of the Knights. With a population of slightly more than 22 million people The World Game's status as a distant fourth favourite football code, Australia simply can't support a national football competition which has more than ten teams. Thus, any expectation of healthy crowds or shirt sales at every venue is optimism verging on insanity.

While it is understandable the FFA wanted to expand while the game was at it's antipodean zenith, the league was a success in 2006-07 as a result of those nine teams, not despite the shortage of numbers. The game is healthier now than before the A-League's commencement, but to expect public interest to grow from all-time highs – especially when the tail end of the Golden Generation returned to pasture at home after a magical tour of Germany – was fallacy of the highest order. The league should have consolidated, rather than chosen to grow at a remarkably ambitious rate (including next season's likley West Sydney franchise, growing by five clubs in five seasons).

The argument against expansion is easy and tired, yet sport administrators fail to learn. No matter what the sport, clubs in a national competition need one of two things to succeed (and preferably both) – grassroots support for the sport, or a large enough populace to support a “minority” sport. By expanding into Far North Queensland,

When the league embarked on this Mr. Creosote-style inflation, not expecting local talent to be poached by higher-paying leagues, thus thinning the ranks of top players, was na├»ve. Add to that the established fact that expansion dilutes the talent-pool and suddenly the A-League doesn't provide the product it once did. That the young talent isn't coming through is just as damning – the simple fact is we can't supply the league with enough money, support or home-grown talent.

Because of this, the A-League should remain an nine-team league for the foreseeable future. Even the quick-cloned Western Sydney would be fallacy.

Part of the problem seems to be the FFA's complete misunderstanding of how many people it takes to fuel a football club. A vast majority of Australians couldn't tell you the left-back for their local A-League club, which explains why the sport struggles for recognition as a serious national competition, especially at a local level. It's time for the A-League to accept, for the time being, their place in the Australian sporting landscape. Give the people what they want – quality football. Clive Palmer seems to have forgotten, but this isn't accomplished with teenagers and faded stars, but with well-coached professional athletes.

To quote The Rock, it's time for the A-League to shut their mouth and know their role. It is possible – foreseeable, even, given junior participation – that in the longest of terms, football overtakes Rugby Union and even cricket in the national consciousness. However, that is also unlikely, especially when the FFA damages the A-League brand with repeated failed franchises.

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