Blueprint: How to save the A-League
Pitiful TV ratings and bare stadiums tell the harshest truths for a game struggling to grow. But days out from kickoff for the A-League's 15th season, EMMA KEMP explains why all is not lost. A soon-to-be-independent league can thrive if bosses get it right.
SIGN A BONA-FIDE MARQUEE
Since Alessandro Del Piero (2012-14), FFA has struggled to land another global star of that ilk. Detractors of the marquee strategy argue that casual fans lured by Del Piero didn't stick around once he was gone. So keep signing them so there's no lull. There's nothing wrong with riding the wave.
EXPAND TO 14 TEAMS ASAP
This season's introduction of Western United and next season's entry of Macarthur Bulls has been a long time coming. The next phase must be implemented with far more urgency. If two more franchises join in season 2021-22, bringing the total to 14, it would allow for a full home-and-away season and avoid the headaches of a weighted draw due to an uneven number of teams.
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LINK THE TIERS
It's only a matter of time before a national second division is introduced and, eventually, promotion and relegation. A plan drawn up by the national second division working group recommends eight clubs can be up and running by 2021-22 in markets not serviced by the A-League. Practically, there is still some way to go, particularly around financial sustainability.
REVERSE NOSEDIVING RATINGS
TV viewership in 2018-19 was 40 per cent lower than in 2016-17. The 2019 grand final was watched by an average audience of 137,000, compared with the 460,000 who tuned into the 2016-17 decider. Months of talks with Channel 10 about broadcasting two games each round exclusively on its main channel came to nothing. But alongside Fox Sports, who will broadcast all games, the ABC has stepped in to show early Saturday games on ABC1. While lacking the financial windfall of a commercial network, this could still be a winner, with hopes the ABC will deliver six-figure audiences. W-League games broadcast on ABC1 on Sundays have regularly drawn viewers of around 65,000.
PROMOTE THE LEAGUE
A lack of visibility has been a massive roadblock to obtaining and retaining fans, particularly a failure to connect the professional game with Australia's massive grassroots participation base. Club owners have talked the talk since taking the reins and their aim is to improve the product then alert the community to its quality.
SUPPORT ACTIVE SUPPORT
Official active supporter groups are the A-League's biggest strength and yet football crowd culture remains largely misunderstood in Australia. Violence, racism and flares are unacceptable, but entrenched "football hooligan" stereotypes make the A-League an easy target. Education is imperative.
Add mistrust between active fans and police and the spectators simply stop turning up. NSW Police assistant commissioner Mark Jones recently acknowledged to The Daily Telegraph that "football is quite unique, and it took a while for us as police to adapt and understand", initiating unprecedented dialogue with Western Sydney's Red and Black Bloc. The safe-standing area at the new Bankwest Stadium is a breath of fresh air, as is Jones' support of a more discreet police presence at games.
AUTHENTICITY TRUMPS TRY-HARDS
'The world game' has thrived on tribalism for centuries, flourished on heroes, villains and cult figures that feed the fans who are the essence of the sport. Safe smoke - controlled flares - is a great initiative but FFA's short-lived suggestion to play music during goal-kicks and corners to mimic the Americanised model went down like a lead balloon. Let the chants speak for themselves.
EXCEPT WHEN IT COMES TO TICKET PRICES
Steep prices continue to deter families and new fans when they are desperately needed. Adult tickets for the Sydney derby range from $25 (family and alcohol-free zones) to $80, while the cheapest adult tickets for the round one Melbourne derby are $30, with prices for kids aged 4-16 $6.25 and $24.60. Recent seasons have delivered initiatives such as 'Kids Go Free' and $49 family tickets during the summer of football, though it's debatable that these have been adequately promoted. There's a school of thought that kids under 16 should go free year round if they produce a registered player's pass, but for now the consensus among bosses is such a move could devalue the product.
SCRAP THE SALARY CAP
The players' union has long called the model "broken", contending the $3 million restriction creates an illusion of parity between the haves and have-nots. Last month they released a report that found the gap between first and last-placed teams reached a record 47 points last season. For now, the controversial cap stays, but it is set for a major review.
INVEST IN BOUTIQUE STADIUMS
The need for purpose-built venues with football-standard pitches is an issue that crops up every season, generally when cross-code traffic thickens at multi-purpose venues. In April it was the SCG, last November the sea of plastic shards at Spotless Stadium. The brand-spanking-new Bankwest Stadium is an excellent start, and Western United's plan to build and own their own stadium on Melbourne's outskirts is the kind of bold strategy that drove success in the MLS in the US.
MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOUTH
A top flight of 11 teams means limited chances for young Australian players to experience regular first-team football. A push to expand each club's visa player quota would narrow the development bottleneck even further. As Socceroos coach Graham Arnold says, "the kids are coming", and Daniel Arzani's rapid rise from Melbourne City's reserve squad to the World Cup - and then Manchester City and Celtic - shows what can be achieved. Perhaps shifting the wages of imports to outside the salary cap could ease the problem.
WHY THERE'S STILL HOPE
Big games still draw big crowds - 56,371 packed into Optus Stadium for last season's grand final. Even in the depths of despair, 15 expansion hopefuls submitted formal bids. The appointment of Iranian World Cup referee Alireza Faghani as the A-League's fourth full-time referee is another boost.
And with the clubs now running the show, there will be a strong desire to get the most out of their owners' investments. With a TV deal in place until 2023, the A-League must circle the wagons as their rival codes appear to be sorting out their own issues. NRL's up-and-down season has brought together the perfect blend of today and tomorrow - the defending champion and the rising star - in Sunday's grand final. Rugby, for all the Wallabies' lack of winning big games, is coming off a World Cup and the GWS Giants have reignited AFL in the west. Football must get it right in 2019-20.