The first very important reality check is that professional soccer has NOT 'taken off' in Australia in any profound way. If anyone thinks it has it's because they either have no friends or because all of their friends are soccer fans. Really, sometimes football fans sound like Trotskyites who still think the revolution is imminent.
So that's the first thing: soccer in Australia, compared to the egg-ball codes, still has the relatively small support it always has had. In terms of the last decade, with adjustments for the World Cup peak (and yep, we'll get another one of those, but by its nature that is fickle growth), I'm guessing 'growth' in support pretty much charts the growth in Australia's overseas born population, or even less. That's it. Argue with me otherwise but please give me evidence and not FFA (or SBS) PR bullshit.
Now a couple of caveats. Sure junior soccer is huge and probably still growing. My experience with junior teams in the last few years however is pretty similar to my two years playing with The Gap as a kid in the 70s, in that virtually none of the players, coaches, parents or administrators have a clue about the A-League or any other senior soccer. My favourite anecdote is that when I tried to encourage some kids to help their game by watching as much pro soccer as possible, I had parents get back to me complaining I was telling their kids they had to get FOX (which I didn't). That is, there was actual antagonism toward the idea. The mentality of junior participation in sport (for which soccer is widely considered perfect) and the tribal activity of following a local pro team are two completely different things.
Women's soccer is also growing in countries including Australia where women have been, in the past 50 years, freed to choose their own lifeways. This is fantastic for more than one reason, but frankly it's a growth in women's liberation, not soccer as such. Once again growth in this area does not necessarily translate to support for the elite men's game. There's been growth in women's truck drivers too, but that doesn't mean there's growth in truck driving. Once again, the chicks I know who play (a fair few, through playing in mixed futsal comps and vaguely following the West End women's team) simply do not know or care about the A-League, with rare exceptions.
Incidentally I can't wait for the W-League to kick off this weekend in Brisbane, at Ballymore Stadium, Saturday 3rd October 3pm (I can't remember what it costs but I think it's significantly less than twenty bucks). All of the games are curtain raisers for A-League games except for this Roar vs Canberra match. This I can see growing because, a) it's cheap to go to games, in a friendly stadium with a smoking area, and b) it's free to air on the ABC so people will encounter it accidentally as well as being able to watch it easily if they find themselves with a glancing interest. Glancing interest can grow of course, but not if it takes getting FOX or spending a month's entertainment budget on going to a game.
Third and last caveat. Of course now that the other codes have finished their seasons there will be a bit of growth in crowd numbers, with families etc looking for alternate entertainment. That will be a slight blip over the next few weeks, after which (just going by the past four seasons) it will steady off again, then blip again for the more successful teams toward season's end. If anyone wants to get excited about that, fine, but I'll be keeping the cork in my champagne.
I'm already getting confused between a discussion of the A-League and the issues with Brisbane Roar particularly, which have a lot to do with Suncorp Stadium. They're related of course, but I'm trying to manouvre this narrative from the former to the latter.
The FFA of course has been trying hard, navigating the tension between trying to sell a top quality football competition and simultaneously making strategic compromises of quality. The quality of teams is deliberately kept in check by the salary cap, as a strategic effort to keep the competition fairly equal while the game has a chance to grow. The quality of refereeing is a compromise, reflecting insufficient funds (stemming finally from insufficient support).
Crowd numbers are down generally. 442 has covered this, as has The Roar sports website. These are both good articles with lots to think about, especially if you include the hundreds of comments. If I could distil the lot into a single formula, it's that punters are waking up, partly due to pressures on discretionary spending generally, that they're being sold a mediocre product for an elite price.
Meanwhile the FFA is continuing as if things are going from strength to strength. Apparently there's going to be two new teams next year. Now the FFA demands prospective new clubs jump through some pretty tough hoops proving viability, but I tell ya if I was a prospective club I'd be demanding the FFA jump through some hoops proving viability before accepting any deal. Wellington for one, if as is speculated they get axed, will have a very good case to litigate, considering, a) they were made to jump through hoops to get there, and b) they would have proceeded with a five year economic plan at the least.
But from here I'll leave the question of the medium term viability of the League itself and get back to the team I love, Brisbane Roar. What can they do?
Firstly, let's get real and move to Ballymore. We'll call Suncorp a long term vision, and if we have a winning season and get into Asia maybe we'll look at it again, but meanwhile let's get a viable, healthy stadium atmosphere going in an iconic soccer stadium. The hard core, who are most of what is left at Suncorp anyway, will go, and most of the public transport issues can be covered by providing special buses, which happens anyway to Suncorp. The most important thing in terms of slowly finding growth is making the experience a hoot, and the intimacy of a smaller, fuller, cheaper stadium would do that. It would be much more of a 'cauldron' than 'The Cauldron' too which arguably might actually help The Roar play better for their fans and provide the intimidation an away crowd is supposed to provide for visiting teams.
All this would be doing is facing the reality of the situation. Noone's going to be fooled that this is not a step backward in terms of ambition, but pretending that the ambition is realistic is, in my opinion, even more embarassing. Meanwhile the Roar would be obliged to get its PR people to sell it as a positive step forward - a home ground that can better involve the community, provide a better and uniquely soccer atmosphere, increase accessibility through cheaper tickets if not public transport (it would still be cheaper for Jacob and I to go if we caught a cab), and colonise a place that the Roar can truly call home, including for training, youth games, women's games etcetera.
I'm guessing the reason the women's champions (The Roar) are not curtain-raising the Brisbane game is because staffing Suncorp for double the time when it's already breaking the bank keeps the Roar's accountants from being able to sleep at night.
So this, I reckon, is the project. There may be all sorts of other things in the way, but we (the 'royal we' of course as I shall merely continue to snipe like a blogger) should get busy. The project is not merely to move the games but to colonise a permanent spiritual home for our heros and all associated activity, and one that is appropriate to a realistic assessment of support, rather than a zealot's dream.
One more thing, and I'm back to the League as a whole. I have argued several times that the biggest impediment to the growth of the A-League is FOX. The main retort is that the A-League could not exist without FOX. I guess we won't hear from the same if the A-League doesn't survive anyway. So here's the problematic: do we attempt to overcome the lower income we might recieve from free-to-air coverage, providing a much better gamble for growth, or do we attempt to overcome the non-existent growth that FOX coverage provides? Either path will take great imagination, business acumen and hard work, but I know which challenge I'd prefer.
To those who say we're locked into the FOX deal for x years so we have to deal with it I say bullshit. A contract is simply the terrain for negotiation. The FOX people, the FFA and free-to-air interests, if the will was there, could hammer out a deal that everyone would benefit from, especially if the game was to hence grow rather than continue to shrink.
Here's a starting point:
- FOX sells the rights to a 'game of the week' every week on FTA, which attempts to be the biggest game, including the finals at the end.
- FOX still has the game on its own network anyway, so all those FOX subscribers can still use the special features etc.
- FOX still runs the show, does the commentary etc.
- FOX gets to promote its subscriptions on FTA at the same time... "If you want special features...", "If you want to watch all the A-League action...", "If you want to make sure you see all of your teams games...", "If you want the world of elite soccer - EPL, whatever..." ... "then here's the latest special FOX deal!"