Monday, September 28, 2009

Operation Ballymore

The truth is I don't know how to say this, but I'm just going to go for it. Have been thinking about it since the Roar vs Sydney 'meh!' game yesterday afternoon where, quite aside from paying $40 for an adult ticket, it costs $4.10 for a cornetto and over $6 for a watery beer in a plastic cup.

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!"
Anyway, as I foreshadowed from the beginning, this is a rave and it's not entirely coherent. In my defence I only plee my sincerity. I dearly love this game. It might have saved my life. I love the Brisbane Roar, whether they win or lose. If The Roar went broke, or if the A-League collapsed, I would be heartbroken. I honestly think both of these things are not only possible, but all things going as they are, it's on the cards. So if I sound cynical or negative at all, please believe that my only objective is trying to discuss these things openly for the long-term survival of the League and my beloved haz-chem orange clad lads. I'm over trying to talk it up or find the positive needle in the looming haystack of problems. I am SO over the fans and pundits who pretend it's all hunky, dory, growing and on the yellow brick road to soccer heaven. Let's get real, get just a bit humble, and rethink this thing with reality clearly in mind.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why be a Soccer Fan Prt 2

This entire post follows on from the comments on my last piece.

When I first read your comment, Ed, I had to go back and re-read my article. I didn't realise how much it came across as so dark on the A-League. When I sat down to write I had in mind a bit of a comparison of the two soccer experiences of the day, highlighting the simple joys of junior and amateur league soccer. Clearly more than that came out.

The fact is that I too would be heartbroken if the Roar folded, and even moreson if the A-League suffered collapse. That neither of these things is impossible is of major concern.

Thanks all for your comments. I love the idea of a state champions / A-League top 6 Cup, or something. And you're absolutely correct Guido to point out that the reasons people follow a sport can be very diverse and personal.

I want to write more about these sorts of topics - trying to really scrutinise, from a consumer's point of view, what the A-League is. There's a lot of unfiltered optimism about the rise of soccer in Australia, but if you read the introductions of soccer books from Australia going back to the 1970s, this optimism is nothing new.

Les Murray was quick this season to talk up A-League crowds, but we all can see the A-League isn't in the clear yet. Why? What can be done? Does it matter?

I want the A-League to survive forever. Connectedness to the communities, however that is developed, is very important in my view but so is quality. When people follow Rugby or AFL in this country, or for that matter cricket or motor racing, they know they are watching the best in the world; the elite. I mean if you're going to dedicate a lot of your discretionary spending to something, not to mention emotional energy, you don't want it in the back of your mind that you're really watching a second division league.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a fan. 'Fan' is a shortening of 'fanatic' and in the football world we tend to wear it on our sleeves. The important realisation is that we are not the game's locus of growth, or even survival. Fanatics do not a mass-movement make. Fanaticism, as we are often heard to candidly celebrate (see Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch), is a disease. It's not even particularly healthy.

I'll digress more. I am a 'new fan', as I've said. On the face of it, the FFA should see a bloke like me and say, 'cool, a new fan; hope there's lots more like that'. But they would be mistaken. You see I am someone who is guilty of having been utterly fanatical about various religious and political ideologies throughout my life. I may not have been a fan of soccer, but I have been previously diseased nonetheless. From my own mental health's point of view soccer is a wonderful way to live out my disease with minimum adverse impact, a sort of ideological methadone program. So the FFA should not see me as the thin edge of an ever-broadening wedge.

The FFA also must know that to get people interested in the A-League you have to get them interested in the game of soccer, but their immediate dilemna is that an interest in soccer can exist in its own right, and they have only one product available, for which they're asking real money. Back to quality.

I reckon the salary cap needs to be a) kept permanently, and b) raised, a lot. To begin with I think it should be doubled. Basically the criteria should shift from "What sort of figure could all the clubs afford?" to "What sort of figure could the four wealthiest clubs realistically afford?"

I think about the 'market' for Clubs. Not tickets, TV subs or merchandise, but actual Clubs. Dudes like Clive Palmer or the various Russians and Arabs who are buying European clubs for fun. A bloke has to have his train set doesn't he? I think having a salary cap, and a set of reasonable restrictions on foreign players, actually makes the prospect more fun for your average fun-loving billionare. It's just part of the game, and it keeps costs down to the merely stupendous. I'd like to see salary capping across the world for this reason. Note that a high cap can still allow for really amazing teams.

In ancient Athens there was apparently no business taxes and there was hence a very wealthy merchant class. Although these individuals paid no direct tax, they had burdens as citizens. It was normal for an individual to fund (and command) a warship for example, or a production of a play, or a sporting festival. There's a certain sense to this, and there's no real losers.

To have quality teams you need to be able to buy the best in the World. As Ed points out, the A-League is improving and there's no doubt that every top player who comes into the league makes it more attractive for other top players. Lifting the cap on teams like Sydney and the Gold Coast, who can afford better players, would accelerate this process.

Of course these rich teams would come to dominate the league. It's common knowledge that playing against superior opposition helps lift your own game so the result would be a better quality league and the extra drama of actual, rather than merely statistical, 'David and Goliath' stories. And then there's always that other bored billionare...

Finally here, can we allow ourselves to be as ambitious in the long term for the A-League as we dare to be with regard to the Socceroos? We do dare, don't we, to dream for our countrymen the Socceroos to be in the top 10 in the World? Top five even? I have had halucinagenic moments of even thinking that they could, just could, with a mixture of luck, terrible luck for various other teams, and perfectly timed form, win the World Cup! Admit it! You've done the same.

Shouldn't we be aiming to have one of the top 10 leagues in the world? Top 5?

Just as a post script, I also said in my last article that 'Queensland' teams meant nothing to me. What bullshit! Queensland teams all in the top 3 by season's end, and I will be hyperbolically happy.