Major League Soccer shows the way forward for Australia

Major League Soccer expansion club Orlando City opened their brilliant new stadium this week, complete with “The Wall” - a safe-standing area for active fans (something we’ve craved in Australia for years).

Orlando City

Orlando City's new stadium Source: Twitter @OrlandoCitySC

Physically, it’s US$155 million ($202 million) of bricks and mortar. Psychologically, it’s a huge brick in the football wall.

Orlando’s new stadium, and its fan-friendly design, is more proof the MLS truly “gets” what makes football great. They’re laying some seriously fertile ground on the far side of the Pacific. Perhaps more than most people, especially in Australia, would give them credit for.

Historically, despite a relative disparity in popularity and global influence, Australia and the USA are seen to be fairly similar markets when it comes to football.

The presence of other sports, added to the large distances from football's heartlands, geographic size and population make-up make them remarkably similar already, before one even considers the like-for-like in our football history.

Major League Soccer is a tick over ten years older than the A-League, which is about right: the USA is a solid decade ahead of Australia in most football metrics. Maybe even a bit more now.

There have been periods – probably about 10 years ago – when the gap seemed to have almost closed. The Socceroos were probably a better team than the “USMNT”, who took just one point at the 2006 World Cup and couldn’t get out of a soft group (albeit featuring eventual champions, Italy).

Domestically, the A-League average crowd in 2007–08 was 14,610. The MLS, with the glow of David Beckham and ten years of maturity under its belt, was averaging just 1500-2000 more at the same period.

Fast forward to the present day and even with Beckham long-retired, there is no contest. The MLS averaged crowds of 21,692 in 2016 – almost 9000 more than the A-League’s present average this season: 12,888.

The US national team is stronger internationally, in both men and women, although this shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. This is the generation who grew up with the legacy of USA ‘94 and, on the men’s side, has been able to play in a fully professional, top-10 world league without leaving home.

Despite the best efforts of all involved, the A-League and its clubs have not been able to take the next leap forward as the MLS has.

We’re all aware of the many problems the A-League faces, but the MLS faced many of the same ones a decade  ago. We need to watch and learn from their experiences.

Their critical difference? Cold harsh cash investments. We all know about the marquee names that have been flooding into their market, but most of the clubs have new, football-specific stadiums, and those who don’t are planning moves of their own.

By contrast, not one A-League-specific stadium has been built. Everything has been multi-purpose, with gaping end-zones for the rugby codes. The one football-specific stadium we do have, Hindmarsh, was rebuilt for the Olympics in 2000 – and it’s still the best.

Fans at Sporting Park in Kansas City, for example, can just about rip the shirt off the player’s back. At the Avaya Stadium in San Jose and Red Bulls Arena in New Jersey, you’re almost falling on top of the play. It’ll be the same in Orlando. All provide an atmosphere (critically, many have all-around roofs) that you can’t afford to miss out on.

So much has been invested in the match-day experience that the MLS now resembles one of the elite leagues of the world. Private investment has fuelled most of it, as clubs owners dig into their pockets to fund great stadiums and memorable experiences.

I admire our A-League owners enormously – losing money, in large or small amounts, thankless task – so this shouldn't be perceived as a shot at at them.

But if we're looking for reasons as to why the MLS has surged ahead, the disciplined, relentless investment of those in charge might just be the answer.

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4 min read
Published 28 February 2017 at 12:27pm
By Sebastian Hassett