Six ways to save the A-League from oblivion

Not since the final season of the National Soccer League have I been this concerned about the state of our domestic league in Australia, but there's a variety of ways to save the A-League from oblivion.

I was only 13 then and, even at such a young age, I could realise something was terribly wrong.

'Why, all of a sudden, did people stop coming to Wollongong Wolves' games?' - I would ask my brother.

Now, 14 years later, older and wiser, I sense our domestic league finds itself at a similar crossroads once again.

The tipping point for me came after Newcastle Jets v Melbourne City only drew a television audience of 20,000 on Sunday night.

These two teams currently sit second and third on the ladder respectively.

That is an embarrassing figure for a match between two sides competing for an A-League championship.

Last Thursday, Sydney FC secured a historic second consecutive Premiers’ Plate, but did the general public even know?

The game was buried and was up against the AFL Grand Final re-match between Richmond and Adelaide.

Only the most avid football fan would have known the game was even on.

This match should have been given clean air to allow Sydney FC to receive the recognition they truly deserved.

Not only are viewership figures down this season, crowds have declined 13.41% according to footyindustry.com.

What is being done to try and arrest this slide? Very little.

The level of vitriol towards Football Federation Australia on social media sums up the frustrations of football fans.

It's time for David Gallop and Steven Lowy to act. If they don't, I fear the A-League and football in this country may never fulfil its potential.

The disconnect between the A-League and grassroots is shocking when you take a closer look at the numbers.

According to the Australian Sport Commission’s AusPlay survey, it's estimated that 1,152,442 people played football with a club between July 2016 to June 2017.

That's 4.7% of Australia’s population and 18% of the club sport population.

Football owns the biggest share of the pie, so why are the crowds and viewership figures so low for the A-League?

The average attendance for the A-League this season is only 10,722 - a startling figure in comparison to the estimated 1,152,442 playing football with a club in Australia.

So how do we convert these participants into supporters of our domestic league?

Here's six ways to save the A-League from oblivion.

1. Let kids in for free

One of the few positives from the A-League this season was the Summer of Football Festival, where kids were allowed in for free between rounds 12 to 16.

There was a different buzz at games all of a sudden and you could sense the atmosphere had improved.

But once the initiative ended it felt like any momentum it provided had dissipated.

How many of those kids, who bugged their parents to take them to games, are still going now that they have to pay?

Why don't we make it easier for kids to see first-hand how they can become a professional football player?

Junior participation is through the roof but if children don't have a pathway, how can they dream of following it?

It's why I believe every FFA registered player Under-13 should receive a free general admission season pass to A-League matches for a chosen club.

It will provide a key link between a club and the association it represents.

For example, all players Under-13 in the Eastern Suburbs Football Association would receive a general admission pass that allows them to attend Sydney FC matches for free.

This will allow clubs to develop a closer connection with the local association it represents.

I know this could prove costly but surely the long term-gain outweighs the short-term pain.

2. Expand, expand, expand

The formal process to expand the A-League by two clubs started last week.

This should have created much fanfare but the FFA only put out a general media release and didn't even bother to hold a press conference.

If you're David Gallop, why aren't you talking up this exciting announcement?

Get people talking, get prospective clubs excited.

But why only two teams? Is that really going to make the A-League exciting again? Why not be brave and add six new teams?

It appears there will be a number of compelling bids that will be submitted. Let's not disappoint them all, if they deserve to be admitted.

I would aim to have to have six new clubs by the start of the 2020-21 season.

2019-20 - two new clubs:

• A Southern Sydney/Illawarra team (I would prefer a stand-alone for both regions but it appears the FFA don't agree)
• A third Melbourne team

2020-21 - four new clubs and the Phoenix replaced, unless they improve on and off the field:

• Tasmania
• Second Brisbane team
• Geelong
• Second Adelaide team
• Phoenix possibly removed for either South East Melbourne or Canberra.

So that would make it a 16-team, 30-round competition by 2020-21.

Only the top four-six teams would contest the finals as we can't continue to reward mediocrity.

All of these new markets are crying out for a team and this will ensure that every club except Perth will have local derby.

3. A-League 2 (second division)

Promotion and relegation must be established by 2025 at the latest.

Australia's population could be 30 million by then and football is only going to grow in popularity.

A 16-team second division needs to be established over the coming years to provide further opportunities for players and fans.

The A-League 2 season would run parallel with the A-League where the last-placed team in the top flight would play the premiers of A-League 2 in a two-legged play-off at the end of each season.

This will provide more interest for matches between sides at the bottom of the A-League as they look to avoid a potential relegation play-off.

What reason is there currently to watch teams like the Mariners and Phoenix?

Just imagine in 2023, a weekend including a second-leg play-off for a spot in the A-League on the Saturday, with the A-League grand final on the following day.

Are you not excited about that prospect?

Now there will be much debate about what 16 teams should form a second division or ‘A-League 2’.

Canberra, Far North Queensland and Darwin are regions that need to have clubs in the second division because they aren't represented in the top tier.

The rest should be made up of NPL clubs that can prove they can become fully professional.

4. Increase engagement

The fans are the lifeblood of any sport, and it's fair to say A-League fans don't have a good relationship with the FFA at the moment.

That needs to be repaired as soon as possible. Relations have strained over the past few years and aren't showing any signs of improving.

It's up to the FFA to get on the front foot and get the fans back onside - by meeting with them to get to understand their issues.

Engage with active supporters over initiatives that can get fans to provide the best atmosphere possible.

Without the fans there is no game.

5. Marquee signings

Look at the impact Zlatan Ibrahimovic has already made on Major League Soccer.

The A-League was at its peak when Alessandro Del Piero was playing for Sydney FC.

People who were skeptical about watching the A-League previously, started going to games and watching on TV.

But the Italian was never properly replaced after he left in 2014, and the sad thing was that he never wanted to leave - I remember talking with him on the field after the A-League All Stars played Juventus at ANZ Stadium.

Surely it was in the game's best interest to keep him involved with the A-League.

Tim Cahill's signing was supposed to be a turning point, but he came and went within a year and now the A-League doesn't have one superstar.

Adrian Mierzejewski is going to win the Johnny Warren Medal this year, but if he walked the down the street, how many people would actually recognise him?

You need superstars in Australia's competitive sporting landscape to stand out from the pack.

Instead of giving teams two slots to sign foreign marquee players, make it one in order to encourage clubs to dedicate their funds to one big-name signing.

A-League clubs and the FFA need to make a more concerted effort to attract big name players.

Fernando Torres will leave Atletico Madrid at the end of this season.

Yes it would be an expensive signing, but imagine the difference he could make.

He would attract Liverpool fans and the Spanish community across Australia.

6. Media access

I started working in the media in 2012 and I can’t remember less interest shown in an A-League season.

The major commercial networks, who are key to getting the general public interested, seem to be giving less and less air time to the A-League.

A-League clubs should be doing everything they can to get publicity at the moment.

Throw rules and restrictions out the window and make it open slather for all of the media.

Let journalists speak to who they want to in the lead up to a game - especially in this age of social media: the more content out there the better.

Football finds itself on the precipice in Australia and the time for change is now.

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9 min read
Published 3 April 2018 at 12:22pm
By Adrian Arciuli