8 November ~ Australian football is hoping for good news when FIFA announces the hosts of the 2022 World Cup on December 2. It could certainly do with some, as the struggling domestic league lurches from crisis to crisis. Launched with huge optimism as an eight-team competition six years ago, the A-League was billed as the final chance for football to break out of its ethnic ghettoes and minority status, and occupy the mainstream of Australian sport. But all the hopeful signs of its first few years are turning to flashing lights and deafening alarm bells as crowds slump, financial doom threatens several clubs and expansion falters.

It's hard to say which of its problem children is likely to give the FFA the most grief in the long term, but the school has been on the phone constantly and police have been at the door in the middle of the night more than a few times. Last month Newcastle Jets seemed ready to go under before they were rescued by Australia's richest fat lad, Nathan Tinkler. He made his money in the booming mining industry, reportedly more than $600million (£376m) in just four years, has spent a lot of it on horse racing and comes across as a foul-mouthed, arrogant bully. Such is the desperation in one of Australia's oldest football strongholds.

Things are little better further north on the Gold Coast, where another smug, confrontational mining magnate, Clive Palmer, has overseen a shambolic expansion club, constantly at war with the federation. Crowds hovered around 5,000 in Gold Coast United's first season, as Palmer frequently closed three sides of the ground to save money. The club has survived several near-death experiences, but with barely 3,000 showing up this year, football is losing the battle with other codes for one of the most hotly contested patches of turf in the country.

Crowds are down everywhere, most worryingly in Sydney, where the defending champions have won just one of their first 12 games watched by an average of 8,000, half what they were attracting two years ago. Brisbane have suffered a similar drop, while Melbourne Victory, now challenged by an ill-advised expansion club in the same city, have failed to sustain astonishing averages of 20,000-plus in the past four seasons.

A bizarre calendar has not helped. The league has finally admitted what seemed obvious to many, that it was futile to start its season just as the other codes reached their finale in September – that will change next year. But one team is idle each week because there are an odd number in the competition. Add international dates, uncertainty over venues and favoured days of the week, plus plain incomprehensible scheduling, and you can understand why some fans simply can't be bothered to keep up. Central Coast have no games at their Gosford stadium between October 2 and November 21, then three in 13 days.

The exciting news, some would say, is that David Beckham and LA Galaxy are coming for a friendly against Newcastle this month. But if a meaningless game involving a washed-up celebrity is still a big deal, that's a sure sign the domestic game hasn't grown up enough to stand on its own feet. Mike Ticher

Comments (11)
Comment by hullabaloo 2010-11-08 12:34:30

i lived in melbourne from 2006 to 2008, watched Melbourne Victory a quite a bit and followed the A-league closely. Particularly how it was dealing with 'traditional' competion of the two rugby codes and, of more relevance in Melbourne, AFL (Aussie Rules).

the new national football league had certainly got the other two national leagues (rugby league and AFL) worried enough for them to rush through new franchises in order to claim a supporters' base in specific areas. eg... AFL have a new team just about to start out on the Gold Coast, and will there'll be a West Sydney team within a couple of years. These are considered rugby league strongholds so it's a big step for the aussie rules guys to pitch up there.

Basically, for a few years now all three sports have realised there's not room for all of them away from their hotbeds. Melbourne has taken 10 years to adopt its rugby league team (the Storm), and even then it's not the no1 draw in town. That is without doubt the AFL, who have crowds from 25,000 to 70,000 for regular season games in Melbourne.

I was impressed by the way A-league had gone about setting itself up, and becoming part of the sporting psyche. As the article mentions - Melbourne Victory were regularly getting big crowds in years 2 and 3 (inc 50,000 to see them play Sydney) but it was telling that the season they're weren't in the running for the championship the crowd numbers dropped significantly.

Whilst the sporting mix in Australia varies from region to region, one thing is constant - the public are used to watching high level sport. And this is where the A-league has struggled I think - quality. Of the games I saw (perhaps about 10 in two years) I would say the overall standard was no higher than the Conference. Some teams playing well - eg Victory - could've perhaps just about held on in League One but that was the exception. This is backed up by the previous national manager (Verbeek) who would pick reserve players in Europe ahead of A-league players, saying they were training at a higher standard than the domestic players were playing at.

And the decision to put a second team in to Melbourne (Heart) is crazy. They're getting about 5,000 a game. In Australia's biggest footballing city. They really should have left Melbourne alone. To be fair, the FFA probably would have were it not for a wealthy wannabe franchise owner insisting on putting a second team in Melbourne.

Franchises, eh?

Comment by Melbourne Arab 2010-11-08 22:21:42

I don’t agree that the second Melbourne club was “ill advised” or “crazy” – it should have happened much earlier. It’s easy to be smart 6 years on but if Melbourne had started the A League with 2 clubs then we would have had 2 clubs with big crowds in the post world cup boom season of 06/07 and a rivalry that would now be strong and passionate.

Even with just 6,000 supporters, Melbourne Heart have been a more successful addition to the A League than the 2 disastrous new clubs in Queensland and their support is comparable to Central Coast and Newcastle. The atmosphere at the first Melbourne derby a few weeks ago was far better than at any Victory game against Sydney or Adelaide and generated a level of interest in the A League not seen since the extraordinary 06/07 grand final. Give Heart a chance to play finals and some more derbies and I reckon they will be one of the A League’s stronger clubs.

As for the AFL, 3 or 4 years ago they were genuinely concerned about the A League. Now, all that’s left for them to worry about is what happens on December 2. If Australia’s world cup bid doesn’t succeed, the AFL will not waste their time thinking about soccer for another
second. I must admit the fallout from a failed bid is a real concern.

Incidentally, the AFL’s expansion into the Gold Coast was not “rushed through” – it’s been on the cards long before the A League even started.

Comment by madmickyf 2010-11-09 00:50:53

I agree with the comments about the bizarre scheduling of matches, my own team Adelaide United played Newcastle twice in our first three home games yet we won't play Melbourne Victory at home until February. We also went 4 weeks between home games at one point. The season also needs to start later as the poor weather and AFL/NRL finals do effect the crowds.

I think the local media could do a lot more to help promote the league. I'm sick of the TV news showing us goal highlights from the EPL or Champions League whilst at the same time completely ignoring the A-League games. Unfortunately this has a lot to do with the Australian psyche, as the quality of the play is well below the level of the European leagues it is not deemed to be news worthy.

Comment by MinkaBeaver 2010-11-09 01:54:07

The first two seasons of the A-League (2005/06 and 2006/07) were marketed brilliantly and fed off the optimism generated by the 2006 World Cup (both pre and post tournament; Australia's first for 32 years).

Since then, the obsession with hosting the World Cup has led to the FFA taking their eye off the ball. Little seems to have been done to continue the publicity and marketing campaigns that underpinned those opening seasons, while vital money and human resources have been poured into a seemingly 'do-or-die' World Cup bid.

The A-League's original 'one team, one market' approach meant that for five seasons they were locked into playing only a quarter of the games in Sydney or Melbourne - by far and away the nation's two largest cities and the largest sources of commercial revenue. Only know are they expanding into these key bases, with the Melbourne Heart taking its first steps and West Sydney Rovers preparing to enter the competition next season. Hopefully a 12-team competition will remove many of the current fixturing inequalities.

The FFA has also allowed itself to be bent over the barrel by pay TV. Only a quarter of Australian households subscribe to cable/satellite TV, yet the the nation's governing body signed a $120 million (c£65 million) seven year deal in 2006 that means all A-League and Socceroo fixtures get broadcast live without any free-to-air coverage. While rumours suggest that the next deal will be much larger, it makes little difference to those who can't/won't access cable TV.

Then there are the 'soccer snobs'. This works two ways. Firstly, there are those whose obsession with top-tier European football means they won't lower themselves to watching the more prosaic domestic game. Secondly, there are the Craig Foster types who do the game no favours by being openly disparaging about not just other sports (notably the rugby codes and Aussie Rules), but soccer style and tactics. (Arguments over the usage of the word 'soccer' also opens another can of beans).

Finally, the players don't help their own cause. Several (I'm looking at you in particular, Kevin Muscat) have disparaged the Asian Champions' League. The obsession with physical, hard tackling games means that they blind themselves to the technical and fitness advances that some east Asian nations have undertaken in recent years. If games are going to be 'blood and thunder' affairs, then that's all very well - but they need to be played at pace and with power for 90 minutes. Too often games stop to a seeming standstill at the hour mark because of the awful fitness levels of supposedly professional athletes.

Australia is a large, sparsely populated nation with huge distances between the major population centres. It will always be expensive to run a national league, but currently we need greater resources to help the domestic game.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-11-09 17:23:55

As hullabuloo says, I think the main issue is quality. In Australia rugby league is the best in the world, snap for AFL. With South Africa the Rugby Union and Cricket teams have some of the best in the world. In the US they have the big four sports at which they are the best in the world. Soccer may assume it is the best sport in the world therefore it is simply a case of setting up a league. But as a regular viewer of A league football on Sky, I can see why people don't turn up in their droves. It is in some ways akin to League 2 complaining their attendances aren't as good as the Premiership's.

Comment by NiceOneCenturian 2010-11-10 04:31:41

I think that the problem, in part, is the understandable lack of a significant away support to help fuel the atmosphere. That and the endearingly piss-poor quality of the football on offer.

Comment by JimDavis 2010-11-10 16:36:23

Melbourne needed a second team as I refuse to support anything touched by the hand of Muscat.

Comment by madmickyf 2010-11-11 09:31:03

Have to agree with MinkaBeaver about the "blood and thunder" style of play used by many teams to make up for their lack of skill. Unfortunately the majority of refs are so hopeless that thugs like Muscat can get away with tackles that would be instant red cards in any European League. Matthew Leckie, the best young player in the country, was recently put of action for 10 weeks by a crude kick to the knee which didn't even result in a yellow card for the perpetrator. It's no wonder the league's best talent can't get on a plane to fast enough when the alternative is being kicked black and blue by their fellow professionals.

Comment by Melbourne Arab 2010-11-13 09:43:54

The tackle on Leckie by Sukha was mistimed - nothing worse. The hysterical media overreaction was pathetic especially as there was a worse challenge in that game by Reid on Kruse and, indeed, a pretty "crude" one by Leckie himself.

Comment by FCKarl 2010-11-14 05:39:19

Isn't a big part of the attendances problem the round-the-clock access via TV, satelite, cable, and now the Internet to Premiership, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, and German Bundesliga matches?

I mean, if Man United are playing Chelsea, AC Milan vs. Inter in a derby, Arsenal is playing Tottenham Spurs or Real Madrid is hosting FC Barcelona, aren't a lot of blokes going to be spending that time on the sofa with a remote control in hand?

(yes, one must factor in the time zone differences. But with Internet replays and DVD recordings....and, and, and)

It seems now that this will be the case in so many "smaller leagues" around the world. Why go watch something that most rate as 3d rate when you can see 8 - 12 of the world's best players on your 52" home movie screen with surround-sound, right?

Just asking. Please reply.

Comment by IronLung 2010-11-14 05:53:43

Living on the west coast of the USA, through expanded cable I get English, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Argentinian, Brazilian, Colombian, US and Mexican football live all week. Yet the weekly Hyundai A-League game that airs close to 11pm on Saturday is the one I enjoy the most. The standard isn't great, nor is the atmosphere in empty stadiums, but it isn't a predictable, boring procession, with players obsessed with money, cheating and so on. I hope for their sake they figure out how to make it work.
I don't want to watch Cristiano. I don't want to watch Messi, or Rooney, or Chelsea and Bolton. I want a good, open game between two level teams. I'd pay to watch the Ryman Premier League if that was an option. I'm sick of the hype. Best league in the world, indeed.

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