12 September ~ Australia's A-League is now into its sixth season but cracks are starting to appear in the competition's slick marketing façade. While the league continues to expand, with Melbourne Heart joining last year's newcomers North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast Utd for 2010-11, financial worries and dropping crowd numbers are raising concerns. Newcastle Utd Jets, one of the founding clubs and champions in 2008, are the latest team to ask for a financial bail-out from the national governing body Football Federation Australia (FFA).

It was revealed just three matches into the season that the club had missed payments to players and staff, including former Leeds and Sunderland striker Michael Bridges, with owner Con Constantine saying he no longer had the funds to pay wages or travel expenses. 

Sadly the news is nothing out of the ordinary for Australian fans with several other clubs also needing FFA support to avoid going under. Townsville-based Fury, who signed Robbie Fowler for their debut campaign in 2009, lost most of their playing staff at the end of the year when then-owner Don Matheson had to pull out of his backing of the club.

Their Queensland rivals Brisbane Roar have also had to go cap-in-hand to the FFA when they hit financial woes, while Adelaide United, who have been the league's most successful representatives in the Asian Champions League, are currently being run by the FFA after their former owner, Adelaide millionaire Nick Bianco, handed his licence back to the governing body.

This year's new arrivals, the Heart, have at least made a solid start to their existence but will face a battle to establish themselves in a market where another A-League club – the Melbourne Victory – have had five years to make their mark. The Victory are the league's success story, having won two of the five championships and with average attendances over 20,000 for the past four years – a figure no other club comes near to. But some commentators have queried whether adding a second team in Melbourne not only runs the risk of giving the newcomers a struggle to gain a foothold, but could also undermine the Victory's position in the city's sporting landscape.

Not one club in the league turns a profit and aggregate losses are estimated to be about A$25 million (£15m) per season. Gold Coast Utd owner, billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, has even taken the extraordinary step of limiting crowds at the club's home ground to 5,000 – a decision which enables him to lower the running costs by closing three of the four stands. While the move may seem to be good fiscal practice for Palmer it hasn't endeared him to the Gold Coast's potential fanbase, with many viewing the club more as a billionaire's plaything than a community asset, and TV coverage of empty stands with little atmosphere is hardly a great advertisement for the game.

Nonetheless the FFA is pushing on undaunted, with plans to add a 12th team next season in Sydney's western suburbs, despite the fact Sydney FC's average attendances have dropped from 16,669 in the inaugural campaign to a mere 12,987 last season – a miniscule return in the country's most populated city. The expansion push comes at a time when the Australian sporting market is getting increasingly crowded with a new Super rugby franchise to begin playing in Melbourne next year and two new clubs – on the Gold Coast and in western Sydney – to join the AFL aussie rules competition by the end of 2012.

FFA's predecessor, Soccer Australia (SA), saw the National Soccer League fold in 2004 after a period of unsustainable expansion. This not only brought financial pressure on clubs, but lowered the standard of the competition by stretching a limited player pool too far. Australia's emergence on the international scene, through the switch to the Asian Confederation and appearances at the last two World Cups, has made the FFA a more wealthy organisation than SA ever was. But questions still remain about whether there's enough quality footballers available to support a 12-team competition. While the dark days of the last few years of the NSL seem unlikely to be repeated, there's no doubt the honeymoon period is definitely over for the A-League. Ed Jackson

Comments (7)
Comment by Gratius Falsius 2010-09-13 02:27:48

However, the playing standard and entertainment value of the games seems for the most part to be of a higher standard than any previous version.

All games are presented on Fox cable and it is possible to see all games spread over three weekend match days without leaving the comfort of your lounge room.

This is important particularly in regard to Sydney's attendances. I live in Sydney but the thought of traveling for hours by public transport or battling though inner-city traffic and fighting for a very expensive parking place is not inviting.

Add that to the fact that they play their home games at the now aging SFS which is a dismal venue where the drinks and food are overpriced and the design by the loon Philip Cox ensures that patrons will get wet whenever there is any precipitation you have a situation where crowds have to have a very special reason to go there.

SFC are locked into playing at SFS which was a huge mistake. This means that few if any matches will be played where the football fans actually live in western Sydney. When they did play a game out west in Parramatta they got 10k to a AFC game on a wet Tuesday night against an Indonesian side no one had ever heard of and with no promotion and the game was live to air on cable.

So in my case I go to Central Coast Mariners games, where I can get there in about an hour, get free easy parking, have a very good all you can eat fixed price buffet at the Leagues Club and walk across the road to Bluetongue and for a night match be home safely at 10:30 pm.

Comment by NiceOneCenturian 2010-09-13 04:39:46

Another plus for the Mariners is that they sell full strength beer at the ground, as opposed to the "mid" strength stuff on offer as most grounds.

The odious Clive Palmer is right to cap the Gold Coast crowd though, last season they wouldn't have averaged over five thousand without the six thousand Roar fans who turned up on Boxing Day, and this season their home crowds have been pathetic. Even without the cap, their was plenty of scope for showing "empty stands with little atmosphere"

Comment by madmickyf 2010-09-13 05:41:03

I reckon the A-League stuffed up by starting off too small and then trying to expand too quickly, they should have begun with a ten team competition with 2 teams in both Sydney & Melbourne. The local rivalry would have boosted crowds and would have avoided the problem the Heart have of trying to build support in a city which already has a big, successful team.

Comment by Sean M 2010-09-14 03:43:43

I attended the recent Sydney v Adelaide game. Sydney were poor, professional footballers who cant control a ball is just not good enough. The crowd, although small, 7558, are usually pretty vocal, although i felt sorry for the approx 12 Adelaide supporters at the away end, though they did go home smiling in the end after a deserved 3-0 win.

Yes the beer is overpriced, especially for mid-strength rubbish, and the food is woeful, but it's the same at every sporting event in Sydney. They think we're all rich. Sydney missed a trick by not getting Fowler in when he left Fury. I'd have bought a season ticket, as would many of my mates.

Comment by Jimafc 2010-09-14 11:33:08

But Sean, don't you think that your and your mates' attitude is one of the problems that the A League faces? The quality of the play isn't great but it's as good as, or better than that watched by 90% of football fans around the world.

Being an Arsenal season ticket holder who only moved over to Australia in 2003, I'm actually one of the lucky few who has previously been used to watching football at the highest level but, as a football (and now Sydney FC) fan I wouldn't dream of not going to football over here just because the quality isn't as good as I'm "used to". Plus, one thing's for sure - it certainly ain't going to get any better if people don't support it and help bring in the higher income that can sustain higher wages.

Also, surely you must acknowledge that Nicky Carle (a great player at/about A League level ) makes Sydney a far more attractive team than a faded Robbie Fowler...

I apologise if I appear to be having a go - I appreciate that everyone's got their own views, priorities etc. but I do really think that, if you're a real football fan, you find it impossible to live without seeing live football and supporting a team on a regular basis.

As for the article - yep, pretty much sums up the current problems. I think, in particular that if Newcastle (one of the few teams who were established before the A-League itself) go under, it'll be a disaster.



Comment by geoff 2010-09-15 10:14:22

90 minutes of an A-League live on TV is not good.Show game highlights would be better. If you go and watch the game live you enjoy it better.
I went to a game in NZ and it was shocking skill levels. But by half time I enjoyed the game.
Don't go by what you see on TV. Thats only half the game.

Comment by Jimafc 2010-09-15 13:19:48

That's the spirit Geoff! And that's what more people down here need to know. Spread the word!



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