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