Quality is up but falling crowds leave A-League relying on national team

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With football improving at all levels the FFA need a strong Australia showing at the World Cup to boost interest – just like the Matildas have done for the W-League

5 April ~ Last Thursday night in Perth, Sydney FC created history in Australian football. By defeating Perth Glory 3-2, the Sky Blues became the first team since the inception of the A-League in 2005 to win back-to-back regular season titles. Should they triumph in the end-of-season finals play-offs, they will become the only team to win both the Premier’s Plate and the Grand Final in consecutive seasons.

With the domestic FFA Cup already in the trophy cabinet, Sydney can justifiably claim to be the most successful Australian team of the modern era. But having an all-conquering side playing attractive football has not translated into off-the-field growth. Attendances at Moore Park are significantly down on the previous season, with even a recent derby against Western Sydney Wanderers attracting the lowest crowd since the Wanderers were created in 2012.

This isn’t just a problem for the reigning champions. With the exception of this season’s surprise package, the resurgent Newcastle Jets, and Adelaide United, crowd averages are down across the entire competition. TV viewing figures are following a similar trend, especially for free-to-air matches. It’s a paradox that both A-League clubs and the FFA, Australia’s governing body, need to resolve. Quality on the pitch has improved as the league has grown more professional and, at grassroots level, football is the most-played sport across the whole country but this has failed to translate into an increase in spectators.

The FFA can point to challenging external conditions this season. In a country where rugby and Aussie Rules dominate, football struggles for media attention. This season, the A-League has also had to compete for fans and viewers with the Rugby League World Cup and the Ashes, as well as a strong AFL season and a Winter Olympics in the same time zone. Yet scheduling has also paid a part. None of Sydney’s home games have kicked off earlier than 6pm, with the aforementioned derby taking place on an unfriendly Sunday night slot.

In this context, both authorities and clubs will be hoping for a strong 12 months from the national team, who play in their fourth consecutive World Cup this summer before attempting to retain the Asian Cup six months later, as domestic attendances have traditionally tended to rise when Australia perform well on the international stage.

This has already be borne out by the women’s game this season, where the W-League has attracted record attendances. On an international level, the Matildas have sold out matches across the country, boast a world-class player in Sam Kerr and are considered genuine contenders for next year’s World Cup. In contrast, little is expected of the Socceroos in Russia but if Bert van Marwijk’s team can secure a respectable showing or better in a group consisting of France, Denmark and Peru, expect some of the loudest cheers to be heard in the boardrooms of A-League clubs across the country. Gary Andrews