Making A-League special again

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SOCCER is dying a slow death in Australia with memberships at an all-time low, falling spectators and general apathy from the Australian public.

Its governing body is out of touch with what Australians want from a sport in 2018.

Player antics.. faking injury, staging for frees, unacceptable behaviour where the players are seen as primadonna’s not role models.

It allows supporter behaviour that is deemed unacceptable by every other sporting code.

The pack mentality, misogyny and anti-social behaviour keeps families away from the game.

It will never be a popular sport while there are supporters like we see in Australia.

It’s clear they are trying to mirror European soccer where the sport has little competition.  European soccer competitions are embedded in society, huge populations located a short distance from one another.

Small stadiums are full and oversubscribed.

Making A-League special again

Michael Lynch – The Age’s expert on soccer, ranked the best journalist of A League soccer in Australia.

It’s hard to think of a year in Australian soccer that more deserves the title ‘‘ annus horribilis’’ .

Falling crowds, tanking TV ratings, the distasteful shemozzle around the departure of Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou and the near disaster for the Socceroos in World Cup qualifying have all been major issues that, individually, would have been a poor look for the game.

Collectively, they have combined to create the image of a sport stumbling from one problem to another, tarnishing the A-League brand and stunting its growth.

And that’s before we even get on to consider the damaging effects of the struggle going on over control of the FFA , with the impasse between embattled chairman Steven Lowy and his biggest critics, the A-League clubs, looking impossible to resolve.

With just 10 teams and so many of the same old faces being recycled from club to club, both on the pitch and in some cases in the coaches’ technical area, the A-League is widely considered boring, with too few teams and not enough variation.

There has been little or no marketing or promotion for the competition as the management at the FFA, either because they have little spare cash (true) or because they are fixated on the political struggle (also true), have not been able to donate time or resources to selling the sport to a wider public.

The stoush between Lowy and his critics has even achieved what would hitherto have looked impossible, and cast FIFA – in the past a byword for sleaze and corruption – in the role of honest broker as they attempt to find a solution to end the civil war which has hamstrung the game for six months.

The fall-off in attendances is a worry, as are the dwindling TV ratings. Without Fox Sports money there would not be an A-League – or at least, there would not be a professional game in the way we have come to see it in the past 12 years.

The switch to free-to-air partner Ten has been a failure so far, with viewing figures dipping below those on SBS Two, which was dumped because its numbers were determined to be less than acceptable.

The fact that Fox’s numbers have fallen away should have alarm bells ringing loudly at FFA headquarters. If even the most committed A-League fans who subscribe to the pay network can’t be bothered to watch, there must be something wrong.

The FFA hierarchy needs to stop putting its energies into the political fight and controversial distractions like the much-ridiculed Video Assistant Referee trial, and concentrate on its core activity – growing and selling the game.

Lowy and his colleagues bang on a lot about protecting and nurturing the grassroots. Well, he should get out a bit more, spend some cash and really put some marketing muscle into engaging those hundreds of thousands of grassroots supporters, kids and new-to-the-game families to persuade them to attend A-League matches.

Frank Lowy always placed huge store in the Socceroos as the ‘‘ rainmakers’ for the sport in this country, the one team that engaged national attention, drove commercial growth and made soccer mainstream. His son often gives a similar impression.

But like it or lump it that’s no longer the case. Familiarity to some extent has bred contempt. Now that Australia is playing in the Asian region against nations that have almost zero box-office appeal, Socceroos games come thick and fast.

That’s good for the coaching staff and players, but not so easy to sell, certainly not as simple as it was in the days when there was one bigbang match every couple of years upon which the fate of the nation hung.

Simply put, Socceroos games are not that special any more, save for marquee occasions like the World Cup or the Asian Cup.

No, it’s the A-League that is the commercial driver of the sport now, and if soccer is to rebuild its numbers and survive and prosper into the future it will be upon the shoulders of the A-League .

Expansion is a must, and the sooner the better. Yes, it’s smart to run endless due diligence investigations on candidates. No one wants to sanction new franchises built on hope, dreams and creative accounting.

But if the current assessment process drags on too much longer and there is little uplift on the key metrics any potential investors, looking at the game’s prognosis, might decide to put their money elsewhere. For me, fan engagement and the creation of a real football culture is the way that the sport can reboot itself.

So much energy was put into demonising ‘‘ old soccer’ ’ and creating ‘‘ new football’ ’ when the A-League launched in 2004-05 .

That worked to an extent in certain markets – particularly in the case of Melbourne Victory – but it’s not working that well now.

The time is ripe to reconnect with supporters who have been alienated from the sport.

How it could do with those fans from the traditional clubs who were cold shouldered at the A-League’s inception, or those active fans who did so much to create the atmosphere that made the A-League special in the first place but have now been driven away by excessive regulation.

The move over the past few years to sanitise the match-day experience has not worked.

The push to make grounds into giant adult day-care centres, with restrictions everywhere on what banners (if any) fans can bring, rules preventing them playing instruments or just behaving in a lively manner, has been counterproductive .

The game’s rulers have been spooked too much by tabloid newspaper headlines and fears of what might occur rather than what has occurred.

How much better would the whole match-day experience be if clubs worked to fully harness the power of their most passionate fan base rather than see them as the enemy within.

The FFA has bent over backwards in the past decade to appeal to ‘‘ newbies’’ , AFL fans, NRL supporters and those who never cared about soccer.

It was worth a try, but it’s not going to deliver the long-term growth that they hoped for.

It’s time to make stadia loud again, make them joyous, raucous centres of fan engagement: that’s what made going to an A-League game so different and made all those newbies want to come along in the first place. It might be the way to get them back.

Expansion is a must, and the sooner the better.

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