Image for W(h)ither soccer’s A-League

Now that the two major competitions which most Australians regard as “football” have concluded, with full-time sirens at the NRL Grand Final and the AFL Grand Final replay this first October weekend, we will all be turning our attention to “Football, but not as we know it”, won’t we?

Not bloody likely, as Miss E Doolittle famously reckoned.

The Gold Coast’s purpose-built rectangular stadium at Robina has 27,400 seats, of which 24,457 were empty for this weekend’s Wellington v Gold Coast A-League match, with the GC team’s average Home crowd being 3,537; last month it was even emptier, with only 2037 turning up. The A-League’s Brisbane franchise, Brisbane Roar, averages 8,253 in the 52,500 Lang Park^; Sydney FC draws an average of 9,937 to the 45,500 Sydney Football Stadium^.

The A-League’s Home & Away crowd average, which peaked at 14,610 in its third 2007/08 season, is now down to 8,497. Latest H&A averages for AFL & NRL are 36,907 & 16,406+ respectively -  do the math.

What’s more, the A-League, and its governing body, Football Federation Australia, entered the Australian sports market with some advantages which other sports bodies would have rather liked, such as a very nice $54,000,000 from the Australian taxpayer per the Federal government, celeb endorsement from various actors, media ‘identities’ & the Sydney A-List, and a highly favourable media attitude, especially from Fairfax’s Sydney broadsheet, epitomised by its decision to let soccer appropriate the word ‘football’ for itself, a cultural cringe not widely followed by other outlets.

So, what’s gone wrong?

Soccer’s Sydney mogul F Lowy seemed to have made five assumptions in setting up his A-League:

~ (i) the General Motors one - what’s good for him is good for the sport;

~ (ii) the P J Keating one - what works in Sydney, will work nationwide*;

~ (iii) the Henry Ford one - history is bunk: disregard old soccer’s NSL, and all its uncool ethnics (Yes, Victoria, some ethnics really do lack ‘cool’ in our wide, multi-hued land);

~ (iv) the ‘Field of Dreams’ one - re-brand soccer as ‘football’ and they will come;

~ (v) the Jesuit one -  give me the boy, and we will have the man.

Wrong on every count, with (iii) and (iv) particularly so.

The A-League seems, as far as this unbeliever can tell, to have deliberately set out to alienate its predecessor the National Soccer League, to cut all ties with the sport’s grassroots, to diss (if only by ignoring) the game’s history in Australia, to indulge in a form of ethnic nomenclature cleansing, to tell ‘old soccer’s’ NSL to eff off, you’re just soooo last century, and, of course, so uncool -  what would actor LaPaglia think?.

The A-League famously began with one of the best PR slogans so far this century, the “It’s football, but not as you know it” one, aiming to forge a link to the millions of our sports fans for whom Australian Football, or Rugby League, or Rugby Union, is ‘football’ and ‘footy’.

But what do most of these millions think of when asked ‘Watch the football last night?’ or mean when talking of ‘Going to the footy tomorrow’: N of the Murray and E of the Darling, it’s the NRL, and in some spots the ARU’s Super 14; everywhere else, it’s the AFL. Almost nobody would reply, ‘Oh, we’re off to [name soccer venue] for [name home team] v [name away team]’.

“It’s football, but not as you know it” was inspired talk, but, like much rhetoric -  just ask Obama -  was not followed by a lot of walk, as in tens of thousands of eggball fans walking across the road to attend A-League matches.

As for (v), when soccer boy becomes a man, in St Paul’s words in his rightly famous ch 13 of his First Corinthians, he “gives away childish things”  -  such as taking an adult interest in an A-League franchise. Yes, thousands of young kids play park soccer every Saturday morning, but neither they, nor their parents, fill the stands in the afternoons or evenings at A-League matches (and, yes, the seasons are different). But lots of them will be watching Collingwood v Carlton, or Parramatta v Canterbury-Bankstown.

Recent media opinion seems to have seen through the ‘new football’ hype:

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/fast-and-furious-a-league-apart-20101003-162kf.html?comments=171#comments

http://sportal.com.au/football-opinion-display/a-league-on-the-path-to-extinction-98575

http://sportal.com.au/football-news-display/lowy-revolution-losing-its-lustre-98940

Statistics mainly from –

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyundai_A-League#Crowds

which can be supplemented by –

http://www.a-league.com.au/default.aspx?s=aleague_fixtures .

^ this writer resolutely refuses to use the transient corporate brand names for our sports venues (and wonders why so many of our journos don’t do the same).

+ AFL and NRL statistics available at - http://stats.rleague.com/ .

* remember his jibe about “you’re only just camping out”?