Once again the long winter hiatus of the A-league is here but while the action on the field may be on hold there is still plenty happening off it. None of these off-season shenanigans, moves and controversies will be discussed here though. Instead, seeing as though the most recent edition of Australia’s premier football competition was the tenth one, it seems an opportune time to look back at this fascinating decade in Australian football.
There is much one can look back on when addressing the state of the game or in this case a competition but in order to keep this as brief as possible I’ll take a look at a topic that seems an obsession amongst fans, crowds. I’ll take a look at not only the figures but also the context of how they have been achieved and what they mean for the game.
Crowd figures are looked at with as much if not more interest than shots on goal, passing accuracy – and the beacon of modern football – possession. The number of people passing through the turnstile is seen as the physical and visual manifestation of the health and popularity of the game, rightly or wrongly.
The A-league can be quite proud of the attendances which with all things considered stack up quite well in a global context. Over the last ten years the average attendance sits at 12,320 with a peak of 15,348 in 2007/08 as can be seen in the graph below. The total number of fans who have attended the A-league regular season games currently stands at 14,873,886.
The now defunct National Soccer League in its final season in 2003/04 averaged 3909. Considering there was almost no media coverage – and even less positive media coverage – and the final season was more like a death march for the condemened this is not an entirely bad turnout. It must be noted that it was current A-league teams Adelaide United and Perth Glory that helped boost this figure, much like Melbourne Victory does today.
The A-league hit the scene with much fanfare and a football-starved public were ready to get their fill as evidenced by the steady growth in the first four years in particular. It’s amazing the difference that the media can make when they champion the game and the FFA’s greatest achievement has been to position the league to be of a commercial interest to many of the powerbrokers of sports coverage.
However, as far as growth is concerned the crowds have largely stagnated. This is not at all a terrible situation and is manageable in the right circumstances. An average of twelve thousand is respectable and can be worked with. The danger we face though is complacency which can come with success. Have we taken our eyes off the ball?
The first five seasons saw an average of 12,881 which is below last season’s average but above the overall average. The last five seasons averaged 11,759 which is 1122 fans below the first five years. The last three seasons have been greatly helped by there being no teams such as New Zealand Knights, Gold Coast United, and North Queensland Fury – all of who averaged well below 5,000 crowds by their demise – to bring the figures down; of course the success of Western Sydney has helped to boost figures.
A smart strategy by the FFA at the beginning of the A-League saw them limit one team to one city meaning teams like Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC had a fantastic opportunity to build their fan bases without any local competition. The NSL was hurt by diversity and it in turn hurt the attendance figures.
The final season of the NSL had five Sydney teams (Marconi, Sydney Olympic, Sydney United, Parramatta Power, and Northern Spirit) plus Wollongong Wolves and Newcastle United in regional New South Wales. The five Sydney teams combined brought just over 12,000 people to the game where Sydney FC pre-Wanderers averaged just over 14,000.
The National Soccer League sides were hurt by rivalry and not just of teams in the competition at the time but also by teams that were in the competition, a total of forty one Australian clubs took part in the national league from the inaugural 1977 season to the final season in 2003/04. For example, when West Adelaide left the national competition after the 1998/99 season I daresay that very few Hellas fans jumped ship and began supporting bitter rivals, Adelaide City. Same could be said for any number of similar cases in Melbourne and Sydney. The A-league was able to provide neutrality for rival supporters by creating teams that were unburdened by history.
As a quick side note and in danger of getting sidetracked, ethnicity is what some people would like to claim was what kept people away but the fact is it was rivalry. Pure and simple. If Essendon were to have gotten banned from the Australian Football League we could safely assume very few if any fans would start supporting Carlton, Collingwood, or Richmond. A survey conducted for the Professional Footballer’s Association in 2002 among football fans found that only 18% found ethnicity to be a major problem with the NSL. Ok now back to the topic.
The FFA’s strategy has therefore been a success for the new franchises in particular Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC, and Brisbane Roar to establish themselves with a clean slate as the sole premier football team of that city. It was key for the image of football though to have “big” crowds from the get-go and more teams as the NSL showed meant the numbers were spread thinner.
Melbourne City who were admitted into the league five seasons after the Victory had established themselves have struggled to find their place due to this initial policy. Perhaps if the two teams were introduced at the same time we’d have an even bigger rivalry and both teams would be more even in terms of support? As it stands the derby matches still go a long way to help boosting City’s average attendance. Every year their biggest match is against the blue half of Melbourne averaging around 26,000 per home derby which is over 16,000 more than their seasonal average. City are not alone here with the whole league benefitting by Victory’s consistent and strong numbers as can be seen above.
The FFA learnt from their City experience when they introduced the Western Sydney Wanderers. In what is arguably the harder sports market to crack it was important for there to be a clear point of difference between Sydney FC and a city rival other than “we’re not those guys.” The numbers in the first three seasons of the Wanderers show it has so far been a succesful introduction.
Despite this reliance on Victory to boost the league’s crowd figures it is still a positive that almost all the current A-League teams have at some stage averaged over 10,000, the exception being Perth Glory. Glory in the NSL days often attracted 10,000 plus crowds and that itself would offer hope that out west a return to those figures is possible under the right circumstances.
Another positive is that crowd averages from season one (11,628) to season ten (13045) have grown by 1420 which indicates a growth rate of 12 per cent, or 1.2 percent per season. In 20 years if the current growth rate continues then we would be pushing a 16,000 average which is far more than most football leagues around the world.
A small dip in 2014/15 attendances on last season could be explained by the performance of Western Sydney and the uncertainty and upheaval around teams like Central Coast Mariners, Brisbane Roar and Newcastle Jets. Increases in Victory and Adelaide United crowds in particular helped off set these drops.
Given the way revenue is distributed in a single entity franchise system, as well as the high stadia costs, crowds do take on added significance in the A-league. Season ticket sales and game day attendance are important individual revenue streams for the clubs with TV money and merchandise being shared revenue dictated by the league.
It is a simple equation, more people through the gate equals more money. Finding the right formula to achieve this is a challenge that has been faced by Australian clubs since the first national league kicked off in 1977. We are getting closer to cracking it with the increase in media coverage and exposure as mentioned before being crucial but by no means are we there yet.
Crowd numbers are not the problem with football and continue to be a bright spot for the league as a whole. The question that needs to be answered is why with a league average over the last 10 years of 12,320 are so many teams losing money and struggling for existence?
A-league teams overspending and living beyond their means was cited by a government report in 2013. The Jets average crowds since the start of the league as with Central Coast should have and would have them comfortably in the black if everything else was in order and proportionate. But this is definitely a topic of discussion for another day.
*A-League attendances were regular season only and taken from ultimatealeague.com
*NSL attendances were regular season only and taken from ozfootball.net