The Illusion of the Cup

The second installment of the FFA Cup was concluded this past weekend as Melbourne Victory got their season off to a great start by picking up their first bit of silverware for 2015/16 by defeating Perth Glory – fast becoming Australian football’s version of the Buffalo Bills – two nil at AAMI Park. Kicking off on February 14 in Victoria, around 635 teams took part in the national cup competition which has provided a long-overdue platform to reconnect the general public with grassroots football.

It’s a tangible start to healing old wounds and reuniting a fractured football family. In the past we have seen ‘old soccer v new football’ used by those in the game to create a distance between the present and the past but now football’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys are being brought back to the table to drink from the same cup. This is a utopian glimpse into the future of a united game.

If ‘feel good’ and goodwill could be measured in metrics then the numbers would be off the chart. However, this is football Australian-style and nothing is that easy. As in all other areas of the game, the Cup has not been immune to the infection of commercialisation. No doubt, as we saw with Heidelberg and Hume City, commercial opportunities can be great for the clubs outside the Aleague to raise much needed revenue the further they progress in the cup and if that can help longer term investment then you have to say cash in those chips. What we saw happen in the lead up to the 2015 final with ticket prices must make us take pause and examine if this really is in the spirit of the cup?

The inaugural final was held at Coopers Stadium in Adelaide when Adelaide met Perth Glory. Category A tickets in this historic clash for the general public were a very reasonable $40 (adult) and $101 (family) but fast forward one year later to AAMI Park and the Melbourne and Perth faithful were asked to pay up to double that for category A. Poor ticket sales saw the FFA drop their prices but it was too little, too late. Only a disappointing 15,098 fans turned up to the main event on Saturday night. This figure is 12,000 less than Victory’s average home attendance last year and almost 17,000 less than the current average this season. No matter what excuses are made be it weather or competing events, that is not an acceptable turnout.

This is a new competition and one that is still growing as it strives establish itself in the hearts and minds of the sporting public. When trying to launch a new venture you need to promote it and try and create excitement for it. One way is to create the atmosphere that makes anyone watching at home or hearing about it think they’d like to experience that. The FFA should’ve thought how to fill the stadium rather than their own coffers. Jacking the price up by so much was never going to go down well with a savvy Melbourne public who have experience with big events being in a saturated sporting market.

Another contentious issue surrounding the final was the choice of venue. It was chosen purely on where the FFA decided they’d get the larger crowd and therefore make the most money or as the FFA spun it, “the venue for the Westfield FFA Cup final will be selected with the key objective of allowing as many Australian sports fans as possible to attend the final or watch the match on Fox Sports.” If allowing ‘as many Australian sports fans as possible to attend the final’ was a key objective, you have to wonder why not offer much more affordable ticket prices?

Not having our own version of Wembley always creates a problem for selecting a venue for our showcase events. If metrics and commercial interests are to be the deciding factors then Sydney and Melbourne will always win out in these situations. Perhaps the revenue for these main events need to be taken away from the FFA and redistributed to the participants in the finals? Or just to the winner as prizemoney? By removing the governing body’s financial interest in the fixture they would be more likely to focus on fairness and sporting integrity.

The FFA Cup is meant to be a reconnection to the grassroots. A way to welcome back – in some cases introduce – the clubs who have given so much to our game over many decades to the national stage. We have enough corporatisation of sport at the elite level that this competiton should serve as a bastion of all that we love about sport such as competition, inclusion, romance, and the unknown.

One can see the hashtag #MagicoftheCup strewn all over social media every round of the FFA Cup. Magic is something which inspires wonderment, mystery and excitement. Magic is something that can not be explained nor predicted but when you remove these elements than magic just becomes illusion. Illusion can still be impressive and entertaining but it doesn’t leave the audience with that sense of awe that magic does. To truly create a magical experience we need to remove the contrived elements of it.

Ways to improve the FFA Cup

  • Scrap the seeding – currently the draw is contrived to ensure an NPL/state team makes it to the semis by having a seeding system. Although the intentions may be good, it does take away a lot of the magic.
  • Introduce Aleague teams earlier – this would allow for more ‘magical’ moments, exciting matchups, and shine a bigger spotlight on more clubs.
  • Venues should be drawn fairly from a pot – this will effectively kill off any dissatisfaction well at least the ability to direct the dissatisfaction at anyone other than fate.
  • Clubs in control of where they play their home fixtures – if a club wins the right to host a game they should be allowed to play it wherever they choose. Lux seems to be the main issue here (see below).
  • Uniformed squad rules – it doesn’t seem fair that the Aleague teams can have five imports on top of their squad that is worth at least 2.5 million while the NPL squads are hampered by the Player Points System that restricts visa signings to two.
  • FFA Cup weekends including an Aleague break for the final – this would allow more people especially families to attend the later stages and cut out the issues of lux.
  • Metrics need to be subbed out for sporting integrity – decisions for the Cup need to be based on fairness and sporting issues. When other interests take over much of the romanticism is lost a long with the connection people have to the competition.

Overall, the Cup has been a welcome inclusion to the football calendar. It has seen the type of interest and excitement that we have missed with the sport being reduced to it’s most purest form. Time and a concerted effort by all to stay true to the values that we say the cup stands for and we will see the real magic of the Cup.

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