The Final Football Affrontier

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Football is on the rise in both the United States and Australia and while this might make many in the mainstream nervous, resistance is futile. It would be easy to think football is a new sporting phenomenon in both countries but this would be incorrect and I daresay a “deliberately” false assertion. It has served both the traditional mainstream sports, the current football powerbrokers, and certain media to push this belief from time to time. Although motives might vary groups can and have benefitted from whitewashing the rich history of football that has existed in these countries for over a century.

In many respects the environments for football in the US and Australia have a lot of parallels; from competition from bigger and richer sporting codes, fighting for respect from mainstream media who historically have had little to no interest in the game apart from the occasional bashing of it, trying to sway a distrusting and insular general public to give the “foreign” game a go, and of course what to do about that pesky national league situation.

The need for a well-run and viable national league is an important facet in growing the sport. However both countries have largely ignored the traditional methods for running football leagues as seen around the globe and have looked more towards the other sporting codes within their own borders. Full disclosure time, I am fundamentally opposed to a franchised closed league model for a sport which is truly too big for such inhibitive, protectionistic measures however that is for another time.

Respected Melbourne-based football writer, David Davutovic wrote a piece last month titled “What the Aleague can learn from MLS” and while it mostly focused on the marquees and stadiums it got me thinking of the overall picture. Learning comes in many forms and for this fact it is possible the Australian league could learn from the MLS. I generally think it is one of the last football leagues in the world we should look at but nevertheless one can’t deny it has gotten some things right. US football has it spot on in regards to having a separation between the league and the national body, and understanding the need for having better stadium deals that work for the teams. The A-League – thanks to a Napolean complex – has been more concerned with the glamour and image of playing in the same venues as the big boys of AFL and NRL than in more suitable and cost effective suburban grounds.

One of the other albatrosses around the sport’s neck in Australia is that the FFA, in trying to prop up the national league, are derelict in their duty to the rest of the sport. The Whole of Football Plan is a theoretical funnel aimed at directing as many football participants and resources towards the A-League. An independent A-League commission would more than satisfactorily protect the league’s interests while allowing the FFA to focus more on the foundations. So in this and the stadium regard, US football deserves some plaudits.

Again though this is straying from the point which is how the two leagues stack up in comparison. It is easy to get swept up in big numbers and names and really that is the point of such figures, to switch the fapometer on and brain off. We often confuse football’s popularity in the US with the national league’s popularity. As we can see below, the ratings for the US game against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup stacked up rather well against games in the NBA and NHL finals.

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This is no different to when Australia play, with World Cup games often matching and surpassing that of other big sporting events in the country. If the game is on at a reasonable time, Australians don’t even need Australia to be participating as shown by the 2002 World Cup Final being the most watched sporting event in Australia that year. Australia’s ill-fated 2001 qualifier against Uruguay drew 2.8 million viewers which would’ve put it third in the below group. So it is obvious that any belief that no one cares about football in the US or Australia are misguided.

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It is the league’s not football which will be the focus here. TV ratings, attendances, online interest and on-field performance will be used to compare the two competitions to see which one is performing the best. In the first part of the comparison we will look at crowds.

Attendences

The first MLS game kicked off on April 6, 1996, between the San Jose Clash and D.C. United in front of 31,000 fans. The A-League kicked off on August 25, 2005 in Newcastle in front of a crowd of 13,160 as the Newcastle Jets took on Adelaide United.  Neither match ups were classics nor in huge markets but they were positive starts to the two new leagues and a sign of things to come.

Attendences are generally a popular way for people to judge how well a competition or a team is traveling within a market. As opposed to Tv ratings and online statistics, attendance figures are a much more visual and accessible measure for us. The MLS started with 10 teams and had a crowd average of 17,406 in their first season whereas the A-League started with 8 teams and an average of 11,628. Promising starts for both competitions and a good platform to build on. Skip to the most recent completed seasons and the MLS crowds in 2015 have increased by 24% on year one (21,574) and the 2014/15 A-League crowds have grown by over 12% (13,048) on the inaugural season.

Both leagues have suffered downturns in the middle periods of their existence. In 2005 – 10 seasons in – MLS attendances had dropped by 13%. After 6 seasons, the A-league had expanded to 11 teams but this led to a dramatic and worrying drop in attendences which saw the league hit its lowest average to date at 8,429 in 2010/11. A reason for this was that two of the new expansion sides, Gold Coast United (3400) and North Queensland Fury (4245), struggled to pull in the crowds. It is no shock that after both teams were expelled from the competition and replaced with a Western Sydney Wanderers side that pulled in five figure crowds that the overall attendances started to look a lot more palatable to the powers-that-be.

The 2015 season of the MLS attracted their largest ever average on the back of a similar series of events. Chivas had the lowest crowds of 2014 at 7,063 but once they left the league Colorado at 15,000 became the lowest in 2015. The MLS also introduced two new franchises in Orlando (32,847) and New York City (29,016) who were 2nd and 3rd respectively on the attendance list. Impressive numbers but how much of that was the feel good factor of being new teams and will it be affected by their failure on the pitch which saw neither side make the playoffs?

Another big factor in this record was San Jose who in 2014 had the second lowest average at 14,947. This grew a whopping 40% to just over 20,000 according to the information I could find. The launch of a new 18,000 capacity stadium no doubt would’ve played a role in creating a curiosity factor for many that led them to coming to check out the new digs. More curious though is how a stadium with a capacity of 18,000 ends up with a 20,979 average? Looking at the MLS website and even the San Jose website sell outs of 18,000 are often mentioned in match reports. This isn’t the only peculiar accounting that has taken place where crowds are concerned. Below is a Houston home match versus the New York Red Bulls.

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The official MLS site had the attendance in the 22,039 capacity BBVA Compass Stadium at 22,357. Although the two shots don’t show the entire crowd, it is highly unlikely that the fans are sitting on each other’s laps on the out of view areas. This makes it very difficult to trust the figures provided but the MLS are not by any stretch the only league to have ever exaggerated attendance figures. Often you’ll see on Twitter people scoffing at the announced crowd figures even in the A-League. Often the tickets distributed, be it season tickets, competition winner tickets, sponsor’s tickets, players’ families or other freebies are counted as opposed to actual bodies through the turnstiles.

Given the questionable nature of the figures one must take any findings not as fact but merely as the closest we can get to fact based on the supplied information.

Anyway onwards we push. Now we’re all aware of the massive population difference between Australia (approx. 24 million) and the US (approx. 330 million) which must be taken into consideration. Also just the sheer number of cities and areas with the population capable of hosting a professional sporting organisation is much greater in the US. Only Central Coast Mariners and to a lesser extent Newcastle Jets are without overwhelming competition from more established teams and competitions.

If you look at the average attendances of MLS and Aleague on a national population basis alone then the A-League has the clear advantage. The A-League has 5 games per round with a 13,000 average and the MLS has a 21,000 average over 10 games per round. This is a total of 65,000 and 210,000 fans showing up per round or 0.3% and 0.07% of the population. Clearly favoring Australia’s domestic competition.

However this is an unfair comparison as there are many large cities without an MLS team in the US while the AL pretty much has the most populous regions covered. A much fairer measurement would be to look at only the cities and regions that have teams in each league. For the AL, 1.45% of the local population attend the home games of their representative teams while 2.9% of the local population attend their team’s home games.

Just for reference, Sydney is listed as having a population of 4.6 million and they have two teams (Sydney FC and Western Sydney) that combined average around 30,000 (0.7%) with only Perth (0.5%) having a lower percentage. Chicago has a population of 2.7 million and one team with an average of 16,003 (0.6%) with only New England (0.4%) having a lower percentage.

In terms of attendance, the MLS has a clear advantage in raw numbers albeit the numbers as we have seen are questionable. On a national scale, a higher percentage of Australians attend Aleague games but that’s mostly down to fewer major cities and all major population centers having at least one team. Local populations go to home games more in the States but this could also be down to less competition from other sports in some markets. The sheer number of baseball (81) and basketball (41) home games in the MLB and NBA might actually help boost attendances at the football, as there are only 17 home games in MLS people might make more of an effort to catch a game. Incidentally, Aleague teams have 13 or 14 home games depending on the draw but due to scheduling they avoid the other football codes.

At the same point in their existences the growth of the Aleague attendances has been much more impressive with a 12% positive growth as opposed to the MLS who were down by 13% after 10 years. The rate of growth has somewhat leveled out now so it remains to be seen whether in the next 10 years their is the correct strategy in place to reach a 20 plus percent increase by the 20th season like the MLS has achieved.

In true football fashion the attendance comparison is perhaps an entertaining 2-2 draw with both league’s scoring goals in different areas.  Next time I will look at TV and online presence.

 

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