A-League's growth is impressive, but there's a long way to go

Passionate Sydney FC supporters
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Opinion by Troy Dodds

Sunday’s A-League Grand Final between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory is a promoter’s dream, but more than that, it’s a huge litmus test for a competition so desperate to join the upper echelon of sport in Australia.

It’s been 10 years since the A-League was formed and in the last couple of seasons, the competition has put itself into a position of strength to take on major codes such as rugby league and the AFL for a slice of the general public’s attention and money.

There’s been a few things behind this recent success, all of which have combined to get the A-League to where it is now.

The first has been stability in the competition over the last three years. Despite dramas at several clubs, namely Newcastle, the Central Coast and more recently Perth Glory, the last time a team exited the competition was in 2012 when Gold Coast United said goodbye.

The collapse of the North Queensland Fury and New Zealand Knights in the years before that provided a somewhat unstable competition. As has been shown with sports such as basketball in the last decade, teams coming and going is never a good thing for a sport – it drives home a message of instability and makes it difficult to find fans who are willing to put their time and emotions into it.

Combined with that stability was the introduction of the Western Sydney Wanderers. It was pretty obvious from day one of the A-League that football needed a professional presence in western Sydney if it was going to take even a single column inch away from rugby league in the mainstream newspapers and other media.

The fact that the Wanderers have been so successful in their first three seasons was a bonus – a lucrative one at that.

The other thing that makes the A-League work is the decision to play it mainly over summer, avoiding any serious clashes with league and AFL. However, I’ve always said I believe the season goes too long – the finals are washed away with wall to wall coverage of other sports who are just seeing their seasons warm up. All the talk next Monday will be about the NSW State of Origin team, not Sydney FC.

So let’s get this straight: the A-League has reached a significant step on the ladder to success. After 10 years, it is safe to say that the competition is both strong and secure moving forward.

Fans who claim the competition has now passed rugby league or AFL in popularity are living in a dreamland, however, and there is still much work to do before the A-League can consider itself a serious rival to the traditional winter sports.

Crowds for the 2014-15 season were down (the average being 12,928 this season versus 13,479 the year before)¬†and that’s an obvious concern. The form of certain clubs can often guide this figure, however, and the poor season from the Wanderers certainly played a part. They went from an average of 15,171 in 2013-14 to 12,520 in the most recent season.

Crowd figures are something all sporting fans like to debate but that there is no doubt that the AFL wins that battle hands down – crowds so far this year are at an average of 34,142 per game. That’s up 5.6 per cent on last year.

Crowds are also up in the NRL, despite some early season concerns that had some soccer fans dancing on its grave. Crowds are up 1.2 per cent in 2015 with an average of 16,089 per game, the best since the 2012 season.

Truth is, while crowd figures are very important, it is television rights and ratings where the real test of a sport lies.

It’s also the major hurdle the A-League needs to overcome.

The deal with SBS to increase the free-to-air presence of the A-League has done very little, and has really only preached to the converted – most of whom probably have Foxtel anyway given that all A-League matches are shown live on Fox Sports.

The A-League desperately needs a major commercial broadcaster to pick it up. Only on Channel 7, 9 or 10 can the game really grow in the general public’s eyes.

The A-League faces a couple of significant problems in making this happen though.

First, the season is too long and overlaps with the AFL and NRL seasons for almost three months. That’s fine for Channel 10, who don’t hold the rights for any of the major winter sports, but for 7 or 9, the clashes are deal breakers. If they had rights to Friday night or Sunday afternoon games, they’d need to put the A-League matches on one of their digital channels – that’s a risky commercial move and not of great benefit to the A-League either.

The other problem is the lack of interest that currently exists in pay television. The ratings don’t lie, and as it stands, the A-League has a pretty poor audience on Foxtel.

Ratings were up last weekend for the finals but still nowhere near the figures recorded for NRL or AFL club matches.

With many week-to-week club games only getting figures of about 40,000 on Fox Sports (compared to figures of 200,000+ for NRL and AFL games), it’s understandable if commercial broadcasters are a little hesitant.

That said, it is a perfect opportunity for a network like Channel 10 to cement itself with a competition that has significant potential for growth and has the obvious benefits of being part of a worldwide code that is an unstoppable powerhouse.

If 10 was willing to show at least two games a week live, and back it up with panel shows and the like, I think the A-League could well work.

However, 10 would face another problem – in many cases matches would be up against the NRL and AFL on rival networks. 10 would almost certainly finish third, at least initially, so any deal would need to be long-term and have a lot of passion and commitment behind it.

A lot of A-League fans want to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the reality of how poorly the competition rates on television, but it’s a serious issue that is blocking the growth of the sport. Problem is, unless a commercial broadcaster takes a risk, the competition won’t grow – it’s a double edged sword.

One other thing the A-League needs to fix – the Grand Final.

While I understand and appreciate the concept of having the Grand Final in the home city of the highest ranked qualifier (in this weekend’s case, Melbourne Victory), the A-League is missing out on a significant corporate, fan and media support by not knowing where their biggest match of the season is going to be played until eight days before kick-off.

Bite the bullet – schedule the game for ANZ in Sydney, Etihad in Melbourne or Suncorp in Brisbane and play it there no matter what teams are in the decider. It’s the only way to guarantee a build-up that the game deserves.

The A-League has come a long way in 10 years. It’s got a long way to go, but in another 10 years, there’s little doubt that it has the potential to stand alongside the NRL and AFL to create a trio of major sports in Australia that are powerful, have strong support bases and are competing for TV ratings, corporate sponsorship and fan interest.

It’s not silly to suggest that football may be the #1 sport in Australia in 10 or 15 years. The AFL and the NRL should be on notice.

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