(Image: AAP /James Ross)

It’s a measure of the low esteem that the A-League and Football Federation Australia (FFA) are held in that even when they do something good, it still looks bad.

Last week the league released a surprisingly good advertising campaign for the upcoming 2019/2020 season. It adopted a Marvel comics theme, with players depicted as anime superheroes, and introduced the tagline “Where Heroes Are Made”. It’s all very zeitgeisty, very 2019, and very social media friendly.

But, as many social media users were only too happy to point out, it’s also very late. These type of campaigns usually run for weeks, if not months, prior to the start of a new season in order to build anticipation and excitement. Instead the FFA has allowed for only a matter of days before the beginning of the new season this Friday night.

Incredibly, this was no stuff up. The FFA admitted that the campaign had been deliberately held back so as to not coincide with the AFL and NRL finals. Understandable, maybe, but it’s still a bad look for a league that often struggles for publicity to so openly defer to its competitors.

The face-palming continued with the A-League’s other big announcement of the week: a new TV deal. Such announcements normally trumpet the buckets of cash the new deal will provide, and the fancy new projects it will fund. The A-League’s announcement was slightly different in that this was a free-to-air TV deal that was almost free: it was with the ABC.

The deal is only for one free-to-air game a week, but also includes finals, W-League, Matildas, and Socceroos matches, all to be shown on the ABC’s main channel and on iview. It might be lacking in bucks, but it will provide the game with much-needed exposure.

While it’s great to see Aunty back live sport (no word yet as to which mediocre comedian will be calling the games), it doesn’t bode well for the A-League that none of the commercial channels were interested. Fox Sports has been the host broadcaster since the competition’s inception in 2005, and its current $346 million deal bankrolls the league and the sport. But the deal is up for renewal in 2023 and, with parent company Foxtel bleeding subscribers, both the A-League and Super Rugby are in the gun.

If Foxtel walks away, the A-League is finished, meaning it now has three years to lift its ratings in order to survive.

Fortunately, there are a couple of changes on the horizon that should help. Firstly, the long overdue independence of the A-League is imminent, with the league set adopt the governance model of most other professional football competitions around the world and decouple itself from the sport’s governing body, the bumbling FFA.

The second and most exciting change, however, is that there are finally some new teams to liven up a 10-team format that had become stale. After a protracted selection process, two new licenses were awarded late last year, with Western United, representing Melbourne’s western suburbs, joining this season and Macarthur FC, from Sydney’s south-west, starting next.

The A-League has a chequered history with expansion clubs, and given the crossroads it’s arrived at, it cannot afford Western United to go the way of Gold Coast United or Northern Fury and fail. Rather, they’ll be hoping the new team emulate their namesakes the Western Sydney Wanderers, who energised the league and the entire sport when it joined in 2012, quickly winning games on the pitch and fans off it.

Fittingly, Western United and the Wanderers played a pre-season friendly at the weekend, with the match ending 1-1. It was the venue, however, that raises doubts. It was played at GMHBA Stadium in Geelong, over an hour from Melbourne’s Western Suburbs, where the club will host its home games for their first two seasons. Western United might’ve won their bid on the back of a promise to build a privately funded stadium in Tarneit, but while it’s being built, their fans will have to make do with looking at it out the window of a passing V-Line train.

The future of the club, and the entire league, could hinge on how many of them stick it out.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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