(Image: AAP /James Ross)

A month ago, the A-League had a glimmer of hope. A restart date, new TV deal, and the foundations of a plan which would overhaul the competition in years to come were all cause for optimism.

But in the days leading up to today’s season return, hope was replaced by a familiar sense of chaos.

Victoria’s latest COVID-19 outbreak caused a further delay, as three Melbourne teams had to scurry across the border. With the virus spreading through Sydney, a second lockdown could still be on the table for NSW.

If the A-League makes it to today’s kick off without a hitch, Football Federation Australia’s (FFA) relief will be short-lived.

Because the A-League’s return doesn’t resolve a deeper question that’s made fans, players and administrators anxious for years: does anybody really care? 

For too long, too many games have been played before empty stadiums. Fans have stopped watching and sponsors are getting fed up.

For years, football was the most widely played sport in Australia. But the A-League has gone backwards — largely irrelevant to the national sporting conversation, kept alive by a smattering of diehards, a competition drained of passion, intensity and excitement. 

The numbers game

The clearest picture of the A-League’s decline is in the numbers. An average attendance of 10,423 in the 2018-19 season was the lowest in almost a decade. Nearly every club saw its worst average attendance in years.

The league isn’t just failing to win new fans, it’s also losing established ones — every club barring Perth Glory kicked off the latest season with fewer members.

People have stopped watching on TV too. Despite playing in summer — partly to avoid a clash with more established winter codes — it’s losing eyeballs to the Big Bash League and the women’s BBL and the AFLW. 

Sponsors began voting with their wallets. The relationship between Fox Sports, the long-term sponsor, deteriorated, although a deal has finally been reached.

Hyundai, the name sponsor which has been associated with the A-League from the start, could go the way of Caltex and NAB and pull out of football, taking $6 million with it. 

A league without a story

But what the A-League lacks most is something that can’t easily be counted on a spreadsheet.

In 2018 sports writer Richard Hinds said the A-League lacked “storytelling”. Nobody knows what its story is any more.

When it started in 2005, the A-League was the face of what long-term FFA boss Frank Lowy called “new football”. Kicking off months before John Aloisi’s penalty kick would send the Socceroos to their first World Cup in 32 years, it was a story of boundless optimism. 

Later it became about its marquee players — foreign stars such as Italian striker Alessandro Del Piero heading Down Under for a bit of sun in the twilight of glittering careers.

The entry of the Western Sydney Wanderers in 2012 with their passionate, multicultural fan base and instant domestic and international success gave the league its next big story.

But now the Wanderers’ honeymoon period is over. A perennially stodgy Socceroos side lacks the star power to generate excitement. The marquees aren’t coming (not even Usain Bolt). The A-League in 2020 lacks a story.

A game without passion

In April, with football around the world on hiatus, Optus Sport gathered together a handful of the Socceroos’ 2006 golden generation to give their prognosis about the health of the game in Australia. They were scathing.

“It’s gone nowhere,” said former midfielder Josip Skoko. “There’s no passion in the A-League.”

Craig Moore said the A-League over the past few seasons was “just not an exciting product”.

The A-League will never rival the European leagues for quality. But where it could stand on its own is through a vibrant, unique fan culture.

But the FFA has slowly squeezed the life out of that from the beginning.

When the A-League started it replaced the National Soccer League, whose clubs — with names like Melbourne Croatia and Wollongong Macedonia — drew their strength from Australia’s eastern and southern European diaspora.

But there was little place for the old ethnic clubs in Lowy’s “new football”. A passionate potential fan base was driven away, and further antagonised through a 2014 edict that barred ethnic names or symbols. 

The treatment of the ethnic clubs is symbolic of the way the FFA has treated fan culture. 

‘Giant adult daycare centre’

Over recent seasons it has tried to sanitise football, often petrified about backlash from segments of the media that have always hated the sport.

In 2015 News Corp papers released the details of 198 A-League fans who had been banned from football games. And broadcaster Alan Jones compared football fans with terrorists who’d just murdered hundreds in Paris.

Fan groups who had long felt demonised by people like Jones were betrayed by a lack of FFA support. It seemed the governing body was far more interested in appeasing Jones and the Herald Sun than the most committed fans.

Thousands walked out of matches across the country. Fan groups like Melbourne Victory organisation The North Terrace disbanded citing untenable restrictions on “freedom of movement and expression” by the club, FFA and police. 

All of this has driven a wedge between the FFA and the league’s most committed fans — and the league is weaker for it.

In trying to make football palatable and family-friendly, restricting flares and banners and all the things that make matches in Europe and Latin America fun, the FFA created an experience The Age’s Michael Lynch compared to “a giant adult daycare centre”.

And numbers have never been what they were before 2015. 

There have been other missteps from the FFA. A falling out with advertisers ahead of this season saw a radio advertising blitz scrapped. The FFA also refused to promote the league until a week out to avoid competing with the NRL and AFL finals.

There was also the widely mocked “Star Wars round” in 2017, a barely disguised desperate attempt to get cash from Disney. 

But above all, a failure to cater to established fans and an end product that so often seemed cheap, tacky and amateur have left the A-League fading into obscurity.

A new dawn?

June 25 might have been the biggest moment for football in this country in over a decade. Australia and New Zealand won the rights to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup — an incredible boost for the game in Australia.

Before that though, the A-League got a lifeline which could have its own ripple effect: a deal with Fox Sports will keep it alive for another year. But importantly it also paves the way for the A-League to play in winter.

While that means it will have to compete with the more established football codes, it also creates possibilities.

A winter league makes a promotion-relegation system possible — something pundits and former players say will bring energy and competitiveness to both the league and the grassroots.

There’s also a sense the A-League is shaking off insecurity about its position in the Australian sporting hierarchy. FFA boss James Johnson says he isn’t fazed by taking on the AFL and NRL for attention.

“We shouldn’t be worrying about what other sports are doing,” he says. “We should be focusing on who we are and what we do well.”

And in a discussion paper released earlier this month, the FFA indicated more big changes could be coming. As well as suggesting the winter move could be permanent, it also called for a “rebrand” for the A-League. 

All these are small, positive steps. Fifteen years after Lowy announced the beginning of “new football” the A-League has got stale. More delays to the resumption will hurt the A-League.

But they also give the FFA more time to bring it out of the wilderness, and start building a better football.

Peter Fray

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