As the A-League season ends, crowds in the stadiums are looking much like those at any Australian sport this year – sparse, thanks to the impact of COVID-19.
But regular viewers would be forgiven for not noticing much of a difference, with disappointing crowds and lacklustre atmosphere the norm even before restrictions were imposed.
Despite Football Federation Victoria (FFV) participation growing by 24 per cent from 2018 to 2019, and a new plan to create 420 new full-size pitches across the state by 2027, grassroots participation is not translating into support for the national competition.
Even with clubs able to charge players $2650 per annum in the 13-16-year-old age groups, soccer has one of the highest participation rates by sport in Australia.
One club based in Aspendale says it is turning away more than 100 kids a year because its program is at capacity.
Although grassroots participation is the highest it has ever been, attendance averages for the 2019-20 A-League season were the third-lowest since the competition was established in 2004.
Three clubs – Melbourne City, Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney Wanderers – are experiencing their lowest crowds in history.
TV audiences have also struggled recently, with some games falling below 100,000 viewers.
Guardian sports journalist John Davidson says this issue starts with “the lack of marketing and promotion of the league”.
“I think a lack of advertising for a period of years has been an issue,” he says.
Just weeks out from the beginning of the 2019-20 season, a national radio campaign that runs every year was scrapped because A-League clubs could not agree on a direction for the campaign.
In another blow, the A-League’s broadcast partner Foxtel had a noticeable lack of coverage in their own promotions for their “big summer of sport” programming, which did not feature any mention of the A-League.
When Premier League club Liverpool visited Melbourne in 2013 to face Melbourne Victory, the game had an attendance of more than 95,000 people.
Last year when Manchester United came to Australia to play Perth Glory, it nearly sold out the 60,000-seat Optus stadium. In comparison, Perth Glory’s total attendance across the 2018-19 A-League season was just 144,000.
Of course, it is unfair to compare the popularity of powerhouse European clubs to Australian clubs with much less history, however it highlights the existence of a local fan base, even if the A-league is unable to access it.
That fan base has been often restricted in their desire to re-create a European-like atmosphere via active support groups.
Active support groups have had a difficult time gaining traction in the A-League, being victim to “over-zealous policing”, Davidson says.
Some groups have disbanded, while others have boycotted their own team’s regular-season games to show their frustrations with strict policies and police attention.
A member of the Melbourne Victory active supporter group known as Original Style Melbourne, Elijah Tracanelli, says a better approach by the league towards active support groups could help to build attendance and interest in the competition.
The league has pretty much put a stop to all things that make active support active,” Tracanelli says.
“They’ve left it up to security guards’ discretion to put an end to anything they think is dangerous … so things we do safely that endanger no one are put to a stop immediately.
“I think that active crowds are such an essential part of football that it’s part of the reason people go to game,” he says.
“If general fans know that the active support is going to be there they’re more likely to go as well. It makes it an event, something to be a part of.
“It’s a bad thing for the league if active support doesn’t happen because we make up a huge number of the fans that attend games, as well as buying memberships and merchandise. Without us the league loses a lot of revenue, and so do the clubs,” he says.
However, this “over-zealous policing” was not introduced without cause. The A-League and stadium security staff have had to crack down on fan behaviour in recent years following a number of incidents regarding rival-fan altercations and dangerous behaviour.
This is particularly true of the period from 2012 to 2016, with incidents that included one fan king-hitting another during a game between Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney in 2013.
In 2012, police had to retreat and monitor the crowd from afar after fans became too aggressive during the Melbourne derby played between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne Heart (now Melbourne City) – a clash that often brings untoward behaviour.
In another Melbourne Derby in 2016, 20 fans were evicted from the ground for reasons including nine flares being set off, a dangerous but common occurrence among fans trying to re-create the atmosphere and rivalries that are standard at European football games.
Although the A-League is a long way behind long-established European competitions such as the Premier League, it still has the opportunity of attracting Premier League fans who have moved to Australia that are looking for their soccer fix.
Sharing the experience
In 2010 Ned Rocke started the Crystal Palace FC Melbourne Supporters group as a way to connect with other fans of the South London Premier League side after he moved to Australia from England. Although he admits supporting Crystal Palace is what made him fall in love with the game, since moving to Australia he has also started following Melbourne Victory.
Despite admitting that the quality of football may not be as good, the thing that keeps him interested in the A-League is simply being able to watch live football with other supporters. However, he says it may be hard to return to the better crowds the A-League once had.
“The issue is that the league alienated a lot of those fans by allowing games to be horribly over-policed, so winning those people back will be difficult,” Rocke says.
“If they want crowds back, they need that atmosphere back with active fans that bring that colour and noise.”
Rocke says the quality on the pitch is irrelevant to the issue of poor crowds, and that the league should focus solely on improving the atmosphere around games.
“Victory used to get some 30,000-40,000 people with some truly awful players … attendance did not drastically increase when players like Del Piero and Romario came to the league. They drastically increased when fans were active, and loud,” he says.
“You can bring all the players you want. It’s never going to be Real Madrid vs Barcelona. People can get their fix of good quality football on TV, but you can’t experience a live stadium atmosphere on your couch eating Doritos at 4am. You can’t beat live football.”
While the A-League may never match the Premier League in terms of on-field quality, one thing they may be able to take away from the success of the Premier League is the system of promotion and relegation.
During a State of Football episode on Optus Sport, 98 per cent of viewers voted in favour of bringing promotion and relegation into the A-League. It’s a potential way to capitalise on the success that grassroots programs are having, while also increasing the excitement around the competition.
Implementing promotion and relegation would offer smaller clubs the opportunity (although slim) to make it to the top level.
Coming from a country where promotion and relegation is commonplace, Rocke says it could be the thing that the league needs to create more interest from local grassroot clubs.
“It has the potential to drive that interest (from) the people who play but don’t support the A-League, especially the ones that have stopped following. It brings a whole new group of fans, and the league needs that.”