The A-League: Things Can’t Get Any Worse!
No, that’s not the official slogan for the 15th season of Australia’s national domestic football competition.
Home-shopping-show viewing figures for all but the most popular games on both free-to-air and pay-per-view TV.
Attendances in steady decline partly due to the heavy-handedness of authorities who cannot tell the difference between active fan engagement and hooliganism.
No big marquees — unless you count the tents standing near the giant inflatable sauce bottles at a Mariners games.
Lack of promotion by the FFA which is cash-strapped due to a media rights deal that only just covers the basic operational costs.
So entering another A-League season observers are understandably torn.
Or will it struggle to maintain the 15,000 or so viewers who typically watched a Glory-Phoenix game last season?
Which is why there has not been the usual sense of hope-against-hope that this will be the season that restores the A-League’s fortunes and rekindles the excitement of the establishment years.
Rather, it feels like ground zero — the season when things have bottomed out and can only stay the same or, hopefully, get better.
This is not — believe it or not — to paint a pessimistic view of the A-League and the game’s still latent potential.
It is simply where the A-League finds itself. Starting a new era in which the clubs have taken more control and hopefully more responsibility for their own fates — something that did not get off to a great start when a radio advertising campaign had to be abandoned because clubs couldn’t agree on content.
Also new is the involvement of the ABC — publisher of this column — which has handed the A-League something of a lifeline by taking the free-to-air TV rights from SBS.
This should provide some relief to those viewers who found the network upon which Les Murray, Johnny Warren and Craig Foster once salivated about the “World Game” was now more obsessed with misplacing Australians in European singing contests.
Left unloved and un-promoted on a secondary SBS channel, supposedly prime-time A-League games withered on the televisual vine as the diminishing viewing figures proved.
Given that experience, you might think the ABC has picked up damaged goods rather than some rare top-shelf live sporting content.
But, again, for those willing to make a reasonable judgement of the A-League based on the relative standard of play and the drama it creates the “product” remains strong.
The often unheralded success story of the A-League has been the importation of supposedly second-tier players from European leagues who have made a big impact here, accelerated in recent seasons by the depressed player markets in countries such as Spain.
Personally, watching Thomas Broich become a Brisbane Roar legend, Besart Berisha play both hero and villain for the Roar, Melbourne Victory and now Western United and Bruno Fornaroli knocking them in from everywhere for Melbourne City is far more exciting than having Alessandro Del Piero eke out the final season or two from an ageing body.
In this regard, the ABC’s production, presentation and — most importantly — promotion of the A-League will be vital to the league’s immediate future.
A shudder went through the FFA in May when Fox Sports stated it was considering cuts to “non-marquee sporting content” after the network lost $417 million in 2018.
Subsequently, despite its current $346-million, six-year deal with the FFA, Fox Sports has made little secret of the fact the A-League is squarely on its “non-marquee” list and its commitment to local football is waning.
So it is vital the national broadcaster attracts a decent audience for its 5:00pm Saturday evening games to maintain the league’s commercial appeal and, in the long term, help it achieve its long-term goal of a substantial free-to-air rights deal.
But beyond that obvious commercial imperative, the A-League simply needs a larger platform if it is to somehow shed the now heavy reputational yoke that seems to be retarding its progress.
By even global standards Fox Sports has done a stunning job presenting the game over more than a decade. Excellent commentators led by the outstanding Simon Hill, trenchant love ’em-or-hate ’em analysts such as Mark Bosnich and Andy Harper and wall-to-wall coverage.
But, like Super Rugby, the hand that has fed Australian football has also limited its reach to the less than 30 per cent of the population that has access to pay-TV. (Fox Sports football oriented subscriptions are reported to have declined since it lost the Premier League rights to Optus Sports.)
Yes, SBS had games on free-to-air. But you could dress a polar bear in a white tuxedo and send him into a blizzard and he would be less well concealed than SBS’s A-League broadcasts.
The A-League’s best hope is that ABC can use its multitude of platforms including ABC Grandstand and this one to bring new eyeballs (and bring back old ones) to games beyond just the big local derbies.
Meanwhile, those fans who’ve hung in there in the past few seasons can only hope that hitting the bottom will be the start of a stunning rebound. Not a dead cat bounce.
Week 1 A-League fixtures
- Friday, 7:30pm, October 11, Adelaide United vs Sydney FC
- Saturday, 5:00pm, October 12, Western Sydney Wanderers vs Central Coast Mariners – LIVE ON ABC HD
- Saturday, 7:30pm, October 12, Melbourne Victory vs Melbourne City
- Sunday, 4:00pm, October 13, Wellington Phoenix vs Western United
- Sunday, 6:00pm, October 13, Perth Glory vs Brisbane Roar