Friday, April 29, 2011

Time to be timid has passed

By Paul Frederickson

Season 7 of the A-League is still an unbelievable 6 months from commencing, and whilst many see the competition in a difficult stage of its development it should be the hierarchy of the FFA that should be working harder than anyone to make sure the foundations are built more on solid work than best wishes. 

The FFA must focus primarily on the A-League, access to a better TV rights deal and then the national teams, in that order. For it is the national football competition that requires more than the seemingly scant attention that Buckley and his cohorts have given it so far.

The failed World Cup bid cost, "$46 million of Federal Government funding and could have brought Australia billions of dollars in economic activity", according to Peter Wilson of the Australian Newspaper (1).Whilst the majority of money was supplied by the Australian Federal government, how this money could have been by the A-League clubs and at grassroots football around the country! Whilst the chance to host the World Cup has passed for now the FFA seemed to put all their eggs in one basket in the hope that it would transfer to the national competition. This was always going to be a potentially artificial boost to the competition, as the euphoria from gaining and then hosting the world's most prestigious competition can never guarantee ongoing interest in the local game.

Where can the FFA improve their stance?
The FFA needs to be unapologetic in its bid to be a mainstay of the national football landscape. The times of being deferential to the other football codes must cease. The A-League has as much right to be part of the Australian football scene as the AFL, NRL and Super Rugby.

The product has visibly improved, teams like the Adelaide United, Central Coast Mariners and in particular the Brisbane Roar displayed arguably the finest football standards witnessed in our domestic competition. The finals series was an unqualified success with the grand final played in from of an orange mass of 50,168 in one of the most dramatic grand finals of any code seen in this country.

                                Video courtesy of Fox Sports Australia (2)


The bane of the competition since its new incantation as the A-League. The crowds have declined in the past two seasons and there has been many reasons put forward for the decline and quite a few opinions on how it can be improved. I think that this is one the biggest challenges that faces the clubs for the next few years. Bigger crowds increase media reach and exposure, talk in workplaces and increased interest in the game by the general public. It also looks far better on television. How sad has Skilled Park looked in the first two seasons of the national competition with a near empty stand visible for almost every game? The lack of crowds around the league, and in particular stadiums such as Skilled Park, home of Gold Coast United do not inspire people to come for the noise and colour generated by larger crowds.

Having been to games at Skilled Park to watch the Gold Coast the stadium has no atmosphere and it must be very hard for a team to be inspired by skeletal support. Kudos must be give to the loyal band of supporters who do attend their team’s games week in, week out. It is not their fault that there are not more supporters at the local games. The clubs must continually engage the local supporter bases through engagement at local clubs and organisations, junior player clinics and attendance at club events. At the end of last season there were supporter forums held in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. Whilst they were sparsely attended they allowed supporters to question local stakeholders, journalists and club administrators. This should have been done at the inception of the A-League but at least efforts are being made to communicate their thoughts and decision-making processes. These forums should continue in each state and be an annual affair.
Memberships are one way in which clubs can guarantee revenue and have some idea of potential crowds for each match, which can also be based on historical attendance patterns. Memberships for some clubs in Season 5 were increased by up to 73% in times of economic uncertainty, and whilst this was addressed by clubs in Season 6 many clubs will take years to recover the supporters that they disappointed in this period. Membership packages at most clubs are very reasonable with the lower priced rickets averaging at an incredible $19 per game.
Television and multimedia rights
The AFL has scored the biggest sporting rights broadcast deal in the history of Australian sport. The Wide World of Sport website reported that, "AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou said the AFL would earn $1.253 billion from the 2012-16 deal, including a cash contribution of $1.118 billion." (3) This will leave future television deals for the other codes very hard to negotiate. The A-League television broadcasting rights are not due to be re-negotiated until the end of the 2011-12 season and with falling crowds, less teams in the competition than expected and the unsuccessful World Cup bid many are stating that the new deal could be worth as little as $3-$5 million dollars a year. The FFA has one very significant leverage point at their disposal, the Socceroos. The previous bid for the A-League was included in a deal that included the national teams games. At the time of granting the original television rights the FFA did not have a visible product to sell. The A-League has six years of highlights to market to broadcasters and should think outside the box. Many supporters have bemoaned the lack of free-to-air coverage of the A-League. It is suggested that if the FFA insist on some games being shown on FTA or even a highlights package available that they would receive less money in their broadcast deal. So be it. The long term gain associated with more mainstream exposure should be considered. The National Basketball (NBL) model should be considered. The NBL in the 80's and 90's had a FTA deal backed up with fierce rivalries and good crowds. Once the FTA deal was transplanted to a minimal subscription television deal crowds decreased, teams such as the Brisbane Bullets ceased to exist (other financial factors were involved) and the league went into a hiatus that it is only just recovering from. This recovery has coincided with a new FTA deal.

Unfortunately, no Free to air channel has publicly proposed an offer for the A-League. Thus we are left with, $0 from FTA versus whatever the A-League may muster from Fox Sports. It must be noted that Fox Sports have offered excellent coverage of the A-League for those who can afford the subscription television costs.

What else must the AFL consider in regards to broadcasting rights?:
The FFA should also consider online broadcasting rights as well as the medium of television:
* Games on demand using Internet and smart-phones could be offered to consumers. This is already offered on Fox Sports Australia for the English Premier League.
*Season highlight DVDs should be available for consumers. Currently only Grand Final DVD packages are available.

Free to air advertising for games is essential for people to know when games are on. To save on costs a generic format could be used with the details of the upcoming week's games being the only change that would be required each week.On-line commercials through mainstream newspaper websites would increase exposure to the A-League. There has been a distinct lack of A-League advertising after season one. Whilst the A-League can not force the mainstream media to write about football they can be in the media by paying for the exposure.
                                         Season 1 A-League commercial.

Smaller Tournaments
The 2015 Asian Cup may not have the lustre of a World Cup tournament but it is a chance for Australian football to show the quality of our organisational management, event hosting capabilities and excellent stadiums. This is perhaps another way that football can be wider part of the football landscape.
Government Review
The FFA have announced that all football operations of the national body and league will be reviewed under a government inquiry.The FFA website states (4):

Former Federal Sports Minister and current Chairman of the Australian Sports Commission, the Hon. Warwick Smith, AM, has been appointed to head a review of football in Australia in partnership with Football Federation Australia (FFA).

It will be interesting to see if the review is one of suggestions or criticisms. I personally hope that the review is a progressive and balanced view of the Australian game. If so, the Smith review should be one that is embraced by the football community. Any directions or initiatives that are suggested should be seriously considered by the board of the FFA.
Season switches
A premiership and cup winning team is usually a model of consistency. Consistency and certainty is the minimum that a fan of any competition can ask for. The FFA have changed the A-League season dates yet again with the 2011/12 installment commencing late October so as to not compete with the AFL and NRL finals series. This does mean that the finale of the next season will take place at the commencement of these seasons. No matter which way the FFA manipulate the draw the A-League will compete with these leagues at some stage. Many people are waiting on next season's draw in the hope that they may plan away trips. The away colours of opposition supporters have decreased dramatically in the past two seasons and the away strips create banter, opposing songs and fun at A-League matches, something that the league desperately craves. Unless the FFA introduce new teams to the competition the season dates should be the same each season. Our competition needs to be visibly consistent for our sponsors, the general public and the most important stakeholders of all, the fans.

The FFA needs to proactively promote the A-League. Aggressive marketing, aggressive negotiations.Fans need to be pro-active and buy memberships and merchandise. People power, as observed in Egypt in recent times, is not just about statements but action.

Have Lowy and Buckley done enough in their time in charge of the FFA?

What would you do differently and why?

Do you follow the Premier League but not the A-League, and why?

(1) Peter Wilson, "Australian World Cup bid team caught out lack of support", The Australian, December 10, 2011.
(2) "Roar comeback to take title", Fox Sports Australia, March 13, 2011.
(3) "New AFL broadcast rights deal announced" Wide World of Sports, April 28, 2011.
(4) "AFC Asian Cup Focus of Football review", April 27, 2011.