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Who Is The A-League Men For?

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The Australian A-League Men returns this weekend for its 17th iteration, promising a new start for football in Australia.

There’s a new TV deal, a five-year arrangement with commercial channel Network Ten that brings it under the auspices of ViacomCBS media group and has the potential to reach more viewers with better coverage than ever before. If the early season advertising is anything to go by, that deal could well pay off.

From a branding perspective, the league now will be known as A-League Men, the first time that a nation has made given the major male and female competitions parity, with the A-League Women due to kick off in early December. There’s a new logo and a new app that seeks to bring all digital football content in one place for fans to access.

A private equity deal is in the works too, with Silver Lake—who recently bought a stake in the New Zealand All Blacks—rumored to be on the brink of sinking in the region of $100m USD into the league. That might be two thirds of a Jack Grealish in European football, but it goes a long, long way in Australia.

“The raft of exciting changes and promotion of the world game in our local comp has sparked much talk and enthusiasm amongst football fans,” said Melissa Muscat, football writer at The Inner Sanctum.

“It’s time for a fresh approach and the A-league and Australian football is finally receiving the recognition the game deserves and has been longing for.”

“People are excited. The buzz is more than evident. We are on a very positive road to a big future for football in Australia, beginning with the Women’s World Cup in 2023 hosted by Australia and New Zealand.” 

With the last two seasons heavily affected by the pandemic, the return of elite soccer in what seems like a bigger, more glamorous packaging should be exciting. Deep down, however, there are still structural questions that remain unanswered by the A-League Men, and which continue to bog it down.

Among Australian sports, it remains a unique quandary. The other major football codes, represented by the Australian Football League (AFL, or Aussie Rules to non-Australians) and the National Rugby League (NRL) are undoubtedly the strongest leagues in their sport: indeed, AFL is the only professional Aussie Rules competition.

Australia, in short, only likes sports that it is good at, and on a global scale, it isn’t that good at football.

Even the most uninterested Australian sports fan knows that the A-League is nowhere near the elite of men’s professional football, and with every European league available on streaming for the same price as Aussie soccer, it’s easy to consume exclusively foreign football (albeit at awkward times of the day). 

There is a phenomenon in the Australian football community of the ‘eurosnob’, the supporter who only watches European football and disdains their local competition.

Their counterpart, the #SokkahTwitter fan, is the opposite, one who takes pride in the slightly shonky but homegrown nature of the A-League, revelling in the fact that it can never be the Premier League or Serie A, and enjoying it for what it is. 

What it is, however, is still largely unclear. Despite a decade and a half of growth within Australian football, it’s hard to say where the domestic league actually fits in.

Back in the pre-A-League days of 2004, the Men’s national team hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1974 and existed to thrash Pacific Island nations and then get thrashed by the first half decent team that they faced from outside their region. Since, abetted by their switch to the Asian confederation, the Socceroos have qualified for every Men’s World Cup and won the Asian Cup in 2015.

The success of the Men’s and Women’s national teams, and the huge growth in youth participation numbers are a huge success, but haven’t necessarily reflected back on the elite Men’s competition. That still remains beset by the same commercial problems that existed in 2004: simply put, it doesn’t know who its audience is and how to sell them the product.

As demographic coalitions go, it’s not one that any political party would wish for. There are three major demographic groups that make up football in Australia, and if you were thinking that Johnny Warren’s unrepeatable autobiography title was wrong—well, as Meatloaf famously said, two out of three ain’t bad.

There’s women: football is behind only netball for female participation sports and the Matildas, the national team, are genuine international contenders (something you couldn’t say about the Socceroos).

The A-League Women lags the Matildas, but is still one of the better women’s professional leagues in the world and doesn’t suffer from the perception of being second rate that the men’s league undoubtedly does.

From the A-League Men’s perspective, marketing an all-male product to a female audience who have a perfectly good all-female product to consume instead isn’t ideal.

There’s kids, as football is the biggest participation sport for boys and the largest of the football codes by some distance across both boys and girls. On purely participation levels, football leaves AFL and rugby league in the dust and is firmly the football code that parents love their kids to play.

Kids are hard to market to, though, because you’re actually marketing to their parents who are adults with limited disposable income and who might well like watching their children run around at a relatively low cost but might not enjoy taking them on a day out at a much higher cost.

Without a strong football culture based on going to a stadium (which, given that most of Australia was introduced to the concept in 2004, still isn’t there), you’re competing with the other more established football codes, plus cricket, plus the beach and the cinema and everything else.

It’s not without reason that many non-traditional football nations struggle to convert junior players into adult customers. Parents take kids to football in Europe because their parents and grandparents took them when they were young, and that doesn’t exist in Australia (yet, at least).

That brings us to the elusive third group, the rusted-on football fans that Johnny Warren described with a word that won’t be used here. Euphemistically, one might refer to them as ‘people of soccer origins’: that is to say, those from the ethnic groups that have traditionally favored football as a sport and who made up the vast majority of the elite men’s football audience prior to the creation of the A-League.

These are the hardest to quantify for Football Australia, as they deliberately tried to move away from the perception of being a sport for European migrants in the early 2000s and towards being a sport for a more ‘mainstream’ Aussie marketplace—some might say that this is the single biggest reason the A-League was created.

While there has certainly been success in that, a cursory glance at the junior pathways, or indeed, the names of the players that make it through those pathways, would suggest that certain ethnic origins are still predominant in Australian football. Just because you made Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory the top level of the pyramid doesn’t mean that the ethnic clubs aren’t still producing all the players. 

This issue might seem old hat, but it strikes to the problem that seems to dog the A-League. The USP of football above rugby league and Aussie Rules is that it has a vibrant fan culture, which TV viewers the world over​​—including Australia—love.

When Liverpool played in Melbourne, they sold 100,000 tickets so Melburnians could sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ like they were standing on the Kop in the 1960s.This dynamic is well known to the A-League, but it is forced to constantly straddle the line between encouraging the single most marketable element of its product with the realisation that that element is either intrinsically foreign and un-Australian or, worse, plastic and inauthentic. 

It’s not a cake that the league can both have and eat. If the league encourages it, then it doesn’t sit with the family-friendly aspect of the game that has made football so strong at the participation level, because Australian sports crowds do not and will not accept the level of danger that European football supporters have come to accept as totally normal. 

But without that element, the A-League is just a worse version of something that everyone can also see on TV. The live experience is what differentiates a football product that is known to be inferior to almost every other league fans could watch on TV. Sure, it’s not as good, but it’s here, on our time zone, right in front of you, and live football is what football is about.

It’s the circle that the game can’t square, and it’s hard to say what the answer is. The average attendance in the first season of the A-League, back in 2005-6, was just shy of 11,000 per game.

In 2018/19, the last season before the pandemic, it was 10,400. Season 05/06 was spread across 84 games and 18/19 was spread across 134, so numbers total were up, and in truth, the numbers aren’t hugely fewer than the National Rugby League, which had a 98-year head start. 

An optimistic view might be that the A-League has successfully de-ethnicized soccer, and replaced old school fans with a new breed that only remembers the A-League.

While raw attendances might be slightly less, if the more nebulous numbers about who is attending point towards those people being new converts, things might be set to take off from here.

There are also almost six million more Australians than there were in 2004, with the majority of those new potential customers having arrived from countries where football is a well-known sport, but Aussie Rules and rugby league aren’t. Those people don’t care that the A-League is new and the AFL is old: one is a sport they can pick up straight away and feel at home with.

The new TV contract, with better and more widespread coverage, and the new app, with a much larger direct marketing potential through data collection and retention, could now be the stimulus that spurs the A-League to make its breakthrough. All it needs now is to decide what it is selling and who it is selling it to.

The new TV deal with a stronger commercial free presence is a brilliant start,” said Rudi Edsall, digital content producer at major radio network Triple M and contributor to A-League podcast Destruction in the Box.

“Being able to cross promote the competition via Ten’s reality TV and quiz show stable is the kind of contra deal that the league hasn’t been able to do and is a brilliant way to get it—even just as a concept—in front of eyeballs it hasn’t been seen by before.”

“The biggest issue, in my opinion, is converting people who are general football fans into A-League fans. The sport is hugely popular, but it doesn’t translate to the competition.” 

“There are lots of people who play social football but aren’t interested in watching Melbourne Victory vs Central Coast Mariners, or who keenly follow Liverpool or Juventus in their domestic competitions and Europe, but might turn their nose up at the local product.”

“Personally, I think the way to try and make inroads with that demographic is to emphasize the off-field experience as much as the on-field product. Position the games as much about hitting the pub with your mates beforehand, or as somewhere you can take your kids on a summer night out.” 

“If they’re not interested in the football, get them excited about the peripheral elements: socialising, entertainment, etc. One of the reasons I fell in love with Melbourne Victory was because it was the only team all my friends and I loved, and because it was the only sporting team my brother was interested in at all, so it provided an outlet to see them all regularly.” 

“I also think it’s important to emphasize the fan culture. No sport is like football with the ways fans engage, with color, noise and singing—except maybe when the Barmy Army (England’s cricket fan group) are in town, and even then that’s all taking its cues from football.”

“It’s viscerally thrilling, but not necessarily a culture that’s always well understood here. That viscerality can be perceived as threatening or intimidating. Stakeholders need to prioritize reaching out to fan groups, because at the end of the day, there is no stakeholder more important. A vibrant fan culture is also its own advertisement for the league in so many ways.”