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  • Writer's pictureBen Horvath

A-Leagues: 10 strategies that could help reinvigorate the domestic game

The A-League Men's Grand Final was the perfect example of how the APL can best showcase the world game in Australia's domestic men's competition. Celebrate football's differences with confidence, and the game will thrive. As the curtain closes on the season, Front Page Football's  Ben Horvath salutes the APL's management of this year's Finals Series. But his end-of-season report card calls for more effort, transparency, respect, consultation with active support, and promotional action. Cut out your own goals. Move forward confidently by promoting and implementing proven global strategies where possible. Ben has compiled a 10-point plan that he believes will reinvigorate Australian football's domestic competitions, adding credibility and sustainability in the long term.

The passionate post Grand Final pitch invasion from Mariners fans highlighted the A-Leagues potential when done right. (Image: Yellow Army Facebook)


The potential for the A-League Men was plain to see at the final whistle of the incredible 2023/24 Grand Final. Kudos to the APL for correcting their fatal wrong and reversing the Grand Finals decision to allow the premiers to host the season's final game. Over 3,000 Melbourne Victory supporters contributed to the fantastic atmosphere. There was no evidence of overzealous policing during the match or post-game when thousands of passionate fans invaded the pitch at full-time to congratulate and celebrate with their heroes.


The 2023/24 Grand Final highlighted everything good about the league's product. Two tactically and technically astute teams battling for 120+ minutes in an enthralling, physical, end-to-end game played in a sold-out, rectangular-shaped football ground overflowing with colour, noise, and passion.

Both sets of active fans proved that singing and chanting passionately for your football team is not a crime. It should be encouraged and supervised like we saw on Grand Final night, rather than be overzealously policed, as we saw earlier this season, particularly at the most recent Sydney Derby at CommBank Stadium.

The men's competition will be 20 years old next season, and not since the golden generation has there been evidence of a promising production line of Australian talent emerging from the domestic competition. Adding to the production line's depth and improving youth development must now be the prime focus.


Now is the time to plan and implement the ten tweaks and reforms listed below because the A-League Men's competition looked and felt a little stale before this historic Finals Series.


The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Australian football's administrators are renowned for taking two steps forward and one step back, often shooting the beloved game in the foot immediately after its biggest triumphs.

 

Let's hope that this season’s incredible A-League Men climax, including the Central Coast Mariners' remarkable underdog story, winning the premiership, championship, and AFC Cup treble, can help overshadow some of the APL's own goals in recent times.

Miguel Di Pizio celebrates putting the Mariners ahead in the Grand Final, in a stadium filled with passionate home and away supporters. (Image: Harley Appezzato)


Despite KEEPUP's demise, the Silver Lake millions being misspent, rumours of next season's TV revenue being majorly slashed, and the poor handling of the ownership situations in Newcastle and Canberra, steadfast optimism remains, and the domestic game can still have a very bright future.


The A-Leagues competitions deliver proven pathways and positive development outcomes for the cream of Australian footballers, who achieved so much on the global stage at the previous World Cups.

 

The leagues should now be mature enough to celebrate their roots, accentuate football's differences, and move forward confidently, embracing all the proven competition structures and traditions used globally. It is bemusing why the game's administrators continually make such hard work of it.

We all know the NRL and AFL's media partners constantly rubbish the world game or ignore it completely to stifle its growth. That is probably not going to change anytime soon. But first and foremost, football administrators do need to get the basics right.


Below are ten actions the game's governing bodies can take to help reinvigorate Australian football's domestic competitions, particularly the A-League Men.


Stop the gimmicks


It's time to run Australian football competitions the way they are run worldwide. From now on, the game and the fans must be at the forefront of all decision-making.


That means not helping clubs sign foreign marquees who only want to come here for a holiday, no 'Magic Rounds', no selling off Grand Finals, and working with clubs to start playing games in stadiums suitable for football, not on oversized AFL or cricket ovals.

The APL must emphasize football's critical differences from competing codes rather than copying their initiatives. The days of messing with global football's tried-and-tested formulas and trying to alter the code to align with the broader Australian landscape must stop.


Play in winter


Football is a winter sport worldwide. Former Liverpool star Craig Johnston once famously said, "Playing football for Australia was like surfing for England."


Australian culture is all about the beach in summer. When it's too hot, no one wants to play or watch games; they want to go for a swim.

At the height of summer, Australia is often too hot to play football. (Image: Destination NSW)


 Football competitions all over the world are traditionally played in the cooler months.


That is the way it has always worked globally; there are no longer any practical or commercial reasons why Australia should be the odd one out.


The history behind the move to summer was understandable. It was an attempt to get more bums on seats at stadia and more eyeballs on the TV coverage so football would not have to compete with the NRL and AFL.


The data no longer supports the idea that crowds are bigger in summer than winter; in fact, higher daytime temperatures as the globe warms are negatively affecting the quality of football, player welfare, crowd sizes, and comfort.


Selling out the Grand Final and Semi-Final second legs, having a healthy 42,000 attend the A-League All Stars games, and having 78,000 attend the Tottenham vs. Newcastle exhibition game a week before winter debunked the myth that football should be played in summer so it does not have to compete with the other prominent winter codes.

In saying that, playing simultaneously as other codes like the NRL and rugby union could also lead to issues with ground availability and worsen the quality of certain playing surfaces.


Before the NSL switched from winter to summer way back in 1989, crowds in winter were as strong as in summer; as a regular attendee myself at winter NSL games, witnessing packed-out stands at St George Stadium, Lambert Park, Pratten Park, and King Tomislav Park, amongst others.


Football is a global game, which is its strength. Australian football needs to align its principles, culture, and calendar. The competitive seasons at the grassroots, NPL, NST, and A-Leagues levels should all align domestically and with the global international football calendar as much as possible.

Football would again be competing with rival codes, that is true, but the season does now anyway in the spring and autumn months. The game should avoid summer altogether and have a brief break over December/January when everyone goes to the beach. Playing football then is far too hot, and being a spectator is no fun either.


So, all domestic football competitions should be played in winter, autumn, and spring.


Some European countries, including Germany and the Bundesliga, are forced to have a brief winter break when it is too cold to play. Should the A-Leagues continue to be played in the summer, it should do likewise, and there should be a brief break at the height of summer when it is too hot to play.

 

Play games in smaller, football specific grounds

 

Whenever reverting the season to winter is mentioned, some critics point to ground availability as a potential hindrance, as discussed above. However, the example shown in the United States, where Major League Soccer continues to succeed in moving to a ground ownership model, is one way to overcome availability issues. It ensures higher gate receipts and crowd policing, which is the club's prime responsibility, likely leads to less overzealous handling of spectators.


Western United’s recent move to Tarneit seems to be a humble, positive start. From little things, big things grow.

Elsewhere, many clubs have access to smaller, football-specific stadiums, such as Industree Group Stadium, Coopers Stadium, AAMI Park, Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, Leichhardt Oval, Marconi Stadium, and plenty of other existing football-specific grounds that could be renovated and brought up to standard at a fraction of the cost of building new grounds.


These football-specific stadiums are the perfect size. Derbies and other big games could still be played at large rectangular stadiums like the Sydney Football Stadium, CommBank, and Suncorp, but the game should continue to increase the pressure on state governments to upgrade grounds like Perry Park because it will assist the long-term viability of the clubs and competition.

The scenes at the 2023/24 Grand Final on the Central Coast surmise all that is good about playing football in the right-sized rectangular stadium.

 

The A-Leagues must live within its means to be sustainable


The APL should work with Football Australia to ensure that domestic transfer fees are introduced throughout the pyramid soon.

 

Rumours that television revenue will be slashed next season may give clubs no choice but to be increasingly frugal with player payments. Whether squad budgets are trimmed or not, it is wise to fast-track the introduction of transfer fees throughout the domestic pyramid.

While it is Football Australia's responsibility to introduce transfer fees, they would likely require support from the APL, PFA, state federations, and the clubs to ensure the reform encompasses the whole football pyramid from the A-Leagues to the NST and NPL competitions. Domestic transfer fees will provide a new revenue stream for clubs and help the entire footballing ecosystem survive and hopefully thrive whilst increasing the importance of youth development.


The Central Coast Mariners have shown everyone a sustainable blueprint on a reduced budget. Smart scouting and an excellent academy focusing on development bring results on the pitch, fans through the turnstiles, trophies in Asia, and economic windfalls through international transfers. The Mariners' develop-and-sell strategy could easily be applied across the league, and fans will embrace it nationwide.


Further expansion alongside the NST


The APL should be shouting from the rooftops that the number of clubs in the league is expanding to 13 next season with Auckland and a New Zealand derby. A Canberra men's team, Tasmania, a second Brisbane team, or a Gold Coast side should follow. The objective must be to even things up to 14 teams as soon as possible, followed by further expansion to a 16-team league, so a 30-game home and away season becomes the new minimum. Once you add pre-season games, the Australia Cup, and the Finals Series, clubs will play at least 35 to 40 competitive games a year, bringing Australia up to speed with many global leagues outside the big five in Europe.

 

Also, Football Australia is about to launch the much anticipated National Second Tier in autumn 2025. The NST will enhance and deepen the local talent production line, provide exciting new narratives for the game, increase income streams around emerging talent, and help Australia keep pace with its Asian rivals.

 

Introduce promotion and relegation


The most critical point of difference in football that the A-Leagues, NST, and NPL tiers need is the global tradition of promotion and relegation throughout the national pyramid.


When it is viable, the romanticized global narratives of who stays up and who goes down must be adopted and celebrated in Australian football culture.

 

Promotion and relegation will organically increase interest and the level of competition. The media interest and storylines will encapsulate the sports-loving Australian public, just as they do all over the world.

Football and non-football-loving people love and relate to 'Welcome to Wrexham' or 'Sunderland 'Til I Die' style storylines and everyone loves the promotion playoffs in England.

 

This point of difference is football's most significant compared to other sports. Yet Australian football's administrators do not seem close to aligning the pyramid with promotion and relegation. The time may not be right now, but the game needs to adopt it at some point.


Celebrate, support, and encourage active fan support

 

Active support is another crucial positive point of difference from other codes.


The noise, colour, chants, and passion football fans display fervently on game day is unique. It has to be celebrated and encouraged at all times.

Relationships between clubs, active supporter groups, and the police are fundamentally important.


The clubs and the APL must help ensure cordial and cooperative relations between supporters, ground staff, and police. This is an absolute priority. Overpolicing has to stop, and active support has to be celebrated. The first Sydney Derby of the 2016/17 campaign, with a 60,000+ crowd, was a high point for active support and A-Leagues atmosphere that the APL must aim to help clubs recreate as much as possible.


The APL and club executives need to encourage communication, growth in numbers, fan days, tifos, and more colour and personality from their fans at matches. For derbies, the APL and the clubs must work closely with the police and active supporter groups to ensure all fans have an enthralling, safe, and enjoyable experience. No one should be charged for singing and having fun at a football game. It is up to the APL and clubs to work with police, stadium staff, and security to help them understand and embrace football fan culture.

Sydney FC's active supporter group, The Cove, at the first Sydney Derby this past season. (Image: Harley Appezzato)


Improve match scheduling and ensure the A-Leagues are on free-to-air TV


The federal government's anti-siphoning scheme prevents subscription television services from gaining broadcasting rights to events before free-to-air stations have had the opportunity to acquire them first.


Ensuring football is added to the anti-siphoning list will indirectly help the A-Leagues financially. It will enhance stability and sustainability by providing more competitive tension around future broadcast deals.

Further, games must be played at the correct times. It sounds simple, but the scheduling for so many years has not made the most sense.


Public holidays like Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Anzac Day, and the long weekend of King's Birthday must always host bumper A-Leagues fixtures. Everyone enjoys going to the football or at least watching games on TV on these occasions.


The APL must work more closely with its TV and subscription partners, Ten and Paramount+, to maximize game day attendance and ratings.


Monday night games, and potentially Thursday night games, should be re-introduced. Should it be possible, the leagues must have a minimum of two 'match of the round' games a week (not just set as the ones on Saturday night/Sunday afternoon), plus a highlights or weekly panel show on Ten's main channel. It has to be the minimum target for season 2024/25.

Paramount recently released improved 2023/24 season stats for its A-Leagues coverage. The A-League Men's and Women's seasons were watched by 5.72 million Australians across Network 10, 10 Play, and Paramount+.


The A-League Men’s Grand Final drew an audience of 1.12 million Australians, a 12% year-on-year increase.

This past season also saw record growth in viewership. Ratings in the A-League Men’s went up 16% on broadcast TV, 33% on 10 Play, and 53% on Paramount+. Meanwhile, the A-League Women’s went up 114% on 10 Play and 125% on Paramount+. Finally, the A-League All Stars matches reached 557,000 Australians.


The above statistics add considerable weight and value to the A-Leagues product.


But imagine the increased growth that can be achieved if the APL pushes for more cross-channel marketing, implements a more effective multi-media strategy, and encourages more A-Leagues coverage from Ten and Paramount's social media channels.


Improve connections to grassroots and community

 

There must be 1,000+ community clubs across the country, maybe even more. Each club has a committee of hard-working volunteers who genuinely love the game. Let’s say there are 3,000+ clubs, and each has an average of six committee members. That is almost 20,000 key, deeply involved club administrators who are fans. The APL needs to assume these community club administrators are royalty, working closely with them and the two million registered junior players to start pushing positive messaging and building proper community football connections.


Further, football-specific people must be placed into key positions. It is interesting when we talk about VAR and say that the referees must have a former or current senior player with them during games, as someone who knows the game and has played at the highest level improves their judgement.


The same principle should apply to key governance positions in Australian football, whether on the APL board, within the clubs, or at the various community establishments nationwide.

 

At the APL level, first and foremost, those involved need business acumen, with a mix of experience, a prior standing in the game, and a willingness to engage with the number one priority, the fans.

The APL urgently needs to consult, listen to, and engage with fans, ensuring those turned away from the game are welcomed back into the fold with open arms. Further, the faithful diehard supporters who will follow the game through all its trials and tribulations need to know the long-term plan of attack so they can get behind it.

 

At the club level, supporters want to align with a set of values and buy into a shared vision with executives. This idea should be no different when considering the relationship between the APL and an A-Leagues fan.

 

The APL has a lot of urgent work to do to recreate a genuine 'football family' and community feel with its customers. These cliches have been overused, but the A-Leagues must genuinely feel them again.

 

READ MORE ON FPF

 

Promote the 'development leagues' angle


The current financial circumstances confronting the A-Leagues should be used by the APL as a lightning rod to fast-track positive change, as per the forced blooding of local young talent during the COVID period.


Football Australia should also consider introducing age quotas for NST squads so that the new league becomes a feeder for the A-Leagues. Similarly, state federations can follow suit to refresh the NPL competitions as development leagues for the NST and A-Leagues.

 

The best players in the premier domestic leagues will naturally rise to the top and progress to more significant Asian and European leagues, eventually representing the Socceroos or Matildas.


All the leagues across the pyramid need to emphasise celebrating and consistently promoting young, emerging Australian footballers.


Ten and Paramount+ cameras should be more accessible at matches, bringing fans closer to the action and positively promoting the young footballers in Australia, many of whom are incredibly marketable.

With the A-Leagues likely to see even more homegrown talents emerging in the future, its media partners would benefit from promoting them. Ten and Paramount should be interested in building player reputations, helping create household names within the league, and building the A-Leagues brand, as this strategy will increase ratings and advertising revenue.


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