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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

A-Leagues fans erupt as "incredibly shortsighted" APL sells out Grand Final

It's been a little over a week after the Socceroos sent Australian football fans into a frenzy. But now the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) has disappointed the masses by selling the A-Leagues Grand Finals to Sydney for the next three seasons. Front Page Football spoke with an interstate and Sydney-based fan to gauge their reaction to the bombshell announcement.

The 2015/16 A-League saw Adelaide United host a Grand Final that attracted 50,000 spectators. (Twitter: @AdelaideUnited)

On the 12th of December 2022, the custodians of the A-Leagues sold out its point of difference. This aspect makes it unique in world football and a positive example for Australian sports.

A significant point of frustration for fans of principal Australian codes like the NRL and the AFL is that their Grand Finals are locked into one city for the foreseeable future. The NRL and the AFL Grand Finals have traditionally been played in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively, regardless of the participants.

To make matters worse, the NRL has committed to Accor Stadium until 2046, while the AFL has committed to the MCG until 2057, with interstate Grand Finals impossible. On the other hand, the A-Leagues Grand Finals have continuously resided with the higher-ranked team, with the big day hosted on merit and merit alone.

This aspect made the league unique amongst Australia's principal sporting codes. For example, both Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide fans have experienced their sides winning Grand Finals in Melbourne. But nothing compares to Adelaide United earning the right to host a Grand Final at home, selling out Adelaide Oval, and claiming glory in front of a partisan, 50,000-strong sea of red.

Front Page Football spoke to Adelaide United and Port Adelaide supporter Phillip Rollas, who co-founded the supporter group The Alberton Crowd, He was dismayed about the APL's decision to strip his and many other clubs of the opportunity to host the most significant event in the domestic football calendar.

Rollas did not hold back when discussing the APL's decision from the point of view of an interstate fan.

"As an interstate fan, it’s insulting. I think of the club’s (Adelaide's) well-known fan, Steve ‘Red Wig’ Cervaro. Most years, [he] will travel to support Adelaide home and away, virtually every match. Consider his time commitment, emotional investment, financial contribution, and other involvement. He alone deserves to be rewarded by watching his club in a home Grand Final," Rollas said.

Being in Melbourne to support Port Adelaide the weekend of May 1st 2016, Rollas had to change his plans and return to Adelaide early to make the Grand Final. It was a decision he did not regret. Adelaide's moniker is "United", and Rollas feels that the build-up of hosting the Grand Final truly united his home city.

"The Grand Final was held at Adelaide Oval – reputed for being a poor venue for football – but it was an unreal experience. The atmosphere was outstanding, and there was a buzz throughout Adelaide in the lead-up and on the day not seen in the city previously," he added.

"The previous ownership consortium of Adelaide United from 2010 to 2018 behaved in a manner that saw many fans stop attending games and engaging with the club. However, the Grand Final seemed to bring many of these supporters back, with a kind of unity not felt or seen in several years."

Rollas admits that many aspects would factor into a potential decision to travel to a Sydney-based Grand Final. Should his side earn the right to host the event by finishing higher than its opposition on the ladder, that would complicate matters further.

"It (travelling) depends on multiple factors, particularly cost. Airline price gouging and scalping must be outlawed. I doubt I would, including to make a statement. If there were other favourable or necessary reasons to hypothetically travel to Sydney at that same time, it would be up for consideration," he said.

Despite the Grand Final being locked into their city for the short-term future, many Sydneysiders are unhappy with the announcement. Sydney FC supporter Michelle Morris, a committed fan that has experienced Grand Finals home and away, described the decision as "incredibly shortsighted."

"The decision makes me feel like we, the fans, weren’t even considered in the process. It is like they had an offer and said yes without thinking of every possible outcome. We always talk about how our fans are so different from other codes, and the fan bases are what makes our league stand out, but it seems we only matter when it suits them," she said.

Morris knows all too well about travelling to away Grand Finals, having made the journey from Sydney to Perth in 2019. She empathises with the fans who will have to fork out absurd amounts of money when they should be celebrating their side's achievements in their home city.

"As a Sydney fan, I can definitely empathise with interstate fans. I remember travelling to Perth for the Grand Final in 2019 and asking my mum to help because the flights were $700 return. I couldn’t imagine what the price would be now. Everything is expensive; flights, accommodation, food, tickets for the match," Morris added.

"In a time where the cost of living is so high, they decide to make this decision? I cannot wrap my head around it. The only advantage would be if Sydney makes the final as the home team; that would be the only way I would be happy. But if we were to qualify as the away team, I would feel like it’s cheating to have us host."

The more you dig into the matter, the clearer it becomes that the decision was purely made for financial reasons without taking the stakeholders that live and breathe the game into account. The all-time attendance list for Grand Finals reads Perth, Melbourne, Melbourne, Brisbane, Brisbane, Brisbane, and Adelaide. All seven of those Grand Finals recorded over 50,000 attendees. They have now had the possibility of a home Grand Final cruelly taken away from them overnight, with no indication or consultation.

A Men's Grand Final in Sydney like last season's between Melbourne City and Western United, two sparsely supported Victorian clubs, would leave the APL red-faced. The possibility of a potential Perth-Wellington Grand Final in Sydney is more of a horrifying than humorous proposition. And what if a Women's Grand Final is removed from the backyards of grassroots football fans? What if these fans who idolise their club's stars miss out because of a deal that seemingly failed even to consider them in decision-making? That is nothing short of a disaster.

Fans are undoubtedly upset that the momentum garnered by the Socceroos has now been halted. Furthermore, their dreams of hosting a Grand Final have been dashed. But it's made worse by the APL committing to selling this idea to the fans as a positive.

"This is a unique opportunity to build a tradition for football fans. When you think about a cup final in England, you think about the trip to Wembley, and we want fans in Australia to look forward to the A-Leagues finals in the same way," APL CEO Danny Townsend said in the announcement.

England is a small, densely populated country with an abundance of clubs with waiting lists for their members. Australia, on the other hand, is a continent inhabited by 40 million fewer people than the United Kingdom, with football crowds often made up of more seats than members that use them.

Before attempting to sell idealistic traditions with out-of-context examples from a country that lives and breathes football, the APL should first focus on getting people through the doors. Deciding to sell the one event that guarantees bums on seats in any major city in Australia is not the way to go about it.

Should the APL require a cash injection, they must be honest and should not insult the league's fans. Fans pay their hard-earned money to keep the competition and sport alive and must be treated with respect. It does not take a deep dive into the history books to find out how Australian fans react to being disrespected.

Townsend's statement came across as tone-deaf to football fans, not resonating with many around the country, let alone in Sydney. (Instagram: @aleagues)

When the APL separated from Football Australia, its mission statement ended by proclaiming: "Guided by a vision to unite, entertain, and grow the football audience in Australia, the A-Leagues showcase the most inclusive, welcoming, and truly national sport. That alone is worth celebrating."

Such seismic decisions made without fan consultation do not unite, entertain or grow the excitement for football in Australia. Instead, they feed into the stereotype that Australian football has an inevitable knack for shooting itself in the foot, regardless of the favourable positions they occasionally stumble in.

The one positive is that this potentially disastrous move has only been committed for three years. There is a real possibility of the APL realising its mistake and returning to what was an inclusive, welcoming, truly national, and most importantly, fair Grand Final system.

That alone is worth celebrating.

Click here to listen to the rest of the Front Page Football crew give their thoughts on the Grand Finals decision via our podcast network.

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