Could an A-Leagues "Magic Round" help reignite fan interest and generate funds?
The AFL's inaugural "Gather Round", hosted in South Australia, was a resounding success for the competition, its fans, and the state. With fans of the A-Leagues still alienated by the APL's Grand Final sale, Front Page Football recently asked two A-League Men coaches and a super fan about their views on a potential "Magic Round" as an engagement initiative for the league.
Sydney FC fans celebrate a goal their side scored away at Melbourne Victory. (Twitter: @aleaguemen)
Football and travel have always gone hand in hand. Winning at home is sweet, but any football fan that has travelled away from their comfort zone to make up the minority of a crowd and has experienced the winning feeling behind enemy lines will tell you there is nothing like it.
The pride in one's area and the sense of superiority when claiming victory over cross-town or cross-border rivals has seen fans in Australia spend large sums of money on travelling long distances and experiencing 90 minutes of agony that may lead to unbridled joy or misery.
This fact contributes to what has made the APL's decision to sell the hosting rights to Grand Finals for the next three years to the New South Wales government so unpopular. Fans do not hate the travel; they hate the idea of the team proven to be the best in the land being robbed of its most significant honour.
Earning the right to host a Grand Final was a show of superiority, where one's team would have a shot at immortality on their terms. If your team had to travel for the big day, as a fan, you travelled to spoil the day on the chance you could celebrate winning it all in your opponent's backyard.
The narrative and tradition were spoiled when, without fan consultation, the APL decided to sell the rights of that advantage to the New South Wales Government, with any post-World Cup excitement turning into rage.
Adelaide United manager Carl Veart recently stated that he understands the disappointment. But he feels like the APL's decision to set up a "festival of football", though poorly executed, was the right intention.
"I think that the APL have good intentions with what they wanted to do with the game; it was just poorly delivered. I am sure they are aware of that now, and we need all football supporters to get behind it because, in the end, we need the game to have success," he said ahead of Adelaide's clash against Western United two weeks ago.
Veart's assessment is correct. But fans, just like any event, are patrons; at the end of the day, they will act as such. Should they not agree with what is being sold to them while feeling upset and neglected by the "sellers", they will not buy.
The APL plans to create a significant, week-long event celebrating football. The headline act is the Grand Final, a deal backed by the New South Wales Government. The AFL struck a similar deal with the South Australian government to bring an entire round of the code to Adelaide.
Not only did South Australians turn out for the AFL, but the league's fans were also excited by the concept, with Adelaide receiving an influx of interstate travellers. The stark difference in reaction to the two announcements boils down to the AFL organising an event to celebrate the sport without leaving their fans feeling like they had been slighted or neglected.
A-Leagues fans are open to travelling for away games, and cities like Sydney and Melbourne host most clubs. It is questionable why the league's governing body did not try to raise money through a similar event in the same place before jumping straight into selling the Grand Final with no fan consultation.
It would not be as big an event as the AFL's, and the money would not be as significant. But bringing everyone together in the tight Australian football circle could have been an exciting initiative.
Getting all 12 fanbases in the same city simultaneously will see fans attend multiple games. But it will also create an atmosphere of fans wanting their side to best their opposition on the field and outperform their counterparts in the stands. If executed correctly, an event like the "Gather Round" could create the buzz the APL sought when it decided to sell the Grand Final hosting rights.
According to Adelaide United superfan "Red Wig" Steve Cervaro, who is regularly seen travelling around the country following his club, a "Magic Round" is a move the APL should consider to mend ties with the league's supporters.
When Cervaro heard about the Grand Finals sale, he thought it was a joke. Having travelled to every away game in Adelaide United's championship-winning season, few fans can talk about seeing their side host a Grand Final like Cervaro.
Working in the Adelaide CBD during the AFL's "Gather Round", Cervaro stated that he loved seeing the city "buzzing" with its influx of visitors and that it is something he believes could work in the A-Leagues, especially if the APL diverted its promise of travel packages to a similar event.
"If it was ever tested, I can see the fans travelling all over Australia to experience it. If the A-League could do a flight/accommodation package for the fans, I could really see it working," Cervaro said.
While Cervaro believes the APL's initiatives can be successful in the future, he unequivocally stated that any of its plans could only move forward once it has won the fans back, something he thinks can only happen by reversing the unpopular decision.
"If the APL is serious about getting the fans back, they have to revert back to the old way. If you earn the right to host the Grand Final, then you host it," Cervaro concluded.
After attending every home and away game in the 2015/16 A-League Men season, Adelaide United players celebrated their home Grand Final win with "Red Wig" Steve Cervaro. (Instagram: @red_wig_steve_)
If the APL were to host a "Magic Round", logically, the first destination would be Sydney, with three of the 12 A-Leagues clubs based in the Harbour City and two more a couple of hours north. The APL seemingly do not have the fan trust to reward something else to the state of New South Wales, though, without cries of bias and further alienation, even if it is on merit.
Melbourne, which hosts three teams, would also be a logical option, as would cities like Adelaide and Perth, once the concept got off the ground in the future. Just like the Grand Final sale, this move would be a trial that could raise much-needed funds—but done in a much less intrusive and morally subjective way for the fans than the Grand Finals route.
When asked about the concept after his side's clash against Adelaide United, Western United manager John Aloisi stated that he is unsure whether the league is at a point where it can execute a project like that. He expanded by saying the APL should not lean into competing with other codes but should appreciate the league for what it is and improve on that.
Aloisi praised the Reds for getting a solid crowd, despite going up against the "Gather Round".
"What I love is that there were 10,000 (people) here tonight. For me, that is brilliant," Aloisi said.
"That is what we have to strive for. We don't have to worry about the other code and what we are getting when the other code is on. We always say that we can't play in winter because we clash with the other codes; who cares?
"Adelaide got a full house here the other night (against Sydney). It was sold out, and the footy is on. Let's focus on our football, our A-League; let's keep building it up; it was a great atmosphere tonight."
Aloisi's observations about Adelaide are correct. But the question remains, how does the rest of the league reach a similar point? Each club's on, and off-field management will dictate the connection fans feel for their respective clubs. But as the league's governing body, the APL is responsible for ensuring fans, old and new, engage with their product.
Winning back fans is going to be a long-term project. Aloisi may have praised Adelaide United, but the current ownership group has only recently started seeing a consistent turnout by fans. It has taken years of work in many different areas.
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The "Magic Round" concept may divide opinion, but the APL must act to win fans back. Supporters need to feel like they are being heard. While a "festival of football" is not bad, it has muddled the sacred Grand Final tradition and excluded every club but the Grand Finalists, making it a celebration few seem particularly excited for.
The argument that this new Grand Final format can attract neutral fans is unrealistic. With the rising cost of living, not many fans will go out of their way to travel should there be nothing in it for them. Sydneysiders, like many fans around the country, do not get close to filling their home grounds every week either, so it is hard to see them flocking to the Grand Final should a team in the state not be involved.
A weekend in a city with six games on, featuring everyone's club for a regular season round of football, would see fans more open to taking the plunge. An early fixture that fans can get around and offers for transportation and accommodation, along with some strong advertising, could make a potential "Magic Round" successful.
Experiences like that can re-engage fans with the league and fellow supporters and organically sweep up new fans through the excitement such an event can generate. Compared to a Grand Final the majority of A-Leagues fans don't feel particularly excited about, it becomes a no-brainer.
Whatever the APL decides to do next in its quest to win back fans, it must ensure the stakeholders most affected by their decision are consulted and listened to. Proper due diligence could have seen the situation the league finds itself in initially avoided.
A "Magic Round" and any other initiative the APL gets behind next starts with the disadvantage of following the fallout from the Grand Final sale. The APL's reputation has taken a hit in the eyes of the fans, and it is hard to see supporters extending their goodwill should the deal still be in effect.
APL CEO Danny Townsend described fans' initial reaction as "emotional". But it has been months since the announcement, and that emotion is still evident in A-Leagues circles. As the Finals Series takes place over the next month, that emotion will likely be more prominent than ever.
To ensure their next major step is not doomed before being introduced, the APL should consider letting its deal with the New South Wales Government run its course or terminate it early. Fan anger has been uncomfortable for the APL to deal with. But what will further hurt the league's custodians is the apathy brought about by any decision as perplexing as the Grand Final sale.
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