Heat waves and football: An A-Leagues controversy
You could class fans of the A-Leagues and football people in general as amongst the most patient of the sporting community. They grit the often undermining of the sport by other codes, the perceived acceptance of mediocrity from organisers and broadcasters, and venture into the summer sun for the team they support. I made the trip to Commbank Stadium in mid-January to take in what was a top-of-the-table clash between Melbourne City and the Western Sydney Wanderers in the scorching sun and unbearable heat.
I admired the professionalism of the talented dribblers on both sides. But I couldn't help but wonder, what if it was a cooler, crisp 18-degree night under the Parramatta lights? A similar situation occurred weeks before between Adelaide United and the Newcastle Jets. With alterations, would Adelaide have been able to be more expansive with their play and effectively use their pace in the wide areas? Would Papas-ball leave heads spinning and chins grinning for the Steel City faithful?
The Wanderers took on Melbourne City in the basking sunlight at Commbank Stadium. (Twitter: @wswanderersfc)
What is Australian football willing to sacrifice to be principally part of the nation's sporting landscape? In a perfect world, the A-Leagues would attract more eyeballs and bums on seats regardless of whatever season it is played. But the world doesn't answer my and many others' beck and call. Australian football fans could be forgiven for thinking that the cruelty of the sporting world is unfairly shouldered onto their code, indifferent to most other organised, professional sports played in Australia.
Football could be better. The last month or so has hinted at much of what needs to be done to rejuvenate the A-Leagues, and by extension, the entire game, to be successful. FPF analyses how the A-Leagues can combat one of professional football's biggest adversaries amidst a season predicated on clean slates and new beginnings. It's an uncontrollable adversary with unimaginable size and unreal power, known as the sun.
Football is a winter sport. Most players cover at least 6.5 kilometres or more over 90 minutes. It is intensely physical and unforgivably tough, regardless of anyone's opinion on the contact players sustained in that period. The A-League and the MLS are the two notable football leagues that spring to mind that compete in the summer season, with European and most of Africa and Asia all primarily completing their professional seasons in the cooler months. It's a difficult predicament to approach.
A January/February start in Australia would allow most games to be completed in much more favourable conditions for players. However, I see the downside to this option without a substantial infrastructure overhaul and significant concessions being taken in the form of crowd numbers and scheduling with the country's other football codes. Considering that rugby lines are sometimes still visible on pitches during the A-League Men Finals Series, my perfect world scenario may be out of reach, at least in short to medium term.
That said, player welfare must be made more of a priority should the league continue down the route of summer season allocations. With the competition in a spot of bother financially and recognisable marquees hard to come by in recent years, attracting international talent is made more difficult by the playing conditions. Speaking to former Adelaide United, Sydney FC, and current Adelaide City sports scientist Nik Hagicostas, he affirmed this assumption.
"They (foreign players) are shocked with the physicality and environmental conditions in Australia. The good foreigners embrace the challenge and look after themselves. But unfortunately, clubs sometimes recruit players that, for one, don’t help the game here and don’t commit to the process in getting up to speed with the conditions [and] often fail, which we’ve seen often in the A-League," Hagicostas said.
Hagicostas also gave his thoughts on the intensity of an Australian football schedule likely to stay the same in the short term.
"The schedule requires tweaking; we are subjecting players to stressful conditions. They (the APL) have to have the capacity to reschedule games in more favourable conditions. We also have to educate fans on player well-being, even if it's not commercially convenient. I am not an expert on the commercial side; however, we need to get the best out of our talent to improve the health of our league. The quarter-time drinks breaks (every 15 minutes) have been successful," he added.
Hagicostas also expressed concerns for female players, with the A-League Women mainly consisting of mid-afternoon kick-offs. He indicated that the conditions they're exposed to, through unrelenting Australian heat, playing surfaces, and available resources, could result in alarming physical outcomes.
However, some adaptations could be made to make the A-Leagues better for players, agreeable to fans, and more attractive to overseas marquees. Firstly, the mid-afternoon kick-offs should be abandoned, at least throughout December to February. With Australian summers intensifying over the last decade, a more creative approach to A-Leagues scheduling must occur. Simultaneous kick-offs were an unwelcome addition to the competitions regarding fan feedback in 2021/22, with many voicing their complaints about not being able to watch their favourite sides live. Frustration was particularly evident when two blockbuster matches were aligned and televised simultaneously.
However, what has become an enjoyable part of the Saturday football viewing ritual in the women's game, DubZone, is a model the men's game could adapt to allow for later, simultaneous kick-offs in more favourable conditions for players. This move may appease fans, who now have the option to watch a panel discuss two games simultaneously with the primary telecasts being broadcasted elsewhere on the Paramount+/Channel 10 network.
But later kick-offs mean less family-friendly times for matches to be attended by children and their parents. Later start times (7:30-8pm) are often challenging for children to play a part in due to fatigue from both the infants and their football-loving families. But more kid-friendly activities at the grounds, run by the APL, such as signed posters being handed out or inflatable clappers and the like, may be an adequate compromise. Clubs could work more closely with event management staff to allow for more family-friendly seating arrangements, with sections where alcohol isn't permitted and far away from active support areas containing the more boisterous fans.
Western United's Connor Pain looks dejected after defeat against the Wanderers last weekend. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
This change may inconvenience some parents who responsibly enjoy an alcoholic beverage on a family outing at the football. But a whole stand dedicated to families is undoubtedly an initiative that may pave over the cracks shown in the past couple of weeks, which have likely turned away some families from attending A-Leagues matches regardless.
These ideas are just that, ideas. With no reliable data on how successful these suggested initiatives would be to the health of the professional game, we are unlikely to see change. However, all stakeholders in Australian football, including Football Australia and the APL, the A-Leagues commercial body, must address this problem. The 3pm kick-offs may have been suitable for a family day out, but not when thirty-plus-degree heat renders fans sticky and restless, not to mention the cost of applying aloe vera to scorched skin.
The players deserve a better working environment. If we love the game and want it to succeed, seeing domestic talent perform at its best can only boost the league's profile in Australian and international sporting circles. The APL can't change the weather, but we are now in a modern society that has learnt to navigate Australia's often treacherous conditions. Perhaps a new approach to A-Leagues scheduling and player welfare is required to keep the league cool, crisp, and fresh to the consumer.
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