FFA takes punt on new A-League teams in Melbourne, Sydney but time will tell if it works
Will the FFA’s expansion plans create greater interest in the A-League? (AAP: Darren England, file photo)
Upon the addition of two new A-League clubs based in Melbourne and Sydney, the obvious question is whether Australian football has grown the pie or will merely serve thinner slices.
The optimistic hope is that new franchises in the growth corridor from Melbourne’s west to Geelong and Sydney’s burgeoning football-friendly south-west will bring new fans to the A-League — and, as pertinently, eyeballs to the screen.
Not, as some existing A-League clubs fear, merely prompt Melbourne Victory fans from the west join their new local franchise and Western Sydney Wanderers supporters to swap red and black for the (presumably) big green kit of Macarthur South-West Sydney at Campbelltown Sports Stadium.
In this context the fear is not that A-League expansion has come too early, but that it has come too late. That recent seasons of inertia mean the new franchises will enter a league with all the momentum of a tortoise with a dodgy hamstring.
One that, in contrast with its significant summer rivals such as the Big Bash League and even the (still very gradually) resurgent National Basketball League, is struggling for relevance and visibility in the youth market particularly.
Richard Hinds tweet: Biggest take out from @ALeague expansion presser: “Second division working group” to be established. That’s where the growth will come from.
Another valid concern was that creating new franchises would stall the implementation of the promised second-tier competition and, in turn, the initiation of a promotion/relegation model that embraces teams with an existing connection to local communities and young participants.
So the tease of new A-League chair Chris Nikou that a “second-division working group” would be announced next week seemed highly significant on a day when the FFA might once have used the two new franchises to stifle the hopes of promotion-relegation advocates, not excite them.
With the new licence fee cheques in the mail, perhaps the now Lowy-less FFA board has realised that both top-end expansion and growth through reconnection with local clubs in a second — and perhaps even third and fourth — division are possible.
For now, the winning bids the Western Melbourne Group and Macarthur South-West Sydney are concepts, not yet clubs, even allowing for the promisingly football-friendly geographical regions they hope to mine.
A-League stays with ‘manufactured’ clubs over heritage
Of the six short-listed bidders the lone exception to the new franchise model was South Melbourne, always a long shot because of the belief another inner-Melbourne club would cannibalise existing support for Melbourne Victory and also its strong Greek heritage.
In this regard, “Hellas” was the souvlaki in the room. The embarrassing reminder of the FFA’s national club identity policy that, at length, led to the ludicrous situation whereby “ethnic” clubs were forced to cover national symbols during FFA Cup games, while commentators waxed lyrical about the exotic multicultural food stalls.
South Melbourne fans during the FFA Cup semi-final match against Sydney FC in Melbourne on October 11, 2017. (AAP: Joe Castro, file photo)
This is not to suggest successful clubs cannot be created, especially those with a strong geographical base as Western Sydney Wanderers proved when they were (belatedly) added to the competition.
The catch-all brands of Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC and the one-team-city clubs Brisbane Roar, Adelaide United and Perth Glory have done a decent job gathering support, especially when they are winning and the local media is running the predictable “us-against-the-world” agenda.
Indeed, such has been support for various A-League clubs, albeit at different times and now bygone seasons, no-one could seriously suggest the current dwindling ratings and flat-lining crowds are a reasonable representation of the game’s true popularity and potential.
Rather, the current malaise is the cumulative result of decades of fussing, feuding, maladministration, incompetence and — very pertinently — enormous competition in a small and crowded marketplace.
FFA needs to make up for lost time
Most recently the momentum lost when the FFA became distracted by the botched World Cup bid and the subsequent failure to secure meaningful free-to-air TV coverage and sufficient media rights revenue stalled the A-League’s growth.
Now for an optimistic day or two, expansion provides yet another opportunity for the game to prove it can fulfil that elusive and frustrating potential — although only if the new FFA board has asked the most pertinent question of its new franchise holders.
Can these new clubs help create the bottom-to-top connection desperately needed by a game whose greatest involvement with the grassroots is currently the heavy participation tax it imposes on its youngest stakeholders?
FFA chairman Chris Nikou (right) and David Gallop at the expansion announcement in Sydney. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
Again, the major concern is that manufactured A-League clubs are asking fans and sponsors to come to them rather than evolving from the bottom up as might be the case when a proposed second division provides opportunities for existing clubs to enter the league and vie for promotion to the top flight.
Scan the globe and that is a snapshot of football in most other nations — the lavish funding and inevitable dominance of the giants complemented by the community engagement of the smaller clubs who are, notionally at least, equal parts of the one football family.
This is why the glimmer of a meaningful second division seemed as significant as the imposition of two new teams on the current A-League.
West Melbourne Group and Macarthur South-West Sydney might engender meaningful support from the areas upon which they will be imposed.
But the regeneration of existing clubs, and the recognition of their heritage, is even more likely to bridge the vast gap between the game’s elite competition and its grassroots.