Why You're Not Watching The A-League
The product and its narrative have, at times, seemed dull, boring and stale.
The final whistle has blown on another A-League season.
The final series provided much of what you want and expect from sport -- unpredictability, skill, drama, surprise and, ultimately controversy in the biggest game of the year.
But for all of that, the weeks that preceded the finals series highlighted a competition battling for its place in the Australian sporting landscape. As the season progressed and both crowds and television ratings dwindled, the season seemed lacklustre and, at times, dull.
The biggest problem troubling the A-League is that their message is continually swamped by other sports. Playing in the summer months was designed to give them clear air from the AFL and NRL, but in reality, the summer sports calendar is now as jammed packed as it’s ever been.
Since its inaugural season in 2005-06, the competition to the A-League has come thick and fast -- in particular from some of Australia’s most historically and culturally significant sports. The AFL has continued to grow its product well beyond the final siren of the Grand Final. Trade Week has become an event. So, too, has the draft. They’ve also added AFLW and AFLX to the mix and their pre-season competition starts in February.
Cricket has added the Big Bash, which has grown year on year. Next year, the Big Bash will add an extra 16 matches to its fixture, ensuring its season will extend into February.
This is all extra competition for the hearts and minds of Australian sports fans who only have so much time, energy and money to spend.
But the competition comes from within the game, too. Advanced technology, particularly in the form of digital platforms and streaming services means the world has never been so small. We can now access overseas sports with ease, meaning international products, such as the English Premier League (EPL), now legitimately compete for our attention.
Top flight European leagues are immensely popular here in Australia -- so much so, many football fans follow it more intently and passionately than our local competition. The action in these leagues is truly elite and can act as a stark reminder that the A-League is not the premium product of its sport.
What is the A-League’s identity? Is it the best competition in the region? Is it the breeding ground for future stars? Whatever it is, the game and its marketing team need to sell it to us.
The product and its narrative have, at times, seemed dull, boring and stale. Perhaps it’s because it’s a long season and every team has to play the other teams three times. This can become monotonous.
Perception is everything -- low crowds and poor television audiences manifest the problem. Average crowds dropped to less than 11,000 this year, down around 13 percent. There were times throughout the season where the AFLW, a competition in just its second season, was generating higher TV ratings than the A-League.
Not helping is the fact the EPL is no longer available on Fox Sports, with Optus now its exclusive Australian rights holder. Football fans who simply can’t afford both a Foxtel and Optus subscription are now forced to choose between the two, with many choosing the EPL over the A-League.
All of this is a reminder of how difficult it is for the game to ingrain itself into Australia’s sporting culture. At the end of the day, the AFL has the advantage of the fact that its game has been around almost as long as the city of Melbourne itself. This historical significance of this today should not be underestimated.
Make no mistake, the A-League has rusted on fans, and the final series was a reminder of just how exciting the competition can be. But significantly, it appears they've been unable to grow their supporter base, or at the least grow it at the rate they wanted.
Keep in mind, the current sports landscape is tough. There are more teams, competitions and events than ever. Traditional sports such as the AFL and Cricket Australia are continually trying to extend their seasons and their relevance and continue to go back to the same 24 million Australians and ask for more.
So, perhaps not all sports are going to prosper. In fact, some may fall by the way side. It’s up to the A-League to make sure it’s not them.