Monday, 13 December 2010

TSP's 10 point plan to save the A-League

First a declaration - my interest in the A-League is more as a dispassionate onlooker than a supporter. The standard of football is terrible, the rivalries are manufactured, the team I supported in the NSL weren't allowed in for being too foreign and the trophy they give out to the winning side appears to be a toilet seat.

Realistically I couldn't give a continental whether or not the league prospers or goes completely tits up and ends up bankrupting everyone involved, but recognising that playing "Fantasy Chairman" is far more interesting than doing actual work I've come up with my plan to at least arrest the violent decline that the competition is suffering.

It might not save a competition where ten of the eleven clubs are either financially bollocksed or well on the way but now that the loss of the World Cup bid has effectively harpooned their Plan A for the future (i.e surely people will get up and about for football sometime before 2022) and there doesn't appear to be a Plan B this might be as good as it gets.

Get your red pens and hate out because it's time to start picking holes in the plan.

1 - Make it look like people care
Where possible order every team in the competition to close the side of the ground with the cameras on it to 'fans'. It's no wonder that matches only have attendances of 3 or 4 thousand when people see highlights on television and there doesn't appear to be a single person in the ground.

Force everybody in the arena to be where the camera can see them, and if you have to change the setup of the place to achieve it then do it and do it quickly. There's a big loser vibe hanging around the competition at the moment and it'll be impossible to shake if it goes on too long. Then people will not only stop going to games they'll stop watching them on TV too, Foxtel will decide that it's not worth it and next thing you know it's Central Coast vs Melbourne Heart on Channel 31. On replay. At 3.30am on a Wednesday.

2 - Accentuate the positive
Start preparing for a long term plan to drop the obsession with gigantic stadiums and look for boutique 10k grounds to play in.

It's hard to pull a stadium out of thin air, and there's no doubt that there were a heap of long term contracts signed in haste during the first years of the competition but other than Victory, Adelaide and Perth you've got teams playing in cavernous stadiums that they're never going to fill regularly. Drop the pipe dream that you're going to get 30k to every single match, at least for now, and pump some money into utilising 'secondary' stadiums in each city.

Split matches between the main ground and the smaller venues as required. Make the state federations fund the creation of a 'home of football' rectangular stadium in each capital city which can be used by the A-League teams and for state grand finals.

3 - Put on games that people care about
Can all the midweek games wherever possible and replace them with a national cup comp - even if it's just the 11 teams + 21 of the top state league/New Zealand for a 32 team knockout. Seed it so the 11 A-League teams can't play each other and make them all play their first game at the smaller side's ground.

If you can't find enough state league teams of a decent standard invite the national sides of Fiji, Solomon Islands, East Timor, PNG etc.. to play, it's not like their players are doing anything else on a Wednesday that they won't be able to get out of.

4 - Take it to the streets
Play more matches 'on the road' in cities without A-League teams.

Wellington have got the right idea playing one or two games a year in Christchurch and Dunedin - they get bigger crowds there than at home. Can't believe they don't play more games in Geelong, Canberra, Cairns, Tassie etc.. If I was the Gold Coast I'd much rather play a game in Hobart and get 2000 people than 1700 at home. The main focus on the comp should be TV and good luck if you get a crowd.

There's building your 'brand' and then there's recognising that right now nobody in your city gives a rats and if they do they're almost certainly watching it on television. When the game is live the majority of people don't give a rats where they're watching it from. What it does give you is a chance to show why they should come to your next (heavily promoted on the coverage) home game.

5 - Know your role
Move the dates of the season so that it goes over the start of the footy seasons more than the end.

There's no point starting the comp during AFL/NRL finals and waiting for people to care comes Round 5, you may as well start it against round 1 or pre-season competitions. It's still not ideal, and there should be as little crossover as possible, but you cannot launch a season against the finals of the two biggest competitions.

More importantly drop the rhetoric about how it's the world game and how it should be so much more important than 'native' sports. Maybe it should be, but in this country it isn't - just like how it will never be in the US and their league is on a long-term upswing because they've been smart enough to target the right markets instead of annoying everyone else with a sense of entitlement.

Junior participation figures are all well and good but it means nothing if all your clubs are bankrupt and the kids chuck it in at 15 to play ping pong instead.

6 - Find teams people care about
Maybe this is an outrageous suggestion, but they could invite massive foreign clubs to field a 'reserves' side as the 12th team. Having 11 teams makes no sense, and they could invite a different side every season.

Even if it's Manchester City reserves playing out of Northcote they'll probably generate more interest and TV coverage where it actually counts than having a team in Townsville. Even if you invited some more money than brains freaks like Red Bull to field a different team every year they'd probably buy enough decent name foreign players to keep it interesting.

It's a grubby path to travel down, and it would be unfortunate to have to go in that direction, but the other option is to keep travelling along with teams being propped up by billionaires until they get sick of wasting their money and let the clubs die, leaving the competition with one or two solid, viable teams and a rotating cavalcade of teams from the same city changing their name and going broke every two years.

7 - Reunite with 'old' football
Don't be afraid of letting the state leagues play during summer. Instead of miring them in the winter in front of empty stadiums, treating them like second class citizens and then stealing their players at the end of the year for free embrace them. Play your reserves and youth teams in the state competitions. Kick out the clubs who are thinly veiled political parties and concentrate on the ones that are being run for the right reasons. Play a limited amount of games as curtain raisers to the A-League games in the same city.

8 - Rewrite the past
Shut the fark up about "the bad old days" and how the NSL was apparently a non-stop warzone of ethnic violence. It had its moments, and it's the fault of the people running the game for not doing better to stamp it out, but the majority of matches were conducted in a completely trouble free environment. I seem to recall them even playing the national anthem before every game, something they don't do anymore.

Next time somebody goes off on a rant about the 'bad old days' (i.e anyone who ever talks about the game on SEN) ask them to name off the top of their head their all-time five best NSL riots. Chances are that they'll struggle to get to three without just making something up.

Just because the so called 'football community' can draw a line between 'old football' and 'new football' it doesn't mean everybody else does and the outright lies that are told about what it 'used to be like' do nothing to get the people who think it still is like that to buy into the game.

9 - Plan for the future
A "B-League" with promotion and relegation might not be viable yet, and it might never be, but identify and nurture the best clubs outside the A-League in Australia and New Zealand. Set up a "Champions League" for the best state league teams to play each other, encourage pre-season friendlies between these sides and the A-League clubs. The league has to stop pretending that everything is rosy inside the tent and a complete nightmare outside of it because they're a couple of bored businessmen pulling out away from being in exactly the same situation and playing in front of cow paddocks.

10 - Admit where you've gone wrong
Don't rush to add any new teams.

Introducing a second team in Melbourne was probably the right thing to do, especially considering how many sides there are in NSW and Queensland, but it's going to take a lot of time and a lot of lost money for it to work. I've always said that they should have had two teams in Melbourne and Sydney straight off the bat from season one - there was very little to be gained in building one up and then (supposedly) cutting it in half to create a second team three or four years later.

It's clear that none of the expansion teams have worked. Wellington just about get away with it despite having ordinary crowds, but they were really just a straight swap for the failed Auckland side that fouled up the average attendances of the first season of the competition. Both North Queensland and the Gold Coast have been failed experiments that are either on their last legs or should be. Instead of adding new sides I'd merge those two teams, rebrand them as Queensland and have them play half their games in each location with an eye to television figures instead of crowd attendance.

The FFA have already given up the idea of adding a West Sydney team for now. Despite the success of the first Sydney side they can barely string a crowd together so it was never going to work except as a tax write-off. There are a lot of places in Australia where you could put a team but you wouldn't make a dime - instead of rolling the dice and hoping for the best pair teams up with these cities and have them share their games with them instead of expensive new sides with barely any support or financial backing.

If all else fails just accept that the whole thing is a massive waste of money and give up.

Frank Lowy, despite spending the last ten years trying to convince people that Chadstone: The Fashion Capital is better than anything Westfield has to offer I'm here to help. I'm happy to drop everything and come work for the league right now but I want to be paid up front.

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