As the thirteenth running of the A-League draws ever nearer and excitement builds around what promises to be another gripping season, membership numbers continue to build, new international signings arrive and fresh kits are unveiled.
The game has ridden a wave of ups and downs over the years and the current state of play sees the league looking healthy yet suffering from something akin to an irritating and lingering sore throat that pops up each morning.
No matter how much Vitamin C or echinacea you throw at it, it rears its head each day just to remind you that things are not quite right and that more time is required before the lurgee is defeated.
Putting it in football terms, some extremely poor crowd figures in particular cities, the ongoing battle for a more significant presence on free-to-air television and the task of developing our young players to international standard on our own shores, continue to cause discussion and debate.
Seeing Wellington increase its supporter base, creating a comfy home on Channel Ten with the new backing of CBS and better development of youth, particularly attacking players, should be three of the key objectives for the powers at be.
There is no magic formula and time is the greatest ally that football in Australia has. However, sitting back and waiting for the natural evolution of football, as it morphs into the beast which it will undoubtedly become, isn’t the best course to follow.
Aggressive marketing, junior development and attracting fans of the international game to the league, are three key components in increasing the speed of the wave that football currently rides.
There is no doom and gloom, merely some tough decisions and moments ahead, where patience and poise will be key.
Expansion can’t be too far away, surely, and promotion-relegation must happen. Short term pain for long term gain might be a realistic part of the equation.
In identifying some of the future challenges and speed bumps ahead, it is dangerous to spread negativity or fatalism. Football will thrive, there is no doubt about that. There are so many young people playing the game, especially women, that the transfer of numbers will eventually take place.
However, the challenge of connecting the millions of footballing loving people in Australia to the A-League, to the point where they join clubs and attend matches more frequently, is our primary challenge.
Personally, I am surprised it hasn’t occurred already.
When I look at the A-League I see something that many don’t. Certainly the Euro snob crowd don’t, nor do some hard core supporters of other codes, who, unlike me, pitch their tent in one game and fail to see the skill and merit across a broader range of sports.
So what do I see when I look at the A-League? The word ‘see’ is vital in that question. I can see it live and in prime time.
For generations Australians have watched football in the most inconvenient and offensive time zones. Watching EPL teams at three a.m. in the morning with match sticks in my eyes does my productivity at work no favours. Most European leagues fall into this category.
Major League Soccer in the U.S.A is a far more attractive option, as are some of the La Liga games which often hit our screens around eight or nine pm.
While some might suggest it foolish to include time zone and accessibility as a point of attractiveness for the A-League, one only has to think back to the uproar around the change in broadcaster rights for the EPL.
Foxtel customers were furious, sceptical of download speeds and reliability issues. They didn’t want a second box or tablet viewing while huddled under a doona.
The number of people who voted with their feet and are watching far less EPL than in previous years, myself included, is considerable.
Optus’ 2016 figures saw an 11.8 per cent decrease in profits despite a solid pickup in handset growth. Early 2017 figures suggested financial growth and a first step towards a payoff on their $189 million investment. Yet data from late 2016 suggested a drop off (10 per cent, approximately) in the number of Australians engaging with the EPL content.
Unless my allegiance lay with the big six, why would I bother? My league is accessible, supported by excellent midweek programs and viewed live in HD.
This season, as is mostly the case, predicting the winners of the A-League will prove immensely difficult. One would think Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City will be strong once again. The Wanderers look extremely powerful and should feature once they have introduced themselves to each other and Perth, Brisbane and a rebuilt Adelaide should never be written off.
The Mariners will go in as youthful dark horses and the Jets and Phoenix will tail off most people’s pre-season selections. At this stage, I am only prepared to write of three teams from championship contention.
The A-League honour roll has seen six of the ten current clubs nab the ‘toilet seat’ and two others suffer losses in the grand final. Compare that with the two-clubbed La Liga and the absurd financial domination of the big six in England’s top league, throw in Scotland and other examples and my local league stacks up pretty well for parity.
Watching my A-League club each week makes sense to me. I understand Sydney FC, the city, the people. I get the fact that Sydney is inhabited by elitist snobs who look down upon the rest of the nation. Secretly we are proud of our exorbitant housing prices, we smugly grin, knowing we are just that far ahead of interstate peasants.
Following a local team means much more because of the understanding and appreciation of the identity and fabric of the organisation. Sure I can cheer on West Ham United yet what knowledge and deep connection do I have to the ‘Irons’. Despite my Anglo-Celtic heritage, the bonds are peripheral and circumstantial.
Even more tenuous are connections to other teams I enjoy watching and loosely support. Paris St Germain and AC Milan are merely good looking strips that caught my eye, rather than organisations with whom I share a true relationship.
People still look at me oddly when I tell them the A-League is my favourite league and they openly question my sanity when I tell them that the FFA Cup is my favourite Cup competition.
They cite the value of the players, the quality of play and the lack of attendees and atmosphere that pervades many games. I can see their view yet there is something they are missing.
What they don’t get is the fact that not everyone in the broad footballing landscape of Australia wants to watch overpaid megastars with whom they have little or no affiliation, play in lopsided mismatches at an ungodly hour.
Some of us are happy to watch our domestic league, with all its failings, quirks and idiosyncrasies, knowing full well that in the years to come we will squeeze into packed stadiums to watch our heroes.
All the time remembering that we were there at the beginning, when we bickered, wavered and buckled under the weight of our own expectations.