A-League needs a New York state of mind


Given the recent travails of the A-League – clubs being propped up by Football Federation Australia, poor crowd figures, public indifference due to lack of free-to-air coverage – it’s almost become a sport in itself trying to figure out exactly what the hell is wrong with it and how it can be fixed.

Some think expansion is the key. Others community engagement. Some argue the future is in our youth. Others that it lies in Asia. The long-term solution is probably a combination of all the above.

Yet I believe there is a short-term fix that is far more prosaic yet could be just as impactful and we only have to look across the Pacific to find an example of how it can be done. While the A-League is stagnating Major League Soccer is booming. Next year two more franchises, Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers, will be joining the extant 16-team American league.

In 2012, Montreal Impact will be added and Brazilian legend Pelé has plans to make a reloaded New York Cosmos the 20th team to be granted an MLS licence. The MLS started with ten teams in 1996. It has faced similar cultural, marketing and financial challenges to that experienced by the A-League and even seen some clubs collapse altogether during its short lifespan, but to be double the size of what it was when it started out clearly indicates it is not just doing something right but doing it very well.

Sure, comparing a nation of 300 million people and its economy of scale to Australia’s 20 million is always going to be an unflattering exercise. But that doesn’t mean we have to be defeatist about our lot. Like the heroes that won the America’s Cup yacht race for Australia in 1983, we just need to be smarter, spend money to make money and take a few leaps of faith.

When the A-League started in 2005, it exploded on the Australian sporting scene due to the presence of one man: Dwight Yorke.

“All Night Dwight” was a fading star but he had enough wattage left to draw scores of people through the turnstiles not just at the Sydney Football Stadium but at grounds around the country. The A-League as a whole benefited greatly from Sydney’s largesse.

The agent for Yorke at the time is the publisher of this website, Lou Sticca, and he told me recently, “Dwight was worth every cent he was paid and the crowds justified the investment.”

Having seen the effect Robbie Fowler, another ex-Premier League player and so-called “marquee”, has already had for Perth Glory this season I have come around to agree with Lou.

Australia is not a terribly sophisticated or mature football nation. While us in the football media can see the greater benefits to the league of closer ties to Asia, the fast-tracking of talented juniors and the hiring of canny managers from Europe, the most expeditious way to stop the A-League rot will be by bringing in more big-name players. It’s not terribly creative but it’s effective.

That is what the MLS has been assiduously doing since about 2007, when David Beckham joined Los Angeles Galaxy under a new designated player rule, the American equivalent of the A-League’s marquee provision. Other genuine European stars with something left in the tank have followed him: Juan Pablo Angel, Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez.

And from an original limit of one designated player for each team, two are now permitted outside the MLS’s salary cap (the MLS is the only other league in the world with a salary cap in place). A third can also be drafted, provided a “luxury tax” of $250,000 is paid to the league, which is then evenly distributed among the other clubs who do not have a third designated player.

New York Red Bulls has three designated players in Henry, Marquez and Angel. From finishing last in the Eastern Conference in 2009, the Red Bulls are now comfortably in second place just behind Columbus Crew, which puts them in pole position for the playoffs, and, more importantly, have increased their attendances dramatically from the previous season.

Their gate average for home games at the new 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena currently sits above 20,000, well up on 2009’s average of 12,000 at Giants Stadium. Their August 14 match against LA Galaxy was a sellout, following on from a near-sellout in the opening round at the same venue against Chicago Fire. A crowd of 22,000 saw them defeat San Jose Earthquakes on August 28. Clearly the trail of stardust is having an effect, on and off the pitch.

The brutal truth is big names please the aficionados but they also tweak the curiosity of casual followers of the game. And it’s these “casuals” that the A-League desperately needs to lure back if it is ever again going to enjoy a prolonged Indian summer like the one Yorke brought with him to Australia all those years ago.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility for the A-League to attract a major former Premier League star such as Henry to these shores.

Obviously it will necessitate a great deal of money from an owner with deep pockets but the most important requirement is vision. The A-League’s marquee rule arguably is not being used in the spirit for which it was intended and it most certainly is not being exploited for commercial ends as well it could be.

It’s time the A-League had a major rethink. It’s time for a New York state of mind.