COMMENT: Old Soccer can’t save New Football in Australia

Melbourne Victory founder Tony Ising says the A-League will never thrive in Australia kowtowing to the elements of 'old soccer'. 

Melbourne Victory founder Tony Ising says the A-League will never thrive in Australia kowtowing to the elements of 'old soccer'.

 
Lyall Gorman is a lovely bloke. He’s an absolute gentleman, a pleasure to meet and with whom to do business.

But as the FFA’s Head of A-League, he needs to decide whether his competition is Arthur or Martha, because his latest comments indicate that he is leading a competition with an identity crisis. An identity crisis which needs sorting out pretty quick smart if the league is to regain its place as an emerging power in the Australian sports landscape.

Lyall says “There are a lot of people from old soccer, if you like, people who for one reason or another have not got on board the A-League.”

Really? Who are these people? Is this claim backed up with any substantive evidence? The reason we now have an A-League is because there were insufficient people from “old soccer” to maintain a commercially viable NSL. If the FFA thinks it can rescue the A-League by pandering to non-existent supporters of the NSL then it is on a hiding to nothing. The NSL also appealed to an aging demographic. Six years on, the archetypal NSL fan is not getting any younger. Again, not the brightest marketing strategy for an emerging sport.

''We need to get them involved again. The FFA Cup will help with that …” says Lyall.

Really? How? The FFA Cup sounds like a great idea in theory, but how many people does Lyall hope to convert from the state leagues? First of all, there is simply no critical mass. The potential audience simply doesn’t justify the FFA making state league fans its priority marketing target in 2011. Secondly, you’re implementing a competition which pits state league clubs against A-League clubs. It’s a stretch to assume that these fans are then going to come and support the teams they are battling against in the Cup.

Now I’m not totally against the concept of the FFA Cup. However, does the FFA realise that many fans are happy to support an A-League team in summer while still following their state league club in winter because they do not compete and their loyalties are not tested? What happens to these fans when their “traditional” club comes up against their A-League club?

Is six years of history going to stack up against a lifetime of culturally ingrained support? Will we be attracting people to the A-League, or simply making A-League fans question their loyalty?

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding among all the A-league clubs of the composition of their crowds. Take a look around the grandstands at any A-League game. You are sure to find a high proportion of fans that were indeed fans of the NSL.

There will be a high proportion of fans that play the game on weekends (provided, of course, the FFA hasn’t scheduled the game to clash with local fixtures). And adding to this “old soccer” crowd are the new converts to our great game which make our league commercially viable.

Geoff Lord of Melbourne Victory made this same mistake at his club’s first ever home game – a pre-season fixture at Olympic Park. As we were walking the terraces, Lord asked “Where are all the Greeks? The Italians? The Croatians?” His mistake was looking for pockets of ethnicities in the stands. What he couldn’t see were all the old NSL supporters and local soccer fans from a host of clubs in amongst it, arm-in-arm, supporting their new team together. They weren’t in an enclave. They were the crowd.

Melbourne Victory’s greatest success was providing a credible football “product” for existing fans of the game, while simultaneously targeting its marketing on Melbourne’s broader sports community. This is the key to building the A-League.

The league needs to segment its marketing strategy. The greatest power our game possesses is the participation numbers at grassroots level (a far different audience to former NSL clubs and their supporters). This is the first key audience for the A-League and its clubs. These participants alone – those actively involved in the sport - are sufficient to sustain the A-League.

But in order to awaken the sleeping giant, soccer needs to look beyond its past and into its future. And that means developing a broad-based marketing strategy that sits comfortably alongside the AFL and NRL as a credible mainstream sports alternative.

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