Thursday, September 29, 2005

Time To Capture Football Converts

In October, spare a thought for Australia's mainstream sports followers.

Leaving September to them generates the same sensation football fanatics suffer the day after the World Cup final. A feeling of abandonment engulfs them. As winter finally gives way to spring down under, so the campaigns of the traditional codes of AFL and NRL come to a crescendo with their respective grand finals. Then, for four long summer months, football - as they know it - disappears.

Can 2005 be different? With three-quarters of the inaugural A-League season still to play before its own finals series in March, the competition holds a unique opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the bigger codes.

Although rightly scheduled for an August start date to coincide with next year's World Cup, the first six weeks of the new football season were always destined to provide the toughest introduction possible. Not only was the sport coming off an enforced 16-month break but its all-important opening exchanges would have to fight the attention, budget and TV-time of the Aussie rules and rugby league masses.

Having negotiated the storm of September, the fledgling competition can feel satisfied by fans' reaction so far. Crowd figures for the opening month have come through relatively unscathed with half the clubs averaging around the 10,000-mark or greater - the number officials expect to see come the season's end. Indeed, Sydney FC and Queensland Roar are up closer to 20,000 having played two and three home matches respectively.

Importantly, with an average crowd size over 12,000 across the first five rounds, the subsequent few weeks will give a strong indication of whether the FFA can convert footy fans to the world game.

There are signs that potential crossover supporters have given preference to the traditional codes and may patronise the round-ball code with any conflict now past. For instance, the Queensland Roar crowd for the round four clash with Melbourne dropped markedly when the NRL's Brisbane Broncos were live on TV at the same time. In the same way, Melbourne's attendance at its second home match was significantly less than its first while the AFL grand final was playing at the MCG over the same weekend. Round 6 will be the first occasion when home teams are not fighting rival football codes in their own cities.

With any optimism, there are, of course, some concerns. For a start, Football Federation Australia will continue to monitor attendances outside the major centres. The pulling power of the New Zealand Knights (Auckland) and the Central Cost Mariners (Gosford, New South Wales) has been reasonably weak particularly with the Mariners standing second on the ladder.

Questions are also being asked why Adelaide United and Perth Glory - two stalwarts of the old National Soccer League who regularly pulled crowds up to 15,000 - are attracting far less in the new competition. Meanwhile, close scrutiny at the numbers shows that only Queensland has grown its crowds after the big push in the opening round.

For all that, though, it would be petty to criticise the enormous leap made from the former national league to today's competition. The ethnicity issues that blighted the old regime haven't resurfaced and couples and families are enjoying the game more than ever. Moreover, teams have established a strong core of membership support with most being sponsored to one degree or another by organised supporter groups.

An opportunity now presents itself for football's governing body to exploit the current surplus of fans' time and money. To do so, its high-impact marketing campaign needs to kick in again soon rather than later.

Hyundai A-League Round Five Summary

League leaders Adelaide (11 points) have stolen an early three-point gap on their closest rivals Central Coast (8 points). Newcastle, Sydney and Perth have identical records and 7 points. New Zealand prop up the table with a solitary win and four losses (3 points).

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