Charting the growth of Australia's A-League - An upwards curve

Emile Heskey Newcastle Jets

Will any big names follow former Liverpool and Aston Villa forward Emile Heskey to Australia this summer?

When Alessandro Del Piero signed for Australian A-League side Sydney FC, on September 5 2012, it was reported all over the world and suddenly eyes turned Down Under.

Rumours began to circulate that it would become the destination for David Beckham and Frank Lampard, now that the financial clout of the league had been revealed.

The passion of Australian football fans was widely celebrated and the scenes from the 2012 A-League grand final were beamed all over the globe. It was a brilliant image, where a crowd of 50,334 witnessed a final between Brisbane Roar and Perth Glory in which a penalty seven minutes into added time meant that Brisbane took the trophy home from the Suncorp Stadium.

In 2005, when the A-League was formed, the Australian Soccer Federation could not have imagined the new incarnation performing so well, especially considering the state of football when it was in the form of the Australian National Soccer League between 1977 and 2004.

The NSL suffered from declining attendances, financial issues and racial tensions. These factors mostly stemmed from the fact that cities were allowed to host more than one football club; Brisbane had Brisbane City and Brisbane Strikers, while Sydney had Sydney Olympic and Sydney United.

The number of teams was down to the fact that many clubs were born out of ethnic social clubs which had developed from the huge surge of foreigners who flooded into Australia after the Second World War. As new communities grouped together and created an identity through football (such as Sydney Olympic, formed by Greek immigrants, Wollongong Macedonia and Melbourne Croatia), they brought racial tensions from Europe.

In 1992 the ASF ruled that teams now had to drop any ethnic names, but this only had an aesthetic effect. Fans still affiliated themselves with clubs for racial reasons and a University of Technology (Sydney) report found that many fans still said they could not support a club because of their historical allegiances.

At the turn of the millennium it was clear that change was needed. Sponsorship and television deals had fallen through, meaning that the NSL coverage was extremely small and attendances had continued to crash. The ASF ordered a committee to determine what reform was needed and in 2003 the National Soccer League Task Force Report was published.

It suggested that a new league should be created with just eight teams, each one from the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Newcastle, plus a team from New Zealand.

A new television deal had been struck with Fox Sport who would provide coverage of games and inject much needed income into the new league. Tight wage controls meant that they created a sustainable model that wouldn’t descend into the chaos of the NSL.

This allowed clubs to bring back current and past Australian internationals such as Ned Zelic, Kevin Muscat, Archie Thompson, Steve Corica, Alex Brosque and Richard Johnson. This was combined with overseas talent such as Dwight Yorke and managerial appointments such as German World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski and England international Steve McMahon.

The timing of the A-League linked perfectly with the 2006 World Cup in which Australia experienced success, progressing through a group containing Japan, Brazil and Croatia, before a narrow loss to Italy sent them home to much celebration. In the 2006/2007 season the average attendance at A-League matches was 14,065, a huge improvement since the days of NSL.

In the past few years, the growth of the Australian top flight has meant that international interest is booming. The influx of players such as Del Piero, Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey means that demand for A-League coverage is high, and has been purchased in China, Italy, United States, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore, while at home the cumulative viewing figures have exceeded 10 million and cumulative attendance figures in 2012/2013 broke through 1.7 million.

The financial situation in the A-League is still fragile and a number of clubs have had to fold since 2004, but now that each club receives a $2.5 million grant every season to cover wages they have managed to develop to the extent that the league now generates $95.2 million of revenue a season.

The A-League today resembles the MLS a few years ago when David Beckham had just signed for LA Galaxy. It still is seen as a retiring destination for foreign players looking to get a final paycheque while competing in division lacking in the competitive edge they had been used to.

However, looking at the fantastic progress made in the US, hopes are high that Australia’s appetite for the sport means that more money will flow into the league, players will develop and soon the A-League will be held in much higher esteem. The odds for this are good considering the brilliant platform the Australian Soccer Federation have already created.

image: © jayphen

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