Monday 07 October 2019

The future of Australian football

Australian and British Soccer Weekly, Tuesday  27 February 2007, p. 4

Also published as ‘There’s room for all the football codes’ in, Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 24 February 2007, p. 93

In the aftermath of the extraordinary A-League Grand Final when 55,000 fans turned up at Telstra Dome to see Melbourne Victory trounce Adelaide United by six goals to nil there has been a fair bit of media comment about the future of the various codes of football.

Much of this has been sensationalist with extravagant predictions that Australian Rules might be overtaken by soccer or world football or that the soccer bubble would soon burst like the basketball one of the 1990s.

Prediction is never easy but there are some pieces of evidence which can throw light on what is happening and what is most likely to occur in future, locally and nationally.

The first point to make is that the current growth in the popularity of soccer is based on the domestic Australian population.

This is the first time in Australia’s history that a soccer boom has not been carried by a wave of inward migration as happened in the 1880s, the 1920s and in the thirty years after the Second World War.

Though data for participation rates in the various codes are notoriously rubbery the evidence from Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that soccer is outstripping the other codes of football among boys and girls up to the age of 15.

After that age there is a sharp drop-off for all codes and so far soccer is doing less well than Australian Rules.

The World Cup qualification and excellent performance in the final tournament by the Socceroos in 2006 has given a huge, if possibly temporary, boost to public interest in the game.

It has been estimated that some 60,000 Australians were in Germany during the World Cup, the largest outward movement of Australians since the Second World War.

Most of these will have returned with experiences they will never forget and an appreciation of the way the rest of the world regards the round ball game.

Australia’s shift from the Oceania Confederation, in which it was a big fish in a small pond, to the much more competitive Asian Confederation with its huge soccer markets in Japan, South Korea, China and India, will transform the international side of the game.

The Socceroos will have regular competitive matches against quality teams with a media exposure which will be eye-opening.

It is no coincidence that the Federal Government invested $15 million to clear off the debts of the old Australian Soccer Federation to enable the current President of the Football Federation of Australia, Frank Lowy of Westfield Shopping Centres to take over with a clean slate.

John Howard may have been roundly booed at Telstra Dome the other night but he is well aware that soccer can be huge vehicle for Australian promotion and policies among its Asian neighbours.

One consequence of the Lowy take-over is that for almost the first time the administration of Australian soccer owes more to business practices than to internecine politics.

The setting up of the new A-League is showing signs of paying off.

Weak spots remain with several clubs only being kept afloat by FFA invesment, though Perth Glory has just found new owners and the troubled New Zealand experiment may be resolved by a joint effort between the New Zealand FA and private interests.

But largely thanks to Melbourne Victory’s extraordinary appeal to Victorian fans crowd numbers in the second season have exploded.

The Victory has drawn an average home crowd of 31,376 this season, despite the fact that three of its 13 games were played at Olympic Park which only holds 18,000.

Victory has nearly 12,000 members, a substantial base on which to build for the future.

My colleague Heath McDonald’s survey of Melbourne Victory members in the first season found that the demographic profile which emerged was one of young, professional males. ‘The membership is significantly younger than most AFL clubs, which augurs well for the club’s future. However, female membership seems low, and this represents a strong opportunity for the club, given the reported “family friendliness” of both the venue (Olympic Park) and the club itself.’

It will be fascinating to see what results emerge from a study of the membership in 2007 when Telstra Dome has been the venue.

Australian Rules has huge advantages and the AFL only needs to balance its heavily Melbourne-centred club distribution to become the truly national game, resistant to globalisation and offering a real and continuing alternative to the world game.

Though we do not know for certain, probably the majority of people attending Victory matches in Melbourne are supporters of Australian Rules teams.

Having settled on summer and winter seasons for their league games, the major fixture clashes which are likely to arise will occur when the Victory is engaged in Asian Champions League matches in autumn 2008.

So there is promise of a healthy future for soccer but this will require thoughtful efforts by those who are involved in the game and an appreciation that there is room in the Australian sporting landscape for all the football codes.

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