Why aren’t these kids growing up A-League fans?
Soccer has all the ingredients to capture the imagination of Australia’s sporting public in the same way the AFL and NRL grand finals have done. All the ingredients are there except one: common sense.
The facts are this: football - as it has been rebranded - has the highest registered participation rate of all the football codes in this country.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more kids play football than AFL and NRL combined. So why aren’t the kids and their parents filling the stadiums at A-League games?
High profile marquee players are not the answer. Nor are expensive ad campaigns. Both provide a short-term spike in interest that is not sustainable once the novelty wears off.
And reliance on the Socceroos to garner interest in the code will quickly dissipate with one bad World Cup qualification campaign.
Another fundamental flaw in the promotion of the code lies in the games administrator’s reliance on email for ‘awareness raising’. Problem is, everyone with something to sell has the same idea.
Time-poor parents have become adept at picking out and prioritising information that is essential to the day-to-day running of a household and ignoring everything else - including email from the A-League and Football Federation of Australia.
If football or soccer – whatever people want to call it – wants to become more than just a bit-part player in the Australian sporting landscape, it must go back to basics and inspire a sense of investment and ownership in the game’s wellbeing and growth by the grassroots football community.
It cannot do it by genetic encoding from generation to generation; it cannot do it by playing on cross-town rivalries or ethnicity. The only way forward is for the FFA to work together with the state federations and the A-league teams to forge relationships with local clubs and associations.
Hit the streets, the schools, and the shopping centres. Open up training sessions to junior clubs; roll out a national program where kids get access to A-league stars. Involve the fans in club projects and decision making. In a nutshell, get the message in front of people’s faces where it cannot be ignored or sent to the ‘junk’ folder.
It won’t happen overnight but once the grassroots community feels a bond to their A-league club, the culture will take care of itself. Followers will become fans. Fans that populate blogs, forums, talkback on radio and tv.
Fans that demand more print-media space, radio and TV air time, be devoted to the game they are passionate about. Fans that will fill stadiums and make sponsors and media executives sit up and take note.
Building relationships with grassroots communities to foster a sense of investment and ownership by fans is not rocket science; the AFL and NRL have been doing it for years. AFL and NRL governing bodies have allocated funds, built programs, to allow their affiliate clubs to grow and nurture their grassroots support bases.
Most A-league clubs do the same but it is mainly done off their own bat with little funding from governing bodies; they are forced into balancing the need to release players for grassroots activities with revenue earning commitments such as appearances for sponsors. Meanwhile the Football Federation of Australia is spending money hand-over-fist to establish new franchises. Why?
The FFA would be better served funneling those funds into the current A-league club’s coffers to allow them to farm the grassroots soccer communities in their home state to the full. A 10-team league where clubs have the resources to establish sustainable growth from their grassroots community base seems to me to be the better option.
The FFA’s money would be better spent rolling out a national soccer program for kids, via the state football federations, not just aimed at improving skills like the small-sided games program, but at getting the A-league stars in front of the kids a la AFL’s Auskick.
AFL and NRL will always prosper, they have earned the right to do so through longevity and hard work. Despite the ‘soccerphobes’ misgivings, there is also room for the ‘world game’ in the hearts and minds of Australia’s sporting public. But the code must stop looking for the ‘quick fix’ and put the hard ones in to make it happen.
A-league games in full stadiums with fans singing. An A-League grand final that is as eagerly anticipated as the AFL and NRL season enders; one that provides moments of sporting glory to be interwoven into the rich sporting tapestry of this country.
It could happen. All the ingredients are there.
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