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Does the A-League need a Big Bash style experiment?

The fans roar as the fireworks explode – with music blasting a Mexican wave engulfs the stadium. Cricket Australia’s Big Bash League (BBL) has succeeded in attracting families to their sport, which is something that the A-League could look to replicate.

The A-League could learn from both the failures and successes of the Big Bash League to rejuvenate football in Australia, with a BBL style concept to attract consumers and fans to the A-League in a unique manner.

However, an approach into a BBL style experiment would have to be taken carefully as there is a fine line between creating a product that is viewed as a serious competition and creating a product that is looked down upon such as AFLX.

The BBL’s peak was on January 2, in 2016 when 80,883 fans packed into the MCG to watch a match between the Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades.

While the Big Bash has been in a supposed decline in popularity since, the league has still been able to produce some large attendances.

54,478 people attended a Melbourne Derby on January 4 earlier this year – the third highest crowd for a BBL game in the league’s history.

Meanwhile the A-League’s highest crowd before COVID-19 interrupted the 2019/20 season was 33,523 people at October’s draw between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City.

Cricket Australia’s success with the BBL came from creating an experience geared towards families and children – with pump up music, fireworks and flamethrowers that were suited to T20 cricket with its high scoring, exciting and shorter format.

Former Liverpool star Craig Johnston has suggested an idea of what an A-League version of the BBL would look like.

“Four quarters, 15 minutes each, rotating substitutes, sin bins, all the things you’re not allowed to do in soccer,” he told The Daily Football Show in 2019.

“So effectively in midfield, you could take a touch, get past a player and you could shoot for goal. Then the goalkeeper’s either saving that shot or it’s a goal.”

“We’re utilising the same players but we’re taking out their midfield and we’re giving the players and the consumers four times more of what they want in the quarter of the time.”

Johnston believes that a Big Bash style format should be adapted by Australian football with A-League teams.

“The big idea is the Big Bash of soccer, but then the kids copy it at their training grounds,” he said.

“It is professional six-a-side with A-League teams. The A-League teams split in half, red versus blue, they play against each other.”

“The Big Bash and the One Day series is the best thing that ever happened to cricket in terms of engaging young minds and future minds.”

If the A-League was to try BBL style product it would need to make sure the best players are available – a weakness of the Big Bash has been that some of the biggest names in Australian cricket do not play regularly in the competition as the league clashes with international fixtures.

An A-League Big Bash competition would also be taken more seriously if the best players were playing regularly.

Perhaps the naming rights sponsor of the competition could provide a cash prize to the winning club, to entice clubs to field their best players.

One lesson that the A-League could learn from the Big Bash is that it has been made too long, something that even stars of the competition like Glen Maxwell have admitted.

“I think the length of the tournament when it was 10 games, I think we all really enjoyed that. I think it was the perfect amount,” Maxwell told SEN in early 2020.

“I just think 14 games is just a little bit much. It just makes for a very long tournament and probably goes for a touch too long.

“With school starting again it makes it a bit more difficult to keep the interest levels going until the end (of the season).”

The Big Bash was at its best when there was a limited number of games played predominantly in the school holidays.

If each A-League team played each other once in a new competition it could have an 11 game season plus a short finals series.

Ideally the A-League Big Bash concept would need to have as many games broadcast on free-to-air as possible – in order to easily accessible to fans.

There seems to be a lack of momentum coming into the 2020/21 A-League season, which is just under a week away. An Australian football version of the BBL could potentially be played as a lead in tournament to the A-League season, bringing attention and hype to the beginning of the competition.

Daniel Foley is a sports junior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and micro industry matters.

Jamie Harnwell driving the game forward in Western Australia

Jamie Harnwell is Perth Glory’s record appearance holder, with 256 of them across three decades. Now Chief Football Officer for Football West, he spoke to Soccerscene about the changes from the NSL to the A-League, the challenges of running a football federation, and his favourite footballing moments throughout his career.

So firstly, what’s the biggest challenges facing Football West at the moment?

Harnwell: I think it’s interesting. Football West is in a really good position, being very fortunate with COVID over here and able to get out and play. The challenges are more for our clubs I suppose, and then Football West supporting them. Facilities are always a challenge for every sport, but certainly for football. We need to make sure there are enough grounds and space for people to play, but also aspects like lighting, adequate change rooms, and those sorts of things are suitable for clubs. We have a number of them almost putting up the closed sign because they have too many players and not enough space for them to play.

The other challenge for Football West and the clubs is the increase in governance requirements. We are basically a volunteer sport in many ways. And the increasing legalities and issues across that for volunteers to deal with can be difficult. So it’s time that we at Football West need to be able to support our clubs, make sure they’re adhering to good practice, and doing the right things so that they can continue to grow.

How has professional football in Australia improved since you first debuted with Perth Glory in the late 90s?

Harnwell: I think it’s actually professional football now. You know when I first started playing, I think there was ourselves and maybe Carlton who were actual full-time professional clubs. The rest were part-time as people were still working during the day, going to training at night, and trying to juggle the two. So certainly the transition into the A-League and full-time professionalism for all clubs has been huge, and just the continued increased coverage and media around the game has made us much more accessible. It’s easier to see and has a much better chance of building that supporter base across the game here in Australia.

What areas do you think the game can continue to improve on going forward into the future?

Harnwell: There’s always talent development and making sure that we stay on pace with best practices and what’s happening in other parts of the world. We are a smaller nation in the grand scheme of things in football, so we need to be smart about how we approach those sorts of things and make sure we get bang for our buck for everything that we do. The other thing is we need to try and increase the commercialism of the game and make sure that we continue to get funds into the game that can assist in the youth development that can help in costs for clubs and all those types of things. So that’s the way I know Football Australia is working hard on it. They’re starting to bring more and more partners into the game. But if you look at the mega machines like AFL, then we probably still have some way to go in that.

How can football win across young athletes into joining the sport over others?

Harnwell:
I think we’re really lucky as a game. I can’t speak for other states, I suppose – but the numbers here at Football West in Western Australia just continue to grow year in year out. We are a very attractive game for parents to pick for young boys and girls. It’s a very easy game to choose and very easy to play and train. So we’re certainly well-positioned in that respect – making sure that our clubs provide positive environments that they enjoy what they do. There isn’t the overarching focus on just winning games, but more a longer-term development based approach that will make sure talented young players will stay in football rather than going across to other codes.

On a personal level, what is your most memorable footballing memory?

Harnwell: There’s probably a few, I suppose for myself as a player – it would have been the first NSL Championship that we won. We’d had a couple of cracks at it before and sort of fell away in the Grand Final. So that first win in 2003 was huge, and really got the monkey off our back, and managing to score in that game with the massive crowd was fantastic. But I’m also a Manchester United fan, so the treble was pretty good as well. So I don’t know which one ranks better for me!

FIFA’s mission to expand the World Cup will only damage it

With 166 member nations of FIFA voting to explore the concept of a two-year cycle for the World Cup, questions need to be asked whether too much of a good thing will destroy what makes the competition special.

One of the best parts of the World Cup is the spectacle of it all. The elite quality of the tournament is already being watered down with the changes to the format, with 48 teams instead of 32. 

While allowing more teams in will create new markets for the competition, it isn’t like the World Cup would struggle for viewership without them, as it is the most-watched sporting event on the planet.

The changes to the structure of the cup – with two out of a group of three going through instead of the top two in a group of four – is already challenging the tradition and excitement of the World Cup. If you draw one of the powerhouse teams, like Spain, France, or Brazil, then it is likely your country will be on a plane ride home after playing just two games.

Despite the success of the World Cup, FIFA seems to want to tinker with the competition without any concern for the negative impacts the changes may cause. To build support for this, FIFA is wheeling out stars like Arsene Wenger and Yaya Toure.

Wenger is currently FIFA’s chief of global football development

Why FIFA wants to interrupt what has proved to be a winning formula only has one answer: Greed. More games mean more money. In a 48 team competition, there will be 64 games, compared to 40 in the current format. More games equal more money for TV rights and a wider reach for the game with an added 16 teams.

Combine this with the concept of hosting a World Cup every two years instead of four, and FIFA will be printing money like never before.

The unfortunate side effect of this will a weaker competition in terms of quality. There are always some relatively poor teams featured in a World Cup, but adding another 16 of the ‘best of the rest’ will dilute the talent pool. Combine this with the fact some teams may even go home playing only two games, it will surely make the World Cup a less exciting affair for many appearing in the group stage.

Another factor that needs to be considered is sustainability. We’ve already seen that major sporting tournaments often leave countries with huge stadiums without any use for them.

Engineers Against Poverty say that hosting a World Cup leaves a “legacy of white elephants”, with stadiums built for the 2010 South Africa World Cup and 2014 World Cup in Brazil “hemorrhaging taxpayer’s money”. 

A white elephant refers to a possession whose cost of maintenance is well beyond its value, and whose owner cannot dispose of it. An apt reference to what World Cup stadiums have become for countries that do not need bumper stadiums.

Four cities in Brazil that hosted games at the 2014 World Cup –Manaus, Cuiabá, Natal, and Brasília – have no major football teams to play in the humongous stadiums built for the event.

South Africa spent $2.7 billion to build 12 new stadiums for the World Cup, in a country where half the population lives off an average of $242AUD a month

Polokwane, a city of 130,000, now pays $2.7 million a year in maintenance towards the legacy of the South African World Cup.

Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane, South Africa

Russia is also struggling with issues related to stadiums built for the 2018 World Cup. In Saransk, local authorities are dealing with the upkeep of 300 million rubles (AUD 5.5 million) to maintain the stadium built for the event.

Major events don’t just lead to empty stadiums either. For the Sochi Winter Olympics, the Russian Government built a $13.5 billion tunnel system to connect Sochi to the rest of the country. The operation and maintenance of this underutilised infrastructure cost taxpayers $1.6 billion a year. 

FIFA has praised the joint World Cup bid from the United States, Mexico and Canada for using existing infrastructure instead of building new stadiums, however, few countries already have the facilities to host games. 

By expanding the World Cup to every two years, many countries will  be hosting for the first time. This will inevitably lead to similar cases to South Africa, Brazil, and Russia’s stadiums becoming a burden on citizens. 

FIFA risk damaging their premier competition in the pursuit of greed. It needs to be asked why they seem hell-bent on changing a winning formula, especially one that has already been embraced worldwide.

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