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Is FFA’s determination to continue with A-League football amidst coronavirus concerns brave or foolish?

The new man at the helm of FFA must be a risk taker, even whilst facing the scary realities of coronavirus.

Monday morning’s announcement that Australian football would proceed in spite of the pandemic seemed somewhat out of step with most current thinking. It also did not align with many of the decisions being made by other sporting organisations, both in Australia and internationally.

James Johnson held a professional and concise press conference to inform the nation of the decision to allow football across the country to continue in the immediate future, with an assurance that the fluid situation would be re-evaluated on a constant basis as the evolving coronavirus story unfolded.

The powers at be were content for the W-League Grand-Final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC to go ahead this weekend, albeit behind closed doors. With just one match remaining in the season, an argument could be made that it is a risk worth taking.

However, endeavouring to continue the A-League season in spite of increased infections around the country and some of the logistical complications that will occur with an immediate change to the schedule, will seem fool hardly to some.

With mandated 14 day quarantine periods now in place for people arriving in both Australia and New Zealand, Johnson’s announcement means that both the Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix will experience such a restriction after returning to Australia. Upcoming matches involving both clubs within that period will be postponed.

Wellington will have their Round 24 clash with Newcastle delayed as well as the already postponed encounter with Sydney FC. Victory will have their matches against Brisbane and Perth pushed back to accommodate the quarantine period.

A-League boss Greg O’Rourke expressed the need for brisk discussions with stadium representatives and clubs in order to re-schedule the final seven rounds of play. Doing so would allow the postponed matches to be held and all teams to play out their allocated 26 games.

It appears mid-week matches will become the norm in an effort to squeeze seven weeks into four.

Despite initially announcing that NPL play would continue, with only people essential to the playing of the game to be in attendance, that decision was reversed on Tuesday. Along with all grassroots football, the game will now go into hiatus until at least April 14.

What Johnson outlined to the media had obviously been carefully considered, in line with the Australian Government’s official advice at the time and after discussions with key stakeholders. However, with most sporting competitions taking the decision to cease indefinitely,  it appears that proceeding with a revised A-League schedule could have serious repercussions for players, staff, referees and their families.

Ploughing forward with a revised schedule in the hope of completing the season and crowning an A-League champion, as well as continuing NPL and grassroots play, would simply have increased human interaction and by extension, the chance of infection. That plan lasted less than a day, with common sense prevailing, aside from the decision to continue the A-League season.

Stoically allowing the matches to proceed does little more that create more human contact than what would take place during a short term suspension of play.

Thus, many will see the FFA decision as irresponsible.

When quizzed by journalists around the ramifications of the loss of gate-takings and the financial hit the game was already taking, Johnson was quick to state that monetary matters were secondary and that the health and wellbeing of the footballing community were of the highest concern, along with the game acting responsibly as a citizen.

Yet with schools acting briskly and postponing events, major sports putting competitions on indefinite hold and all gatherings of 500 people or more now banned in Australia, FFA’s move appears one made by a body determined to proceed in spite of the increased risk that doing so creates.

In reality, the decision could be the most temporary of moves. An infected A-League player would shut the league down instantly and seems inevitable.

No doubt, should the league be ceased at its current point, the ramifications for FFA are profound. Lost revenue stemming from postponed World Cup qualifiers is already on its mind and an Olympics where our national teams were to be showcased appears more and more unlikely

The already financially stretched A-League clubs will suffer further without gate takings and may be forced to forgo corporate benefits from opportunistic businesses looking to align as the season reaches its climax and the finals approach.

A-League wages for both players and staff would come into question, with other codes already toying with notions of broad and mandated percentage pay cuts.

Grassroots registration fees across the country may well be refunded should junior football associations be forced to abandon their seasons and state federations could be left with a financial vacuum and without their most reliable revenue stream.

Without football to cover, media contracts will not be met and the ramifications of adjustments to broadcasting deals to compensate for a lack of content will further hurt the game.

Johnson and O’Rourke have made the call to persist with play and if that proves to be a successful ploy, as infection rates drop and the situation stabilises, they will forever be known as the geniuses who navigated their sport through a period in which others shut down conservatively.

Alternatively, they may be seen as the men who proceeded pig-headedly, when most of the sporting world closed for business.

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A-League supporter numbers grow – but 2 million football fans still unattached

Despite attendances dropping in A-League matches over the past few years, supporter numbers across the board have grown in the past 12 months, according to a recent Roy Morgan report.

“A-League clubs have enjoyed a substantial increase in support over the last year in line with the increases seen for other football codes such as the AFL and NRL,” Roy Morgan Industry Communications Director, Julian McCrann, stated.

“Over 3.6 million Australians now profess support for an A-League club, an increase of over 1 million (+38.3%) on a year ago.”

“As we have seen across other football codes the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many sports to be played in front of empty stadiums but live on TV to supporters stuck at home in the many lockdowns we have seen over the last 18 months around Australia.”

Sydney FC have the biggest supporter base with 640,000 fans according to the report, a 32% increase on last year’s numbers.

Melbourne Victory were also well placed on the supporter ladder, slightly behind Sydney with 632,000 fans, an increase of 46% on a year ago.

A-League Men’s champions Melbourne City and expansion side Macarthur FC also saw impressive numbers of increased support.

“Another big winner over the last year has been Melbourne City which won its first A-League Men Championship earlier this year after defeating Sydney FC in the Grand Final (between Melbourne’s fourth and fifth lockdowns) in late June,” McCrann said.

“Melbourne City’s support has increased by an impressive 50.9% on a year ago to 249,000 to have the highest support of any A-League Men expansion team.

“The newest club in the A-League Men, Macarthur FC, has had a successful first season in the league with a finals appearance, a victory in an Elimination Final, and a loss to eventual Champions Melbourne City in the semi-final.

“Not only has Macarthur FC performed strongly on the pitch but they have already attracted 84,000 supporters to rank in tenth place overall.”

Whilst all A-League sides saw an increase in supporters in 2021, Central Coast Mariners experienced the largest percentage rise from 2020 – with fan numbers growing by 90%.

In regards to television numbers, over 1.5 million Australians watch the A-League Men’s competition.

However, the report states that 3.5 million Australians watch any football match on television, including leagues such as the English Premier League or international tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup.

This represents a huge untapped audience of around 2 million Australians, something which should be capitalised on.

“Looking ahead, the challenge for the A-League will be to continue to grow the league in an increasingly competitive sporting market and find a way to connect with the millions of Australians who love their football but don’t presently engage with the A-League,” McCrann said.

“There are over 2 million Australians out there who watch high quality football competitions, such as the English Premier League, who are yet to become fans of the A-League. This at-hand market of 2 million Australians is a significant market for the A-League to target during the recovery from Covid-19.”

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the new body running the professional game in this country, have continually emphasised in their messaging that they want to target football fans of all types to engage with the local elite competition.

The organisation’s investment in a $30 million digital hub is set to play a big part in converting these fans into A-League supporters.

“It is the biggest single investment football has made in itself. It’s a $30 million investment into digital infrastructure and data infrastructure that will serve the football fan. It won’t be the home of Australian football; it will be Australia’s home of football,” Danny Townsend, Managing Director at the APL, recently told FNR.

“What it will deliver is content – audio-visual, editorial and everything else you need.

“Part of the reason we are doing that, and investing in what we are calling APL studios, is ensuring that by organising the football community in one place we are able to deliver the utility in their everyday lives and focus on how they choose to consume football. If you do that – they’ll keep coming back.

“You put great content in there, you serve it, and you will continue to understand that fan and all of their preferences.”

Paramount Plus must pounce on EPL rights in Australia

ViacomCBS have begun broadcasting Australian football content in the past several weeks across the 10 Network and its free streaming platform 10 play, in the opening stages of the company’s $300 million investment deal into the game.

The majority of content, such as Socceroos, Matildas, A-League and W-League matches, will eventually be broadcast on the company’s SVOD service Paramount Plus in the coming months.

A revamped presentation of the game will be implemented across the new TV deal, as highlighted by the recent announcement that the Saturday night A-League broadcast shown on Channel 10 will also feature live crosses and a ‘goal rush’ type innovation involving the other simultaneous match, something which is currently seen in top league broadcasts around the world.

Fresh ideas such as this are welcomed, but ViacomCBS may need to look at further options to build rapport with fans of the round ball game in Australia.

One of those opportunities they should pursue, and strongly, is looking to secure the EPL rights off Optus Sport.

Optus Sport have held the rights since 2016, after beating out Foxtel at the time.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, English Premier League officials have begun talks with local media companies in regards to the broadcast rights to one of the world’s biggest sporting competitions.

Optus Sport’s existing deal ends at the conclusion of this season, with a blind auction in November set to decide who will show the league in the coming seasons.

ViacomCBS’s Paramount Plus is considered to be one of four candidates who are reportedly in the running to land the EPL broadcast rights, alongside current rights holders Optus Sport, Amazon Prime and Stan Sport.

The rights are expected to cost as much as $80 million a year, but that figure may be higher if there is a strong competitive process for them, which looks likely.

If the EPL was to be secured and shown on Paramount Plus, there would be significant benefits across the board for ViacomCBS and also for football in Australia.

Having both the EPL and A-League on the same service would place Paramount Plus as a must have service for the large majority of football fans in Australia.

The acquisition of the EPL would add a huge amount of value to Paramount Plus as a streaming product and bring over those fans who would not commit to the service for just A-League and W-League matches.

Their subscriber numbers would grow substantially, and a free-to-air EPL game on Channel 10 may be a strategic possibility, to draw even more people to sign up for the subscription service.

Alongside the original entertainment programming that they have on their service, Paramount Plus with the EPL and A-League rights, will go close to rivalling the bigger streaming platforms such as Netflix and Stan.

For Australian football, having both leagues together in the one place would mirror similar benefits the A-League had on Fox Sports when they also showcased live EPL broadcasts.

Most Australian football fans will remember Matchday Saturday on Fox Sports with great fondness, where A-League matches would precede EPL matches in what was a feast for football fans every week, all in one place.

The A-League peaked in popularity around that timeframe, and it’s plausible that a larger quantity of fans tuned into the local domestic competition before they would also watch EPL matches later in the night.

Administrators from the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) will be hoping a sense of deja vu occurs again, on a different platform this time around.

Packaging up the two leagues would provide cross promotional possibilities to continue to lift the profile of the A-League and may eventually convince fans of overseas clubs to also support a local team.

Turning general fans of football into A-League or W-League supporters is something that the APL have noted they are focusing on in the years to come, after unbundling from the FA.

Utilizing the advantages of having the Premier League rights on the same service may fast track those outcomes, but that is dependant on the willingness and commercial factors which decide ViacomCBS’s next moves.

However, for growth prospects in the local game and also in their own Paramount Plus streaming service, ViacomCBS may find this opportunity too good to refuse.

 

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