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LaLiga’s growth rests largely on match day experience, is Australian football watching?

Discussions around football attendance figures in Australia are constant.

One school of thought suggests that the challenge of drawing new people towards both the A and W Leagues and enhancing the appeal and reach of NPL competitions across the country is far from being met.

Another cites a more general trend in many sports, where the physical presence of fans has become far less important than what it once was; with broadcasting and streaming rights seen as the most critical factors in providing both exposure and revenue.

It could certainly be said of sports like tennis, golf, and test cricket, where events are often played in near empty venues. Marquee match-ups draw big numbers yet general run of the mill events continue to offer top prize money despite the often ghost-like fan presence.

Football in Australia does not have the luxury of vast television audiences, contracts or streaming services to generously fund the top Leagues or in turn, the game at the grass roots level.

What the game does have is a solid base of over 100,000 A-League club members, passionate support at NPL level through the traditional and community based clubs and a current boom in women’s football that stands to bring more income and growth to the game as a whole.

Without the significant financial investment enjoyed by some international competitions, Australian football should emulate one of the biggest leagues in the world and focus on fans; without them, there may well be nothing left on which to cling.

Spain’s top two leagues are showing quite clearly that enjoying immense media exposure across the globe and possessing massive television contracts need not come at the expense of growing attendance and bums on seats. In fact, improving the match day stadium experience has been a cornerstone of their approach over the last decade, with much success.

If LaLiga’s numbers indicate anything, it is that primal support lies at the very core of growth and subsequent ratings and corporate interest. Australian football’s challenge is to look closely at the model that LaLiga employs and take the best bits of it in order to improve our domestic product.

2019/20 statistics indicate a 1.53% increase in attendance across the top two leagues in Spain. If the trend continues for the remainder of the season, it will be the sixth consecutive increase. Total attendance grew from 13.1 million people in 2013/14 to 14.8 million in 2018/19. Should this season’s numbers hold firm, LaLiga’s top two tiers will surpass 15 million fans for the first time.

No doubt the quality in Spain creates a more conducive environment for growth than many other leagues across the globe, Australia in particular. However, any thoughts that much of that growth stems merely from the presence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is currently being disproven.

Messi is still brilliant, yet ageing and more often injured, whilst Ronaldo is long gone. The league continues to surge forward despite both realities. It is thanks to astute management, planning and a focus on improving the match day experience of fans, rather than an unhealthy dependence on a couple of world class superstars whose days were always to be numbered.

Whilst both Barcelona and Real Madrid remain strong, the growth has led to the increased competitiveness of Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Valencia and Getafe FC. Clubs like Valladolid, Osasuna and Grenada have had their moments in the sun already this season whilst Villarreal and Valencia have also threatened the top six; with inconsistency proving their Achilles Heel.

As a result of that depth, competitiveness and visibility, LaLiga is surging. The governing body of Spanish football respect and enjoy the EPL, Bundesliga and Serie A, yet aim to make their product the second most watched league around the globe.

It is a bold endeavour and one based on providing a magnificent fan day experience for local people that draws them into grounds at an ever increasing rate; no doubt a lesson for the Australian game.

Removing itself from cavernous stadiums and offering affordable ticketing to encourage attendance during the summer months, should be high on the ‘to do’ list of the newly independent A-League. Putting the next broadcast deal aside and making football fun for Australian fans is paramount in a current climate where many feel over-charged, over-policed and under-valued.

The extra money now available at the top tier should be used to build the game from the local level; forging connections, establishing more feeder clubs and engaging with communities.

Adding ‘bright sparks’ into middle management does little for the domestic product. If LaLiga’s growth and success teaches us anything, it is that large stadiums and television deals are not the ‘be all and end all’ when it comes to growing the game.

What is far more important is giving people a compelling reason to go to a football match.

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10 ViacomCBS Executive Producer Geoff Bullock: Bringing a fan-first approach

Fans

10 ViacomCBS’ concerted efforts to aid in the revitalisation of Australian football over the last few months has stirred a largely positive response from the passionate Australian fanbase. The extensive coverage seen across Channel 10’s news networks and various social media channels speaks volumes of the broadcaster’s dedication to help football reach its lofty potential.

The clarity provided by a primary broadcaster who is aligned in its passion for the game, coupled with the governing bodies, is undeniably promising for football going forward.

Geoff Bullock has been a vital part of our collective matchday experience of Australian football since his beginnings at Fox Sports as a Producer for for football in 2006. Bullock has certainly ridden all of the highs and lows that have come with being an adherent of the game like the rest of us.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, the current Executive Producer for football at ViacomCBS gave us insight into the strategic direction, plans and thinking behind the new broadcasting home.

Football home

What has it been like taking on this project of 10 ViacomCBS being the home of all things Australian football? Have you always had an interest in football?

Geoff Bullock: I’ve been involved in football since I was about four, playing for the Gosford City Dragons with my dad as the coach. So, it’s always been my number one sport for the past 15 years as I’ve been lucky enough to be working on the broadcast of Australian football. And now to get to do it at Channel 10 for a new era is really exciting.

It’s just good to be involved when there’s a fresh start for football on the horizon. And I’m just excited about the role that we can play to hopefully energise football in Australia.

How is the 10 ViacomCBS production team looking to differentiate how football will be presented in comparison to any previous broadcaster’s time in charge of Australian football?

Geoff Bullock: What we want to do is provide a fan-first approach to broadcasting football here. And with the two platforms in Channel 10 and Paramount+ it gives us – in addition to the live broadcast – the opportunity to offer replays on-demand, mini matches and highlights for A-League Men and Women’s. That includes the Socceroos and Matildas internationals, which we’ve been broadcasting on 10 and 10 Bold and putting mini-matches on 10 Play.

I think it allows viewers to digest football in different ways to what they maybe traditionally have. We’ll also preview and review all of the games with our team as well. Each game will have a preview and review show attached, which allows our experts to dive in and give viewers a deeper look. And we’ll do some magazine shows and podcasts through the week as well to provide extra content.

The other thing I’m excited about is that we’re looking to do a deeper stats dive than we’ve done before. So, there’ll be greater insights on potential players and matches that we’ll be able to get from the deeper stats dive.

Traditionally, for the domestic game whilst they have been comprehensive in terms of milestones and players, we’ve never really taken the leap to include expected goals, pass mapping and possession mapping. That’s the territory I’m hoping we can get into for the A-League which will take it to a new level.

AL

Within the envisioned coverage, what areas of football are being focused on as its key points of difference in comparison to other sporting codes? How valuable do you believe embracing active support is?

Geoff Bullock: I think COVID-19 has shown how important it is to have fans at the game. Whether we’re in the stands or watching on TV, we know what we’re missing when the atmosphere isn’t there. It’s just a massive game-changer at the venue and on TV to have that buzz of the crowd at the games. I can’t wait to have that back.

And I think it’s even more important with football than other sports because of the unique nature of active support. It provides a soundtrack for the game that we’ve missed. The interesting contrast is probably the Euros where we finally got some crowds back at games and it was a massive lift.

That’s so important for us to take advantage of, that active support. We’re trying to provide a fan-friendly experience as well. We’ve worked hard with the APL to provide two fan-friendly Saturday 7:45pm timeslots, so that fans are able to get to more games that are on at a better time.

We’re looking forward to covering active support in the broadcast as well when we can. It’s no doubt been a while since we’ve seen a massive Wanderers march to the stadium which was always huge in the broadcast. Seeing that amount of people marching to the ground definitely provides a sense of occasion and anticipation before the game. It makes people want to stick around and watch.

March to stadium

We’ve seen football over the last few months covered extensively on Channel 10’s news and socials. What are some examples of the strategies being taken to entice younger social media savvy modern audiences?

Geoff Bullock: Quite a few strategies are in place, like our Saturday night coverage is going to be built around a multi-screen experience with those two simultaneous matches that I mentioned on Channel 10 and Paramount+. This is being done with the younger fans in mind.

Football fans, as we know, are accustomed to basically consuming their content on multiple devices. I believe a lot of people in that under-30 age bracket very rarely watch any kind of TV or stream without their phone in their hand.

So, we’re going to build the Saturday night around that multi-screen experience where you’ll be able to watch a game on 10 and on your device with Paramount+. It’ll be a chance for those fans to be across all the highlights and talking points from two games live as it happens.

We’re also exploring a few solutions that might allow us to scale up a separate coverage on a Saturday night that will deliver alternate commentary across the split-screen experience of those two games. That’s something that we’re going to work towards as the season unfolds, and also potentially a social media or influencer-driven commentary stream which we’ll look to do.

With the deep-dive stats that I mentioned earlier they’ll be going out on our social media platforms as well. That’s something that will allow those younger fans to engage in more analytical discussions around football. When you talk to young football fans, you find that there’s not much about the game that they aren’t across, and I think this will give them more of an opportunity to talk more in-depth about Australian football rather than the default of European football.

I think that’s one of our big challenges, to try and engage football fans in Australian football in the same way that they’re engaging with European football. And I’m hoping that if we can bring our level of detail up to the same sort of standards that fans are seeing overseas, then hopefully that will help them to switch on to the local game.

MVC

In terms of coverage beyond matchdays, are there plans to produce content that dives deeper into Australian football and its various stakeholders (clubs, fans, players)?

Geoff Bullock: Definitely. I think part of the strategy that we’ve been talking about is not taking Australian football fans for granted. Basically, bringing our coverage up to the standard that they’d expect. We want to give them the experience that they deserve based off their level of intellectual buy-in to the game.

Young fans here in Australia commit very heavily. You just look at the hours they have to stay up at night to watch these teams overseas. They’re committed to learning about these teams that aren’t even on their doorstep.

I think we need to match that in our level of commitment to them to be able to deliver that. With the APL we’ll be delivering features and exclusive content across broadcast, digital and social media platforms that will give them that detail of the local game – both the A-League Men’s and Women’s – that will allow them to basically have that same sort of intellectual connection that they should have. Because these are the clubs that are actually here and that means they can support them in the stands week-in week-out.

Fans here in Australia can get so much closer to the stars of these teams, like they’re far more accessible than they are in any other league. The access for these fans is so much different to what it is for some stars overseas and that’s what we want to encourage. We want fans to know that they’re amongst their heroes at these clubs.

World Cup qualifiers

Australian football has undoubtedly seen some rollercoaster times in recent years. Why do you believe now is a critical time for 10 Viacom CBS to get involved in football?

Geoff Bullock: It’s ridden a few waves that’s for sure. We all know it’s had its ups and downs based on national team performance and marquee players in the league, but it’s never really had a long-term sustained period of growth. Particularly over the last couple of years the popularity of the competitions has dropped off.

So, I think the timing of a longer-term broadcast deal with free-to-air exposure really couldn’t have come at a better time. And the fact that that deal has come along at the same time as the unbundling of the A-League from Football Australia (FA), it should provide clubs with a bit of confidence to invest further in the game and hopefully that’ll provide a better, more marketable product. Not only whistle-to-whistle but off the pitch as well.

I think there’s now an opportunity, like there never really has before, for the clubs to back themselves and have a crack. And maybe we’re starting to see that with Perth Glory getting Daniel Sturridge on board, which is a huge boost.

There’s always a bit of a knock-on effect when you’ve got these big stars signing for a club and suddenly there’s clubs looking over their shoulder not wanting to be left behind. The building blocks are there for a really exciting season, and with a number of clubs with spots to fill hopefully they follow the lead that the Glory have taken and they have a go.

Daniel Sturridge

How can 10 Viacom CBS help to capitalise on interest and grow women’s football leading into and following the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Geoff Bullock: It’s exceptionally exciting. The World Cup is going to be massive here in Australia. But the one thing we always know in Australia about having a tournament on home soil is that people get behind it. We saw how Australia embraced the Asian Cup back in 2015. Particularly with a lot of Asian teams we don’t traditionally get behind. So with a World Cup it’s going to be even bigger.

The women’s game is really important to us. I think everybody is aware in Australia it is the fastest growing asset within football. And we’re going to treat A-League Women’s exactly the same as we treat the Men’s. The same sort of program will be structured around each game. Our best commentators and experts will work across both competitions, so you’ll hear Simon Hill calling A-League Women’s matches as well as A-League Men’s.

We’re massively excited about the Matildas returning to play some games on home soil in October. But we’ll also be tracking it because we’ve got the Women’s Asian Cup starting in January early next year. And we’ll have programming around those games and that competition which will be hosted in India, so the kick-off times will be pretty decent for an Australian audience. So, it might really work well with the A-League still going on here. In that period, it will be a frenzy of football which is pretty exciting.

WWC 2023

Isuzu UTE Australia announced as naming rights partner for A-League Men

The A-Leagues have announced Isuzu Ute Australia will be the naming rights partner of its men’s competition for the next three years.

The competition will be officially known as the ‘Isuzu Ute A-League Men’.

Commencing with the upcoming 2021/2022 season, the partnership will also include the naming rights to the A-League Men’s Finals Series, with Isuzu Ute Australia becoming the Official Automotive Partner of the A-Leagues’ Men, Women, Youth and E-Sports Leagues.

“This is an historic day for the A-Leagues and we’re proud to have partnered with Isuzu UTE Australia, one of Australia’s top-selling automotive brands, with rapid growth across its D-MAX Ute and MU-X SUV ranges. We have an ambitious vision for the future of professional football and IUA will be a key partner on this journey,” said Danny Townsend, Managing Director, A-Leagues.

Hiroyasu Sato, Managing Director of Isuzu Ute Australia, spoke about the new partnership with the A-Leagues.

“We are delighted to be joining forces with the fastest growing sport in the country. The A-Leagues bring together the best of football in Australia – the game’s unparalleled diversity, reach and participation is key to our strategy to connect with modern Australia,” he said.

“We recognize that football is a great vehicle for bringing families and communities together, from amateur weekend players through to the professional A-Leagues. It’s a natural fit with our customers who share that spirit of excitement and adventure with football fans, and we look forward to being able to support the A-Leagues and Network 10 to bring football to all Australians.”

Ant Hearne, Chief Commercial Officer for the A-Leagues, said of the deal: “The A-Leagues are all about inspiring everyone to play their own way, on and off the pitch, so there is a natural fit with the Isuzu UTE brand values of adventure, reliability and performance. Football fans and Ute and SUV lovers live for the weekend and so we are excited to explore this connection with our audiences.”

The naming rights agreement will cover a broad range of marketing opportunities, including player kit branding, signage rights, as well as digital content and activation rights at all A-League Men’s and Women’s matches.

The company has also committed to providing vehicles for the APL and A-League Clubs for on-the-ground support.

 

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