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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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Stuart Thomas is a trusted Journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on macro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions.

James Johnson thrilled with increased fan engagement for Socceroos and Matildas

Football Federation Australia (FFA) has revealed that in spite of COVID-19 related challenges, digital and social engagement figures have surged for both the Socceroos and Matildas.

FFA Chief Executive Officer James Johnson was delighted to announce the increased engagement levels, despite the pandemic halting matches and camps for Australia’s two senior national football teams throughout 2020.

“In the Post Summer 2020 BenchMark Report released by True North Research earlier this year, both our senior national teams rated strongly,” Johnson said.

“The Socceroos had the highest familiarity in the report, with nearly 80 per cent of all Australian sports followers familiar with the team, while the Westfield Matildas came first in emotional connection to all Australian sports followers.”

Johnson added that FFA’s in-house digital and social media team have proactively adapted FFA’s content offerings throughout the pandemic in response to traditionally peak performing periods around international fixtures having been postponed.

“We recognised at the start of the pandemic that there was a likelihood domestic football and a host of international match activity in 2020 could be affected by the COVID-19 situation, and moved swiftly to pivot some of our planning to ensure that our supporters retained, or even grew, their connections to the game and our iconic senior sides throughout this challenging period,” he said

FFA has adopted creative strategies for both the men’s and women’s digital strategies throughout 2020. These include leveraging the successful FIFA Women’s World Cup bid for the Matildas and taking a more retrospective approach for the Socceroos.

Australia’s winning bid to co-host the Women’s World Cup has been one of 2020’s highpoints.

“On the back of the euphoric announcement that Australia, together with New Zealand, will host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, combined with the movement of many leading Matildas players to globally recognised clubs abroad, we’ve focused on creating content that takes fans behind the scenes and into the lives of our elite female footballers, enabling them to gain a closer understanding of the people and their personalities.

“For the Socceroos, we have focused intently on the culture and history of the team, who in 2022 – a FIFA World Cup year – will celebrate a century of activity. This has included re-living many historic moments and matches and covering them as if social media existed when they occurred. This rich and reflective coverage has resulted in the Socceroos’ digital and social media accounts delivering more video views between April and June 2020 with no matches, than in the nine months prior.

In terms of tangible engagement, highlights of the past 12 months for the Westfield Matildas include a 121 per cent increase in total minutes viewed on Facebook, a 157 per cent increase in overall hours of video viewed across all platforms, and a 9.3 per cent increase in total followers to over 355,000 followers.

The recently launched FFA TikTok channel has also earned strong early engagement, with experienced defender Alanna Kennedy’s training clip edging towards three million views.

The Socceroos’ approach has resulted in a 244 per cent increase in total video views across all platforms, while total hours of video content consumed has risen by 355 per cent year-on-year. Remarkably, 81 per cent of all Socceroos video content consumed throughout last financial year occurred during the COVID-19 period between April and June. The Socceroos have a cumulative social following of over 1.1 million fans.

“Our intent is to continue evolving our digital and social products to ensure that we enhance our connection with our football community, involve fans in the journeys of our teams and players both in and out of peak match and competition periods, and deliver consistent value to our partners,” Johnson concluded.

Why digital transformation is vital for Australian football

Digital transformation in sport has a vast array of benefits, providing large opportunities for growth and enhancing fan experiences.

Australian football should embrace digital transformation in order for it to succeed and grow into the future.

A simple definition of digital transformation is when businesses or organisations use digital technology to change the way that something is done.

Digital transformation in sport has a vast array of benefits, providing large opportunities for growth and enhancing fan experiences.

Australian football should be looking to provide constant connection with its fans, instead of just during the 90 minutes of a football game.

FAN EXPERIENCE & ENGAGEMENT

While the 2019/20 Hyundai A-League season did have a record amount of fan engagement with a 30% increase in digital followers and a 15% increase in engagements, there are plenty more opportunities to improve fan experience and engagement via digital transformation.

The FIFA 20 Hyundai A-League Tournament during the suspension of the A-League is a great example. It would be interesting to see a tournament like this played every year in the lead up to the season to attract younger fans and build some hype heading into the new campaign.

Social media allows for clubs to connect with fans easily, where press conferences could be live streamed or players could do Q&A’s on Facebook or Instagram Live.

There’s also opportunities at live events – digital activations at sporting events using data from the match can share information with fans at the game and at home.

The MLS and ESPN recently installed a big screen which nearly runs the length of the pitch at its recent ‘MLS is Back’ Tournament.

Tottenham Hotspurs’ new stadium is another example the digital transformation which Australian football should be looking to for inspiration.

The stadium features large video screens, wireless payment, has stadium wide connectivity with large amounts of Wi-Fi access points and has more bandwidth than any other stadium.

For NPL clubs, regular social media posting would allow the club to reach more Australian soccer fans. Branded content also allows clubs to provide more exposure to the sponsors. Clubs could also make money through these types of deals.

COVID-19

This becomes especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, where some clubs are struggling financially due to seasons being cancelled or less games being played. Branded content could provide clubs with some extra income.

Borussia Dortmund recently signed a partnership with Indian Premier League club Hyderabad FC. Dortmund will be helping to improve Hyderabad’s fan engagement, which will now have to be done in a different way.

“We can’t even think about fans in stadium right now, so it has to be done in a very organic way. We will be doing it through digital means first and soon as we can travel, we’ll have the Fan Liaison Officer to come over to India to give Hyderabad FC an understanding of how the whole phenomenon of the Dortmund fan culture exists. It’ll be a long-stretched process, but I’m positive we’ll get there one day,” Dortmund’s Managing Director for Asia-Pacific Suresh Letchmanan said.

As fans cannot be present at games in the large numbers they’re used to, the fan experience has to be rethought.

Melbourne Victory’s pre-game show ‘Victory TV’  is easily accessible for fans being streamed live on YouTube and Facebook. It provides an easy way for fans to stay engaged with their team during the pandemic.

InCrowd is a fan experience platform and services agency. InCrowd’s Head of partnerships for Australia and New Zealand, Seb Lear, spoke to Ministry of Sport about digital transformation.

“I think this transformation was inevitable and we were already seeing significant progress, but the pandemic has driven many rightsholders to bring their digital plans forward,” Lear said.

“It was Microsoft who said recently that 2 years’ worth of digital transformation had happened in 2 months, and I don’t think sport is any different.”

Mobile-only ticketing is another example of digital transformation that should be considered. This could track when people come into stadiums where they sit allowing for people to be easily identified if there are outbreaks at matches.

OTHER LEAGUES/ORGANISATIONS ARE DOING SO AND FINDING SUCCESS

Other sporting leagues and organisations around the world have embraced digital transformation and are finding success because of it.

“We will be watching this sports content battle closely over the coming year, as well as the success/engagement from the Facebook MLB endeavour, as it could be a sign of things to come with streaming platforms playing a bigger role in global professional sports broadcasting rights in the years ahead and potentially shaking up this market, while adding a major notch on the content belts of Amazon, Facebook and other new tech entrants to this arena,” Daniel Ives, head of technology research at GBH Insights, told CNBC in March 2018.

This has now happened, the sports media landscape has changed and while it is still an option it is no longer absolutely necessary to go through the traditional media organisations.

The sports industry and technology has moved to allow for clubs and organisations to provide direct channels of content straight to consumers.

In the recent FFA online surveys on the XI principles, 72% people believed that the FFA/the leagues should create an on demand/live streaming football platform.

Having all Australian football available in one place would accessing content very easy for consumers.

At a time when A-League clubs are lacking free to air exposure and wanting to reach more fans free live streaming could also be an option.

The A-League in particular should look at having some games being broadcast on a service such as Twitch.

FFA CEO James Johnson recently spoke to NewsCorp about the future of the game.

“I didn’t come back here just to administer the sport. What was interesting to me was really transforming it,” Johnson said.

Transformation is on the horizon and the digital side of it cannot be forgotten.

Support grows for National Second Division ahead of AAFC meeting

The Australian Association of Football Clubs (AAFC) will take the next step towards its plans to have a national second division in place by 2022, holding a meeting this week with interested member federation clubs.

Over 50 clubs across Australia are set to be a part of the discussion on Tuesday, which will centre around the criteria of the proposed second division, with a working title of ‘The Championship’.

AAFC will provide a public statement on the progress made throughout the meeting the following day.

This is welcome news for football fans who have been pushing for a proper football system, with AAFC also providing possible timelines, something the game has been crying out for.

The organisation would have been heartened to hear of Melbourne Victory owner Joe Mirabella’s comments recently, who fully backed the implementation of a national second division.

He told The Age: We need it (a second division) because it is a point of difference to our game and to other sports. We need competition in the A-League. We need our grassroots to eventually play into a B-League and then play towards winning a spot in the A-League.”

“I don’t care if it is Victory, Sydney FC or Melbourne City. It is about merit.”

Mirabella’s comments are not revolutionary, but are significant, because of who he is.

A Melbourne Victory owner publicly admitting the game needs promotion and relegation might go against his own interests, based on the current A-League model, however, he realises it is for the betterment of the sport in this country.

It will provide the game with more opportunities across the board and will embrace what makes football unique.

“I have discussed this with a lot of football people,” he continued.

“When you get journalists, commentators and fans of the game, ex-players who have played for the country and they are all in favour of the second division then you can see there is a groundswell of support going.

“My family is a football family. But when they are saying the A-League has become boring you have to do something.”

Ultimately, the decision to implement a connected football pyramid will come down to the FFA, who continue to be in discussions with AAFC.

The ‘XI Principles’ document which was released at the start of July, highlighted various agenda points in the game that the governing body would look to fix or improve.

Detail on the second division was light, with just one passage of the document stating “consider the development of a second-tier competition”.

In saying this however, the XI Principles is a living document, meaning amendments will be made to it in the future, as the FFA assesses the best way forward for the game in financially difficult times.

Following the results of a survey of the Australian football community based on the XI Principles paper, showing 99% of respondents insist the game undertakes a major overhaul, FFA CEO James Johnson spoke about the possibilities of a national second division.

“Could there be a second-tier competition, with 10 or 12 teams that play 20-odd rounds home and away or do we look at a second-tier competition with conferences based in different states around the country that play half the season at state level and then end up playing at national level in a group stage, similar to how the Brazilian league operates,” he told News Corp.

“There’s two parts to the season that starts at state level, then a qualification process that goes into a national level of competition.

“This is something we could look at because someone of our challenges in Australia are similar to Brazil – where you have competition that are strong at state level and you have a very big country geographically, so their solution was to use this sort of format.”

Whether you believe the Brazilian system is suitable for Australia or not, it is important for football fans to see those in charge of the game continue to debate the merits of various models, led by an administrator who is a football person.

With the greatest respect, what was the likelihood of former FFA CEO David Gallop speaking about the Japanese footballing model as opposed to the Brazilian model in the public eye?

The national second division is coming, in what form we are unsure, but the consensus seems to be when and how, not if.

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