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.

Staff Writer
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How the Liberty A-League can learn from the incredible growth of NWSL

As the A-League Women’s Grand Final approaches and season comes to an end, it is a time to reflect on a season of incredible growth and broken records.

Similarly to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) post-2015 Women’s World Cup, there was a popularity boost that translated into increased attendances and revenue for the league.

However, as the NWSL continued to rapidly develop, it seems as if the Liberty A-League struggled to consistently grow after a fantastic first round showing that involved a record-breaking 11,471 crowd for the Sydney Derby.

In the top 10 attendances of the regular season, eight feature games played before the new year despite the Matildas set to sell out a 14th consecutive home match before the Olympics commence in July.

The Liberty A-League crowd average is a little over 2,200 per match, which is a great benchmark for future growth but doesn’t do the participation and momentum justice.

The NWSL is a great case study to look at, with the league being formed only 12 years ago in 2012 and its first season started in the April of 2013.

In its formative years, the NWSL averaged an attendance 4,270, with a high of 17,619. A decent foundation but plenty of room to improve in the world’s biggest sporting market.

It wasn’t until the 2015 season where the league was forced into a shortened schedule and some early-season roster instability due to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The World Cup, which was won emphatically by the USWNT also provided invaluable exposure to the NWSL, which was credited with boosting attendance numbers across the league.

Instantly, teams such as Seattle and Washington who averaged 3,500 crowds per game were selling upwards of 6,000 to their next home game, an immediate resurgence.

So what did the NWSL do to fast-track growth using the World Cup?

Ticket prices

The NWSL, immediately after the 2015 Women’s World Cup pledged to keep the ticket prices consistent within teams, as it sat at $10-$15 USD (AUD $15-$23) across the league.

It was extremely cheap in a saturated and quite expensive US Sports market that allowed the league to use it as a point of difference.

It’s a simple solution that Melbourne City coach Dario Vidosic hinted at for this weekend’s Grand Final in his recent press conference.

Vidosic claimed that “If it was up to him, everyone would be let in for free for Saturday’s final.”

This is simply to create an exciting atmosphere that legitimises the league’s biggest game of the year on a national stage.

Breakaway from Men’s competition

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman made an extremely interesting point about the NWSL being its own entity.

Speaking to reporters at the Financial Times’ Business of Football summit in London, Berman said the “superpower” of the NWSL was its “independence” – notably from men’s clubs and leagues, which is not the case in Europe or Australia.

It certainly isn’t an overnight fix by any means but allowing the A-League Women’s to run separately from the A-League Men’s, even if it is just ownership could provide a difference that attracts more fans.

Maintaining local star players

Even in it’s infancy, the NWSL were able to show off USWNT stars like Lynn Williams, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan during their ‘Golden Era.’

It collectively brought in more fans to the stands and increased the league’s exposure in the mainstream media.

It certainly isn’t as easy as that when the prospect of playing for more money and exposure in the US or Europe is a possibility now, but Cortnee Vine provides a great example of a star Matilda willing to be the face of the league to inspire young girls.

If the league are able to keep hold of exciting prospects like Daniela Galic or legends like Michelle Heyman for a few years, it would benefit the league greatly as an entertainment product.

Providing a great fan experience

There was an onus on the NWSL clubs and the league itself to make sure matchdays are an experience that brings fans back.

Two clubs in particular Angel City and San Diego Wave fans host tailgates pre-game near the stadium for anyone to join on top of other activations inside the stadium to connect fans closer to the team.

The WSW Women’s team are a fantastic example of an effort to build support, with their Wander Women program, school clinics, fan interactions and their own social media channels helping them grow slowly but surely.

It’s time the others follow suit in a collective attempt to maximise exposure.

To conclude, the NWSL used the 2015 World Cup as leverage to strike a quick deal with Fox Sports to broadcast 15 games for the rest of that season, cashing in on the national team’s success.

Now it boasts the biggest ever Women’s football media deal in history, with the recent four-year $240 million USD ($324 million AUD) domestic broadcast deal across four major streaming and cable partners.

It will be extremely interesting to see the direction the Liberty A-League takes before it renews its broadcast deal in 2026 as it simply cannot waste this golden opportunity it was presented.

777 Partners seeking completion of Everton deal

American firm 777 Partners are nearing the completion of their takeover at Everton after a long seven-month process is heading towards its conclusion.

As reported by TEAMtalk, 777 sources have confirmed that they have now passed the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors Test on the basis that they pay back an outstanding loan to MSP Sports Capital.

The firm are not expecting an imminent announcement from the Premier League but as mentioned, are confident that the takeover will be finalised around May time, ready for the all-important summer window.

However, Everton are keeping their options open and are actively looking at backup options in case this deal falters at the last minute. It remains a real interesting story that has mixed reports and an air of  scepticism about it.

MSP and two Liverpool-based businessmen Andy Bell and George Downing loaned Everton £158m ($303m AUD) which was due to be returned on Monday this week.

A short-term extension of the loan – taken out by majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri but which 777 have to pay if their takeover is to proceed – has been agreed in principle.

777 have stakes in many other clubs around Europe and the world including Hertha Berlin, Genoa, Standard Liege and A-League giant Melbourne Victory.

There is little doubt that there are mixed results regarding the clubs they takeover with a few angry protests and controversies shining the light on a potential shaky move that Everton couldn’t afford to go wayward.

At German side Hertha Berlin, they say that they ‘don’t have as much control as they would like’ and ‘haven’t been able to make the changes they would like there’, hindered by the German rules on ownership.

After the German side’s relegation last season from the Bundesliga and slow start to life in the 2. Bundesliga this season, there were many fan protests and banners attacking 777 owner Josh Wander however the cub have managed to steer the ship this season and sit in 7th place with four games remaining.

777 believe that they have done a good job with Italian club Genoa, however, who were promoted back into the Serie A last season under their stewardship.

They managed to improve finances, particularly through smart transfers like buying Radu Dragusin for £4.3m ($8.25m AUD) and selling him on to Tottenham just a year later for a huge fee of £26.7m ($51.25m AUD).

777 have missed payments on occasion at Standard Liege, but they have since been paid. They claim that they are battling against the financial mismanagement of previous owners and have lifted the carpet at the Belgian side to find many skeletons.

For Everton, after two points deductions that added up to eight points, the key for this move to run smoothly is to remain a top flight club in 2024/25 which they are in a fantastic position to do so after a controversial 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest on the weekend.

Everton will ‘not be a closed shop’ once they take control of the club and they aim to build their income and sustainability in the years.

It also leaves an interesting discussion as to Everton’s transfer strategy following their strict FFP rules that can’t be broken again.

The firm, led by CEO Josh Wander, intend to back the Toffees’ sporting director Kevin Thelwell and are hoping to strengthen the side this summer.

They do concede that the sale of key players such as Amadou Onana, Jarrad Branthwaite and Jordan Pickford may be required to balance the books, however.

777 claim they will do everything they can to avoid a third points deduction which would be placed on the club in 2024/25.

They also say that they will put a big focus on improving the Merseyside club’s academy, insisting that it will be utilised “correctly” and hope to have more homegrown talent break into the first team.

With the new stadium built and ready to go in 2025/26, the revenue streams will improve and there is a tiny light at the end of the tunnel, as long as the Toffees can continue to do their job on the pitch and secure the Premier League broadcasting money that is required to pay off loans and debt.

Despite the very loud outside noise and criticism, 777 remain calm about the debt being paid off before the deadline and the deal will be finalised.

777’s history and mixed results at other clubs leave this one in the air, and despite fans not wanting this move to occur, it could be one that saves Everton from a worst case scenario of administration after years of financial hardship.

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