The first iteration of Unite Round has not gone by without criticism, but the product itself may well have saved the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) from a complete disaster.
With high-scoring thrillers, player milestones, and little controversy, A League football delivered when it really needed to, and it should give the APL plenty of marketable content for future editions of the round.
In addition, match-going fans performed admirably to help create atmosphere within the grounds.
This includes valiant efforts from interstate fans, particularly Adelaide United and Brisbane Roar, and not least those from the Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory.
These fans were treated to some rip-roaring football, but there simply was not enough of them, with data analysis reporting a total attendance rate to be 47,425 across 12 games; an average of 3,952 per match.
Attendances continue to be the major talking point for fans and critics of the A League, but a simple fixturing change to the round could make the difference next time.
Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory fans had their women’s sides play at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night, before having to wait until Sunday night for their men’s match.
Given the distances fans from both sides have to travel, situating their games as bookends was far from accommodating and recorded a combined attendance of under 5,000 across the club’s three games.
The reverse of this occurred to Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City, with the men’s match taking centre stage on Friday night, whilst the women’s encounter took place at 5:00PM on a Sunday.
While some Wanderers fans did turn out in the grandstand for their women’s team, the RBB was nowhere to be seen and contributed to the low crowd of 1,515.
Finally, there was a same-day clash for Adelaide United fans, who had to make an incredibly tight public transport connection between Leichhardt Oval and Allianz Stadium, or fork out money for a taxi/uber fare between grounds.
It led to many Reds’ fans either leaving their women’s team early, or arriving late to their men’s encounter.
A mirroring of the men’s and women’s league fixtures could have alleviated some of the pressures on attendances, and delivered a more economical and logistically sound solution for fans.
In addition, the APL would be allowing clubs to do its own Unite Round marketing for them, by encouraging their fans to attend both their men’s and women’s fixtures.
We could have seen popular active supports’ such as the RBB, The Cove, The Red Army and The North End, supporting their men’s and women’s teams throughout one night.
Instead, we had disjointed looking crowds at the men’s double-headers, with women’s double-headers left hung out to dry in Leichhardt.
Furthermore, the APL’s decision to pair its newest clubs Western United and Macarthur FC to play at 5PM on a Friday only accentuated doubts over its fan base growth.
The logic may have been to capture match-going fans of Wanderers and City, but it simply did not work, recording an attendance of just under 3,500, with many fans not arriving until the conclusion of what turned out to be a thrilling encounter.
Again, the APL could look at scheduling games between clubs with smaller fan bases, as well as clubs with the greatest amount of travel, Perth and Wellington, to take place at smaller venues that will enable a greater atmosphere.
Twelve games across three venues makes sense, but the scheduling did not. Thankfully, this should be an easier fix for the APL if Unite Round returns next season.
Most disappointing from the perspective of match-going fans, though, was a lack of entertainment at the grounds.
Whilst in-stadium DJ’s and compares did their best to engage the crowd in-between games, there was very little activities on offer with no food vans or sideshows present.
Regardless, with grassroots participation in football so strong the APL cannot let up in finding solutions to entice juniors and their families to A-League matches.
Player and fan interaction could be the place to start, evidenced by the frenzied post-game atmosphere involving Wanderers and Adelaide United fans, who stayed well after the final whistle to meet the players, take selfies and sign shirts.
Could the APL have created exclusive areas, similar to those at the Melbourne F1 Grand Prix, for fans to meet players across the weekend?
There is also the potential to replicate what AFL sides did during Gather Round by conducting open training sessions the day before their matches begin, so that fans can again interact with their clubs.
Even further afar, Major League Soccer continually provides examples of how to engage fans into football whilst battling several high-profile codes.
Offering free merchandise to fans outside the ground such as scarves, hats, banners or even t-shirts are a fixture of the MLS fan experience, whilst brand partners of clubs and the league itself immerse their names and products around stadiums.
To the latter point, sponsor involvement has been so successful that a 2022 survey revealed 73% of MLS fans would try the products of brands associated with their MLS club.
Connecting league and club sponsors, especially during a landmark event like Unite Round, should be pivotal to its success. Of course, the APL will need its representative clubs to pull their weight by getting their sponsors on board.
Finally, in relation to off-field entertainment, the APL cooled some doubts about the round clashing with the Socceroos Asian Cup opener against India, announcing it would provide a fanvzone outside the stadium for spectators to watch the match.
However, fans leaving the Allianz Stadium were led on a merry dance around Moore Park, as the big screens in the designated fan zone failed with very little explanation.
A pub in the entertainment quarter graciously re-opened its doors to show the match on its two big screens, but many fans had already called it a night, leaving them disgruntled despite a terrific night of A-League football.
Indeed, situations like this re-ignite lingering resentment towards the APL, particularly from clubs outside New South Wales, who still hold the organisation accountable for its now-reversed decision to move grand finals exclusively to Sydney.
The reversal gave birth to the Unite Round, and it is likely that many fans chose not to support the initiative because of its connection to the APL’s initial decision.
Meanwhile, reports of financial turmoil within the organisation are being attributed to its redundancy measures, which will see its digital content arm KeepUp effectively removed.
This turmoil could explain the APL’s hasty approach towards its organisation of the round, as well as its conservative approach to its marketing and promotion.
Responding to the redundancies, an APL statement released on Tuesday offers reassurance for stakeholders, clubs, and fans.
“With the original three-year strategy coming to an end, a planned full strategic and commercial review has taken place over the last several months,” it read.
“The review has identified significant opportunities to create efficiencies through consolidation and this necessitates an organisational restructure that is now underway.
“APL’s priorities remain the same – to deliver commercial growth and sustainability by creating the most exciting competitions possible for our fans – with strong teams producing great young players across Australia and New Zealand.”
If the APL stays committed to these priorities, we will hopefully be treated to a more successful edition of Unite Round, and more importantly, a football experience befitting of what is being delivered on the field.
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