This upcoming A-Leagues season is without a doubt the most significant in its 18-year history.
It’s been said countless times before, but with the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) now at the helm following an official split from the then-named Football Federation Australia at the tail end of 2020, there will be chances aplenty to confidently stamp the local game’s footing within Australia’s sporting ecosystem.
Contrary to the APL’s expectations, season 2021-22 was stunted by challenges off the pitch such as lengthy COVID-19 enforced delays, turbulent weather conditions, chaotic fixture scheduling, and a Perth Glory side left displaced from Western Australia. On the field though, the competition delivered a closely contested finals push, myriad of exciting youngsters, and a largely entertaining stack of fixtures. The surprise package that was Arthur Papas’ dynamic (albeit vulnerable) Newcastle Jets proved a suitable counter-cultural clash to the tactical pragmatism typically associated with the league, and Melbourne Victory’s committed rebuild reignited the return of the league’s best active support – reaffirming what is undoubtedly the league’s greatest asset.
Understandably, the APL will be seeking to simultaneously make up for lost time and capitalise on the prospects that will arise from the Socceroos efforts at Qatar 2022 and the Matildas’ conquest to earn a trophy at a home World Cup in mid-2023. This will be no easy feat however.
As a result of what’s largely been identified as yet another rebirth year for the A-Leagues following last season’s perceived restart under new broadcasters Channel 10 and Paramount+, the same priorities of last season remain for the APL – they’ve now just been added to the ever-growing list of responsibilities for them to deliver on.
Worries from fans over the leagues’ broadcaster potentially failing to meet basic expectations ahead of the new season were far from allayed when 10 ViacomCBS’ streaming service Paramount+ confirmed the following through Twitter on Wednesday:
“Dear football fans,
“We want to be upfront with you, and unfortunately live pause and rewind won’t be ready for the start of the 2022/23 A-Leagues Season. We understand your frustration and we’re continuing to work on this feature. As soon as it is ready, we will let you know.”
Undeniably the deficiencies of Paramount+ are proving a much greater hindrance to the APL’s growth strategies and simple desire to make the game accessible for fans and casual supporters than they would’ve no doubt wanted. Alignment across the board requires a broadcaster that treats the A-Leagues with the respect it deserves, and the situation reeks of either a mismanagement of time or a pure disrespect for the competition it has taken under its mantle, or both.
Responsiveness and accountability will need to be well-honed attributes for the APL this season, and the first test of that has come from Paramount+ embodying the phrase ‘teething issues’ for far too long with its lack of refinement as a streaming platform. Whilst the APL would’ve hoped that 10 ViacomCBS would honour their end of the partnership, the onus is on them as a governing body to outline when answers will be provided.
Despite the issues with Paramount+, the release of ‘Sky Blue: Inside Sydney FC’ – a documentary which mirrors the fly-on-the-wall style made famous by ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ and Amazon’s ‘All Or Nothing’ series – via the streaming service satisfies the exact craving for in-depth content that fans have been begging for here. And it does reaffirm that the broadcasting home of Australian football is looking to match the passion of its fans. It begs the question though of whether the priority for both the APL and 10 ViacomCBS is accumulating streaming viewers or viewing numbers on free-to-air? The move to push the A-League Men from its main channel to Channel 10’s more sports-based sister channel 10 Bold perhaps suggests the former.
Whether such a move is positive or negative is not the dilemma for now, in fact, the A-Leagues now hold in their palms the capacity to produce their own unique content and to dictate their own message. The recently announced A-Leagues All Access series is the first real show of this self-sufficiency as it will take fans into the behind-the-scenes of both the A-League Men and Women week-to-week in order to showcase its depth of characters and to provide casual fans with reasons for investment.
A series which plays out in such a manner will be rife with potential for bite-sized, accessible content that excitedly beckons virality. And that is nothing but a fortuitous result for the A-Leagues, especially in drawing in a younger, more tech-savvy generation of football adherents. The admittedly small pool of dedicated A-Leagues fans will undoubtedly grow if the right manoeuvres continue to be made by the APL who will be looking to translate high participation rates and a common love for the global game outside of Australia to fans attending and watching A-Leagues games.
In addition, re-engaging disenchanted fans who have had their passion for the league tainted by issues such as uncertain club ownership, over policing of active support, high ticket prices, and the seemingly endless disharmony within Australian football will only come from treating the league and these supporters with integrity.
A longstanding issue within the A-Leagues has been its meandering search for identity, something which is made all the more difficult by a franchise model that leaves clubs attempting to cultivate a tangible connection to the respective region or city they represent. During the league’s high of 2012-2016 active support was that answer to the question of ‘who are we?’. How well the APL and its 12 A-Leagues clubs have proceeded to reconnect with active support groups (whose relationship with the league’s previous administrator FFA became tarnished by an evident lack of a concrete ally) over the off-season will only be known once the season kicks-off, but what needs to be stressed for the umpteenth time is the fact that a healthy fan culture is everything to the longevity of the A-Leagues. The league’s highest average attendance came during the 2013-14 season with 13,479 and will likely take some time to get back to, and for the A-Leagues to meet Professional Footballers Australia’s achievable target of a 10,000 attendance average there needs to be a revitalising of active support.
Marquee players and coaches in the vein of Nani, Charlie Austin and Dwight Yorke are essential for bringing mainstream eyes towards the A-League Men, but for the even younger A-League Women’s competition there is significant potential to cultivate interest and growth in active support numbers even before the onset of a home Women’s World Cup.
With a men’s World Cup atypically scheduled mid-season as a result of unplayable weather conditions during Qatar’s summer, the opportunity will be ripe to convert rusted on A-League Men’s supporters towards the Liberty A-League. Particularly as the women’s competition will continue to run throughout the duration of Qatar 2022 when the men’s competition breaks for a month.
Furthermore, the move to play games in suitable stadia at family-friendly times and to provide free tickets for registered players under 16 will undoubtedly be conducive to a better atmosphere at Liberty A-League matches, but investment into the women’s competition and subsequent parity with the men’s competition must follow suit as the women’s game grows here.
For many, 2022-23 will be that catalyst for becoming invested in the local game, such is the magnitude of a World Cup finals berth for the Socceroos and Matildas. To add to this, the men’s 2023 Asian Cup will begin soon after the 2022 World Cup concludes and will surely influence the APL and Football Australia’s thinking when looking further engross fans.
There is an abundance of opportunity awaiting the APL in season 2022-23, particularly with league heavyweights Sydney FC buoyed by a newly built Allianz Stadium and COVID-19 claiming less dominance within the collective Australian sporting fan’s psyche. However, uniting and ultimately satisfying both disenchanted and rusted on fans will go a long way toward making up for a nullified first year in charge and years of disillusionment under FFA. And truthfully, football possesses a greater chance of swaying the APL’s targeted youth demographic over any other sport in the country, its simply a matter of engaging.