The A-League’s most important metric

Not enough grassroots are connecting with the A-League

Australian Football participation levels are at all-time highs, however A-League crowds and TV ratings have been falling. Despite marketing innovations including Star Wars Round, The Chase, VAR and Knockout Finals, the FFA have failed to engage grassroots fans with the A-League. Pressure is building from broadcasters and private investors to fix the League’s deteriorating metrics and the solution may actually lie in the League’s fundamentals and understanding the league football fans are actually engaging with.

The A-league is selling a story product, football is just part of it

The A-League is a product that packages football alongside fixtures, clubs, players and stadiums. Together these components comprise what the A-league is actually trying to sell to fans – the story of a competition to find Australia’s best football team. Selling the A-league is not the same as selling football, football is simply the language the competition story is written in. With over a million Australians engaging in football every week it’s clear that Australians can fluently read the language of football, what’s not clear is why they are not buying the A-League story.

Fans engage with meaningful stories

The football stories Australians are buying into are the local competitions and big international leagues. Local competitions have a bigger footprint (sold in more bookstores) and Australians love to play the game (enjoy writing the story themselves). The international leagues offer superior quality (better writing) and grand histories (are part of well-known book series). Despite the massive variances in the standard of play, form of consumption and stadiums housing these competitions, these leagues maintain captive Australian audiences because at their core, football leagues aren’t technical demonstrations, media content or stadium experiences, football leagues captivate audiences by selling meaningful stories.

The A-League is a football competition

Building meaning into the A-League has to happen on multiple levels. The first challenge is ensuring fans buy the A-league’s book over those of the AFL, NRL, EPL etc. This is where the A-League must justify its purpose and convince fans that the most important story is about the competition to find Australia’s best football club.

The second challenge is to make sure that fans read the book once they’ve bought it. The A-League needs to be interesting from start to finish and its competition structure must maximise the importance of every game.

Buy the book, read the book, pick up the next one in the series. The A-League needs to be important enough to buy and interesting enough to read the whole thing. The A-League’s inability to engage fans are ultimately an inability to sell a compelling story, so where is the A-League lacking?

  1. The non-football interests erode competition purpose

Competition fairness is vitally important in determining the best team. The A-League competition structure however, varies from global standards by not offering an even home and away season. The current league structure allows the following scenario to happen:

  • Sydney FC could receive a financial advantage by playing two home derbies against the Wanderers and only one away.
  • Sydney FC could receive a logistical advantage by playing in Perth only once while other teams play them twice.
  • Sydney FC could receive a competitive advantage by playing against weaker teams three times during the season and stronger teams twice during the season.

The beauty of a home and away season is the message of fairness. All club play an even number of home and away games against like-for-like opposition the same number of times. Non-home and away season are uneven and must be justified. In response to the uneven regular season fixture the FFA released the below principles for its fixture decision methodology:

  • Priority 1: Maximise Hyundai A League broadcast metrics
  • Priority 2: Fairness and competition integrity for all clubs
  • Priority 3: Maximise Hyundai A-League attendance metrics and other commercial priorities

By relegating the importance of the Championship as secondary to maximising television ratings the purpose of the A-League is fundamentally changed.

Not only do questions of fixture imbalances cast doubt over the validity of the Championship but by prioritised broadcast metric explicitly oppose the concept of the  competition as the search for Australia’s best football team. This farcical situation is as if an author wrote a book hoping readers cared less about the story and more about the best sellers’ list!

  1. The current competition structure undermines the Championship

Somewhat justifying the uneven A-League regular season fixture is the presence of a finals system. Finals systems are common in Australian sport as well as grassroots football. Finals continue to attract media attention, large ratings and large crowds. Although finals deviate from global football standards the concept is accepted by Australian fans and football participants. It seems Aussies love reading a cracking final chapter!

However although finals as a concept have been accepted by Australian fans the current A-League finals system brings into question the validity of the end of season Champion. The A-League knockout finals format lacks the second chances or two legged matches. This increases the likelihood of upsets in a sport which is already susceptible to upsets relative to others. The potential significance of upsets is further increased by the relative low bar required for teams to qualify for finals. The A-League allows more than half its teams to qualify meaning a team with a losing record for the season could be crowned champion. Recent finals series have seen dramatic upsets including Melbourne Victory defeating Sydney in 2018 and Sydney defeating Perth in 2019. Both finals were followed with questions of the validity of the Championship and whether the current Champion is actually Australia’s best team and consequently if the Championship title is actually meaningful.

Is it worth reading a book when the author is notorious for killing off the protagonist in seemingly unjust twist endings?

  1. The current competition structure leads to meaningless matches

Although the concept of finals is justified the current A-League finals structure removes competitive tension at the end of the season. As more than half the League’s clubs to qualify for finals the allowable margin of error so large that top clubs find themselves qualifying for finals early in the regular season. After qualification is certain the League only offers minimal incentives to place higher on the table. Top clubs don’t receive a second chance in the current system and don’t even receive revenues from their (often sold-out) home finals. Painfully clubs can’t even select their home venue for finals. Optus Stadium was selected for the 2019 Grand Final even though Perth Glory preferred the match be played at their regular home ground Perth Oval. The 2008 Grand Final was played in Sydney rather than the Central Coast’s regular home ground in Gosford.

Worse still,  bottom of the table clubs who miss out on finals have little incentive to field competitive teams. Without relegation or financial penalty clubs finishing at the bottom of the A-League table start each new season with a clean slate. In the 2018-19 season the top six teams were solidified by round eight and the bottom four teams did not move from their exact table positions for the rest of the season. Lack of competitiveness from the bottom of the table and complacency at the top half of the table essentially stripped all meaning out of the final two thirds of the 2018-19 season. Ratings and attendances for this portion of the season fell dramatically before rising for the three week finals series. Even fans who enjoy the A-League story chose to skip the back half of the book and skip to the final chapter.

Conclusion

The A-League is not selling football, it is selling the competition for Australia’s best football team. Its failure to engage fans lies in its inability to justify its purpose and create meaning in matches throughout the season. Like the plot of a story, competition structure guides focus and assigns meaning to all aspects of the story – each match, the season and the League as a whole. Selling the A-League ultimately requires changes to the competition structure that better suits fans perception of competition fairness, the value they attach to the Championship and their enjoyment of competitive tension.

A way forward

How can the A-League restructure its competition to best suit fans tastes? Aligning the League with the most engaging Leagues appears relatively simple:

A home and away regular season is urgently needed and in order to maintain a suitable long season the best way to achieve these two goals would be to introduce new teams to the competition.

Finals are widely accepted in Australia but the finals format requires an overhaul. The current finals system allows for dramatic upsets that bring into question the validity of the season ‘Champion’ and consequently the purpose of the league. A new finals system should minimise the chances of an upset by using mechanisms such as second chances for higher placed teams or multi legged finals. The current finals system also allows too many teams to qualify which reduces competitive tension at the top of the table. A new finals system should admit a smaller proportion of the league’s teams.

Finally the complete lack of competitive tension at the bottom of the table must be urgently addressed and only works to incentivise end of season budget cutting for teams at the bottom of the table. The A-League must punish clubs in the bottom places through financial penalty, player trading bans, competition penalties (such as disqualification from the FFA Cup or qualification from earlier rounds outside the round of 32) or what would ultimately be the best mechanism to create competitive tension at the bottom of the table, relegation.

The A-League is a competition for the title of Australia’s best football team. The only metric it should be paying attention is how well it satisfies this purpose.

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