League must build on record start

Head of Hyundai A-League Damien de Bohun believes the league can capitalise on the bumper start to the season thanks to the huge impact of marquee superstars.

Don-t believe the hype. That-s the message coming from FFA headquarters after an explosive start to Hyundai A-League season 2012/13.

You can understand why. We-ve all been here before, only to watch the numbers dissipate as the excitement of the new season wears off. It-s not being cynical to suggest that two rounds in is too early to call this season a success.

But Head of Hyundai A-League Damien de Bohun believes the league can capitalise on the bumper start to the season and set new benchmarks for crowds thanks to the huge impact being made by the influx of marquee superstars.

“It has been an incredible start,” de Bohun told footballaustralia.com.au.

“It was clear to me there was more interest than I could recollect, and what-s great is that the numbers have come through to support that in the first two rounds. To break the record crowd in round 1, to nearly break the record in round 2, and to have broadcast audiences with the average well over 100,000 across the season per match, it-s been a great start.

“What struck me most is the narrative that football is changing, and people are really starting to focus on what-s working and what-s good about football.”

That, perhaps, is the key. The A-League has often been an easy target for cynics and it-s no surprise the competition suffers when so many have been quick to deride it.

But just as standards on the pitch have noticeably improved in recent seasons, so has the way in which the game-s administrators have tried to connect with fans and sell football to the broader public.

It-s not an area FFA have had much success in to date - but it-s better, and for now, at least, it-s translating into hard numbers.

The average attendance so far this season is 17,533; broadcast viewership is 103,972; club memberships are at 63,353, up 10 per cent on last year.

“It-s very early days,” de Bohun admitted. “We still need to work incredibly hard but I-m working closely with the clubs to work with them to build on that momentum. Will attendances stay at 17,000? Possibly, it may drop a bit beneath that but I-m convinced it will be a huge step up from what we-ve seen previously.”

You have to expect such optimism from the man in charge. Given previous seasons fell and rose incrementally before hitting last year-s average of 10,490, it-s unrealistic to expect the league will be able to sustain the current numbers.

“We-ve set some pretty steep increases; to jump from 10,000 to 12,000 in a season is a big jump in its own right. But we will reassess that.

“Here and now, the big challenge in our major markets is how results are travelling and what that means for crowds. Melbourne victory have lost their first two games and they-ve got some work to do; 42,000 people opened up the season for them in Melbourne but the challenge is for the Victory fans to come out in even more force and not to drop off.

“Sydney FC, who also haven-t won yet, are playing the Wanderers in their first derby this weekend, have had to move their next game to one of the biggest stadiums in the country (ANZ Stadium) so Sydney fans have got a chance to come out and show their support.”

Sydney have certainly played their part in the blistering start to the season, with all the hype surrounding Alessandro Del Piero-s arrival, followed swiftly by Emile Heskey at Newcastle and Shinji Ono in Western Sydney.

Marquee players have long been a sticking point for many in the game, but de Bohun says, when done right, the benefits are now obvious.

“I maintain that we need a balance between outstanding international talent and developing our own home-grown talent,” de Bohun said.

“Del Piero, Heskey, Ono - they-re hear for the right reasons and if you spend any time with them you can tell they really want to help football grow here, and they-re all still playing at a really strong standard, which makes a material difference straight away.

“It-s brought an immediate credibility for fans. It-s a fine line with marquee players but Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton coming back last year had a similar impact and we shouldn-t lose sight the metrics around crowds and viewership are all up significantly.”

It-s not just the fans that need convincing. It-s the club owners that have to shell out for these expensive overseas stars, something that hasn-t always gone done well with those at the top of the cash-strapped A-League clubs.

“Having met with every club, one thing I-m really focused on is that the league and the clubs are sustainable, of which a major part is financial,” de Bohun admitted.

“It-s fair to say the signing of those particular players have had a huge impact and everyone who runs a business would sit up and take notice of that. In any business, you make your investments and then you-ve got to work your backside off to make those investments work for you.

“I heard that that merchandise store at Allianz Stadium had their single biggest day ever of any code (when Sydney hosted the Jets last week), so you can make it work for you.

“There-s no doubt the three clubs have taken a bold step and it-s raised awareness of the other clubs about what-s possible in that context. We-ll work closely with the clubs to create some sort of agreed position across the league so everyone knows what-s possible if they want to move into this space.”

Sustainability is essential. We-ve already seen too many clubs fold, too many false dawns. It-s crystallised with what is arguably FFA's biggest gamble, Western Sydney Wanderers.

“I think it took 146 days to get the club together,” de Bohun said.

“We need to be realistic about putting a club together in that period of time. Given how quickly they-ve been put together, they have done a fantastic job in putting a club structure in place and a competitive team in place.

“I would imagine they would want to make the finals like every club but it-s important that on the field they remain competitive and they-re successful off the field.

“More than 10,000 plus people came to watch their opening game in what turned out to be pretty heavy rain and they-re second home game will be significant with the derby. It-s clear the people there have had a yearning for an A-League club they can support and the consultation and engagement process has been a big part of that.

“The market is incredibly competitive there with the NRL and AFL and being the heartland of football in Australia it was time to move and people took that bold decision. By the end of the season if they can average crowds of around 10,000 or more, which was the league average last year, that would be fantastic.”

So how can the competition as a whole build on this memorable start and ensure this goodwill, publicity and energy isn-t wasted?

“There-s no doubt getting the balance between attendances and broadcast is critical,” de Bohun said.

“The at-match experience at both the Melbourne derby and the Sydney-Newcastle game, and the Perth-Brisbane game - we-re starting to build atmosphere on the back of the increased interest, where people will come back time and time again.

“Keeping that atmosphere alive is critical, and you do that by making sure the standard of football continues to improve. The standards have increased, and with the coaching with the likes of Ange and the work he did at Brisbane roar, John Kosmina, Graham Arnold - I think, collectively, we-re building a product that will inspire and involve.

“The other part of this discussion, which is important for me - growing up playing football, I was the exception to the rule, now my two kids are playing football and they part of the rule, and this generational change is starting to take shape.

"It-s clear to me that kids will always sample and be involved in more than one sport and all of a sudden we-re producing a league where kids and their parents sit up and take notice and want to be a part of it.”