Mariners set sail for Asian horizon

As Central Coast prepare for the club's third AFC Champions League campaign, they have the dual challenge of improving crowds and finances firmly in their sights.

The AFC Champions League remains a conundrum for Hyundai A-League clubs. It-s a huge drain on resources and fans, by and large, remain dispassionate about watching their team take on wealthier clubs from our closest, but still distant, neighbours.

Yet the ACL also offers Australian clubs a rich potential for off-field development that the other big codes can only envy.

The challenge is two-fold: get fans to buy into the drawn-out group stages and navigate these minefields successfully enough to make it into the lucrative and more dramatic knockout stages. Sounds simple enough.

Central Coast Mariners kick off their ACL campaign hosting K-League side Suwon Samsung Bluewings in Gosford next Wednesday, and director of football Lawrie McKinna recognises pulling in the fans remains an issue but that the opportunities of competing in Asia make those often quiet midweek games worthwhile.

“There has been a marketing push for the ACL games this season,” McKinna says, “but it-s a cultural thing about playing midweek games.

“With us it-s a big family thing and a seven o'clock game on a Wednesday night, the kids aren-t going to get home til 10. In Europe, it-s been going for years and it-s part of the culture. But it-s all new to us, and even some of the Asian clubs don-t get big crowds. It-s about education, making people aware that the ACL-s the biggest tournament we can be in.”

Participation in the ACL remains a large financial gamble. At stake is a prize of more than $4 million, but the hit taken on a on a failed campaign is reported to be in the region of $250,000, as the AFC carefully regulates sponsorship, travel allowances and win bonuses.

So the onus to make the most of the business opportunity falls on the clubs, with A-League teams also required to manage their team for regular international travel just as the domestic season peaks.

“We know our budgets are nowhere near what the Asian clubs are and travel is a big thing,” McKinna admits.

“We-re going to playing on the weekends, jumping on a plane, travelling for 14-18 hours, training, playing a game, fly back, recovery, training, then play a game and it-s a hard ask. But that-s just the way it is.

“And financially, unless we get past the group stages, it-s not great for the clubs. But for prestige and brand awareness it-s massive. You have to weigh it up, is it worthwhile for the club to be involved in and we think it is."

The Mariners- financial concerns are well known but reports of recent talks with potential Asian investors, with the aim of securing the club-s future with the $70 million Centre of Excellence at Tuggerah nearing completion.

“Last year there were 280-odd million people watching ACL games,” McKinna says.

“You only need one potential investor or sponsor to be watching the game and you might have them. If you-re not playing in that, it-s going to be much harder. This is our third time in the ACL and it-s definitely going to help possibly landing one of these big sponsors.”

With clubs exploring all avenues to improve their bank balances, the ACL offers clear opportunities for expansion - but turning those ideas to reality has proved harder than expected. Adelaide United limped through their successful recent campaign, desperate for financial backing.

But this will be the Mariners- third ACL campaign, without making much of dent - have they, and other Australian clubs, failed to make the most of the chances for potential revenue raising?

“I don-t think they-ve missed but we need to exploit it better,” McKinna says.

“It-s definitely an opportunity if teams are doing well. It doesn-t take a rocket scientist to work out the mariners are working on a salary cap of $2.5 million and the Japanese are spending $30 million on players and the Mariners are competing.

"Investors look at that and think there must be something good in the A-League, they must be doing something right.”