The A-Leagues self-immolate
Things could be going better
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The A-Leagues self-immolate
The grand finals for the A-Leagues are going to Sydney for the next three years.
Before we delve into the controversy, let’s consider the actual dollars first. The exact number hasn’t been reported, but it’s “eight figures” which suggests at least $10 million, maybe even as high as $15 million, over the three years. That doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money to sell your soul, especially once the dollarbucks are broken down to individual club distributions, but it’s not bad for this kind of event.
The AFL agreed with the Victorian government to keep the grand final at the MCG for the next four decades in exchange for half a billion dollars of work on AFL stadiums and grounds. That’s about $12 million per year of in-kind value for the AFL that is relieved of the worry of sub-standard facilities or, worse, having to manage upgrades to infrastructure. The government can carry that risk instead.
The NRL tried a similar strategy with the NSW government but failed, mostly because Peter V’Landys is a giant dipshit. It’s not worth recounting the tedious blow-by-blow as V’Landys was out-manouevred by Dominic Perrotet with laughable ease but the end results are:
The Panthers are also getting a $300 million stadium upgrade that will almost certainly balloon into much, much more and it’s not clear if the rebuild of the SFS was a favour to the NRL, the other tenants or builders John Holland. The length of the deal with the NSW government is unknown but may only run for a year before it goes up for another mind-numbing “bidding” process and the grand final ends up back in Sydney anyway. At least V’Landys will be able to keep his poorly dressed and visibly sweaty face in the pape- ahem… Anyway, the cash and stadium package is probably worth about $10 million a year.
With a gun to my head, I would’ve guessed that the difference in size between the AFL or the NRL and the A-Leagues was at least ten fold, if not more. To walk away with a deal that’s 25-35% of what the big leagues get, given the relatively limited exposure the A-Leagues provide, is a pretty good outcome commercially.
Of course, no one gives a shit about that. The APL issued a pretty condescending press release which absolutely did not help, clubs and players have publicly distanced themselves from the decision and fans walked out last weekend.
Those against the decision have sent up plenty of appeals to emotion (vague notions of fan dreams), having to organise last minute flights and accommodation to Sydney (just book in advance with those offering free cancellation) and tradition (tradition is entirely arbitrary) and these arguments leave something to be des-
Hooooo boy. At the time of writing, 53 QTs and no likes. A ratio for the ages.
While I’m normally inclined to a bit of speculative whatabouttery and contrarianism, I don’t really see the upside here. Two arguments do strike home for me:
The A-Leagues had a unique selling point that you could see your team win a championship in their home stadium. The NRL and AFL play their games at the same venue year-in, year-out (barring covid years). Smaller leagues, like the ABL and NBL, copy American tradition and use both home venues of the competitors during their best of three championships. Only the A-League had this specific model.
It’s going to look like shit. While there are five of the twelve teams within driving distance of Sydney, there are seven that are not. There have been four A-League men’s finals of 17 contested exclusively by non-NSW teams. Any repeat of that in the next three years is not going to attract a meaningful attendance to Sydney and the visual images will feed into the narrative that the A-Leagues are irrelevant.
While the APL could probably still wriggle out of its contract, it will take a reputational blow with the powers that be (other state governments might see soccer fans as fickle and so attract a lower price tag for other marquee events) and there’s probably a financial penalty to be paid. The NSW government has nothing to lose unless significant political pressure is brought to bear, which it won’t be.
The APL could’ve followed the lead of the NRL, AFL and Super Rugby and sold a magic round to NSW that would’ve probably gone over a lot better with the wider fanbase and been roughly as commercially lucrative but they didn’t for reasons known only to them.
As usual with this sort of thing, it’s motivated by money. It seems hard to believe that if the financial situation is quite this dire but if the APL is willing to set itself on fire for a paltry million bucks per club for three years but that suggests things are very bad indeed.
The multi-million dollar question is where did the Silver Lake money go? Or, for that matter, the money from Paramount? The AAP reported:
Clubs as a collective are believed to have lost approximately $120 million in that time.
While private equity firm Silver Lake last year provided the APL with a $140 million cash injection, that money has been ring-fenced for investment in infrastructure and not for bailing clubs out of a financial black hole.
While that may be true, it is very hard to believe that the break glass won’t be smashed and the ring fence pulled down to save the clubs. Otherwise, Silver Lake's investment is worthless, because there's no other viable way for them to recoup it.
A lot of clubs and leagues around the world have complained about the financial impact of covid, even though the only league that really failed because of the pandemic was the second coming of the XFL, which is having a third crack anyway. It would be an almighty epitaph if Australian professional soccer also became (belated) victims.
Following on from the absolute mess that is the Paramount+ platform and the fascism on display at the Australia Cup final, your guess is as good as mine as to why the sport keeps tripping over its own dick. The A-Leagues’ struggles are not unique. They similar in shape and size to those faced by rugby league in England and France, rugby union in Australia and the CFL in Canada. But the response seems to always be poor.
There’s almost certainly a misalignment between the aspirations and the reality of being the third or fourth preferred sports league in the market. There aren’t enough fans nor are there the right kind of fans nor are they in the right places, so there isn’t enough money. There’s just not that much attention and money left over to attract the right kind of people to run the sport competently and, in a double blow, pro sports admin gets harder as you go down the pyramid.
The grace, the beauty of sports
The A-Leagues self-immolate (continued)
All of which I wrote before the weekend and before some Melbourne Victory fans decided to live out their European hooligan dreams by throwing a bucket at a player and a referee.
Some of the dumbest people on the planet tried to excuse away the attack because City goalkeeper, Tim Glover, threw a flare back into the crowd, as if the flare just magically appeared at his feet, and as if these exact same people didn’t have form in the area of being massive cunts.
It’s all round pathetic display from needledick fans and from administrators who failed to act. It is patently Not Good.
The handful-of-millions-of-dollars question is: where to now? Vince Rugari had a good rundown in the immediate aftermath and seems to be of the opinion that the A-League is done. While it sounds dramatic, it’s also hard to argue.
As long as there’s a TV contract and the games are played, the A-League will continue but it will be a zombie, animated solely by the inability to say no. Mainstream Australian wasn’t particularly interested in the A-Leagues and this latest incident absolutely does not help. The APL will probably end up re-integrating with FA, wasting all of the time and money spent separating them out. Crowds will dwindle, so will the dollars, and then it’ll fold because there’s no one left to buy what the A-Leagues might be selling. It might take two years, might take five, might take ten. Then there will a few years of semi-pro comp, someone will think this time it’s different, professional soccer can succeed in Australia and we’ll be back to the start. In the meantime, the infrastructure of the women's game will suffer far more than the men's.
Personally, I think there’s a lot of merit in Australian soccer focussing its efforts on minting talent to sell off overseas, where people might actually watch them play on a streaming platform where you can rewind, and establishing the Socceroos and Matildas as the premier Australian national teams. That’s a much more achievable and much more meaningful goal in the short to medium term than worrying a whole lot about creating a pro league to compete with the NRL, AFL or BBL.
That can come later after the league serves as an apprenticeship before players graduate to Europe, the Americas or the more lucrative parts of Asia to develop further and come back to the national infrastructure as superstars. The World Cup neatly demonstrated that the sport has more length and breadth to offer than cricket, or either rugby, or even basketball. That’s enough incentive to keep the game going if adminstrators are willing to recognise it.
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Possibly Super Rugby as well but I can’t be bothered looking it up because no one cares about rugby union in this country.
Actually, a much lower strike rate than expected.
And presuming the money exists in a tangible sense and isn’t predicated on meeting x or y condition.
It’d only be temporary. Soccer would still exist, with huge participation, interest in overseas leagues and at a semi-professional level domestically, if only because the career opportunities are so lucrative and the national team still needs players. Eventually, somebody, maybe following on from an unexpected Socceroos or Matildas success, would pony up the money and we’ll end up back here again in a few decades.
Except for ghouls like me.