Why the A-League is stuck in the doldrums

The halfway mark of the A-League season is just around the corner but already there's a sense of stagnation around the competition, and Football Federation Australia's metrics back that up. With crowd numbers slipping and TV audiences slumping there is cause for concern for the competition.

Crowds

Newcastle, Perth and Central Coast are experiencing increases in turnouts but attendances are down by 12 per cent across the league when compared to the same point last season. The slump is largely attributed to clubs in Brisbane and Sydney.

An uninspiring competition launch affected all clubs but Suncorp Stadium has been a barren ground this season, Roar's average attendance is nearly 40 per cent lower than by round 11 last year.

Western Sydney's drop from their previous high standards is attributed to a number of factors but none more so than the difference in derby crowds. Their round one home match against Sydney FC drew 61,880 fans last year compared to 36,433 this season - still the highest attendance of any game all season.

However, the reasons extend further and even including that match, their average crowd still sits lower than the number of members (17,127). Match cancellations, the upheaval of scheduling and venues, coaching changes took a toll on the Wanderers' four home games thus far.

The FFA believe results, too, are influencing figures.

"When the small clubs start winning, their crowds go up one, two, three thousand, but when then big clubs aren't performing, their crowds go down threefold," head of the A-League, Greg O'Rourke, said.

However, results alone are proving to be almost irrelevant for some. Sydney FC have won every trophy on offer in the past 12 months, setting a plethora of records along the way. They're attendances are down considerably compared to this point last season once the addition of a derby this year is acknowledged.

They too are struggling to get a crowd higher than the number of members, averaging only 10,715 for non-derby games despite more than 14,000 members.

"There is a misconception in sports that winning and successful teams draw crowds. We're living proof that doesn't happen - we can't win any more trophies and we can't play a better style of football," Sydney FC chief executive Danny Townsend said. "It demonstrates we need to work harder to attract people to the game. It comes down to marketing, publicity and fan experience."

The timeslots and scheduling have been a major detriment for clubs.

"Time slots, match days, all those issues are very pertinent when coming together with schedule," Wanderers chief executive John Tsatsimas said. "The complications for the league is that multi-use facilities aren't conducive to easier planning."

Sydney FC are trying to rebuild connections with amateur and junior football clubs but have no games in family friendly time slots. Their earliest kick-off all season is 7pm.

"The fixtures aren't good. We asked the derby to have scarcity around it - don't play a week before or after the derby. What did we have? Three home games in a row," Townsend said.

"The last derby is on a Sunday night, a school night, it should be full. I've requested that be brought earlier to 5pm. If they're serious about improving the number of people coming to our matches, they need to make some changes."

The Video Assistant Referee

Western Sydney Wanderers' 2-0 win over Central Coast Mariners last weekend was overshadowed by farcical officiating from the VAR leading to two red cards and hundreds of home supporters storming out of the stadium early. That proved to be the straw that broke the camels back; now the FFA agrees it is turning fans away from the game.

"What I can't quantify is what the VAR effect is on broadcast or crowds but what I can present is the feedback from everybody is that it is having an effect," O'Rourke said.

Disruptions, delays and incorrect decisions makes for frustrating viewing on TV and worse from the stands. The FFA acknowledged the damage to the competition as a source of entertainment. O'Rourke acted quickly to make significant amendments to the VAR's use.

"The brand suffered," O'Rourke said. "I spent Sunday and Monday writing new protocols and new procedures so we could publish them on Tuesday... I felt that if I hadn't intervened in such a decisive way and we saw a repeat of that again, it would have been irreparable."

TV ratings

The move from Friday night games on SBS2 to Saturday night games on Channel Ten's subsidiary station, One, has coincided with a drop-off in ratings. This season, free-to-air numbers are down 21 per cent in spite of One handed drawcards games, such as derbies, that were never afforded to SBS.

"It just hasn't worked," O'Rourke said.

The FFA cite the slump in ratings with clashes with The Ashes Tests in Perth and Adelaide as well as the Rugby League World Cup. However, there's no hiding their concern with One and lack of promotion from Ten whose partnership could be abandoned early.

???"We'll probably be working clearly in the next couple of months on how we improve that or whether we find another platform," O'Rourke said.

The ratings of primary broadcaster, Fox Sports, are down 16 per cent. Fairfax Media sought comment from Fox Sports.

The A-League is far from facing a crisis but is firmly stuck in the doldrums. The cause of this quiescence stems deeper as the competition endures its longest period in its history without expansion or a major development, and the much-needed injection of life will come from structural change.

This story Why the A-League is stuck in the doldrums first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.