Saturday, December 16, 2006

In the A-League - you seldom get required sleep to go lingering with contentment

The A-League is winning the war for sustainability.

This has been achieved through once-off world cup qualification payments, Foxtel’s ongoing subscription and now access to more funding from the Football Federation of Australia via around $40 million from Nike. A solid foundation and every cent needed. Plus most clubs seem to have been to access reasonable sponsorship and have more or less followed the FFA business model and guidelines for successful franchises. And then there is the gate take breakout that Melbourne Victory has put on. Crowds of 50,000. Wow.

So the A-League has won some major battles. But this week some key battles were also conceded. The FFA is probably picking its timing. This is reflected in the announcement of the Nike deal neatly over-shadowing the collapse of the New Zealand Knights franchise. But even that ownership change that puts the FFA in control of two of eight clubs offers new strategies for growing the A-League.

The NZ Knights business strategy of employing large numbers of foreigners that no-one had ever heard of alienated its potential fan base. Put coming last two seasons in a row with that and the recipe is there for crowds of 1,000 to 3,000. Still it is better than the crowds of 500 that similar teams in the old NSL format attracted. So with the NZ FA managing the team and next year opportunities to either hire New Zealanders or maybe start an Australian under 23 team and relocate to the ACT.

Much more ominous, particularly and initially for Queenslanders, but in the longer term for sustainability, was the leaked news that the Roar are looking at Ballymore Oval. The mid city location of the 50,000 seat Land Park helped the Queensland Lions get the Roar into an A-League franchise. Access to top class pitches was seen as a major problem in the autopsy of the NSL.

Top class rugby union is played at Lang Park. Top class Australian Football League matches and top class cricket are played at the near city Gabba venue. Top class basketball is played even closer to the city-centre at the convention centre. You don’t have t explain to patrons how to get to these venues. And when top class rugby was at Ballymore - their patrons had 40 years of practice getting there. How many of the long suffering Roar fans will treck to Ballymore?

The leak could of course be megaphone negotiation strategy. The Roar have said they don’t want to respond to newspaper reports because they are still negotiating with the State Government owned Lang Park. And adding a bit of spice to those negotiations may help. Worse case is that it is Lang Park's owner saying 'if you can't afford Lang Park try the under-used Ballymore.

In 2005/2006, As the Roar took up summer season residence at Lang Park, Ballymore lost the winter season Queensland Reds to Lang Park. The Brisbane Strikers also played at Ballymore and have also moved, this time to the smaller Perry Park (Brisbane Strikers have used Perry Park for some of its games since 1977). You can bet Ballymore’s board (the Queensland Rugby Union) has been wining and dining the Roar ever since. Queensland rugby has been played there since 1966. The national rugby competition that sits under the popular international super 14s is likely to be played there in 2007. And a state-of-art something has been moted for the site for sometime. Now I’d say it’s feeling a bit neglected.

The Roar are looking because Ballymore is a lot cheaper than Lang Park. But there are good reasons for that. Lang Park is the best stadium in the A-League. It is one of the biggest, alongside the Sydney and Melbourne venues, and every seat has about the same high quality view of the game. It is an outstanding design achievement. Plus, and this is the most important factor, particularly while the Roar are performing as they are, it is really really easy to get to. It is virtually in the city and has great bus and train access. On the other hand, Ballymore has half the capacity at 24,000. I'm not sure that people know how to get to it.

A move to Ballymore would be a symbolic problem for the Roar. The FFA regularly reminds clubs and fans that there are eight clubs and not all are going to finish in the top four. OK but Australian fans expect their turn to come around soon (the national rugby league has had seven winners in eight seasons). I think it is going to be very hard for the Roar to keep their home crowd up. The Roar were trying many things to stop this happening. Now they need to try more. - Go to Ballymore and its hard to see football beating out the other codes in Queensland. Plus the Roar would more like the old NSL format.

Oh there could be another plus factor at Ballymore. Frank has complained that away teams loved playing at the well layed out and easy to get to Lang Park. Perhaps away teams will like Ballymore less than the fans. And if the team wins the fans will like it more.


Dave said...

Hmmm John, this is an interesting one. When I first heard the Ballymore rumour, I thought "oh no". As you say, it smacked of the bad old NSL days when teams were scrambling for the cheapest, crappiest arena they could find.

But on reflection, I suspect you may be right and it's a case of "megaphone negotiating". According to media reports, the Roar's deal at Suncorp is significantly less favourable than the one the Broncos have at the same venue. The speculation about Ballymore is possibly the Roar's way of threatening to "take their ball and go home" in the hopes of negotiating a comparable deal with the Lang Park Trust.

The other wild card here is the Qld government, which has invested heavily in Suncorp Stadium and wants to see it used year-round. Sports Minister Andrew Fraser says he's a friend of the Roar, and could play a key role in any new deal.

While the Robbie Williams concerts hint at a possible alternative summer use for the venue there are two key arguments against this - 1) I'm sure the Lang Park Trust won't be happy with the damage concert crowds do to the playing surface (portable flooring notwithstanding), which has to be ready for Super 14 kick-off in February, and 2) the Qld govt desperately wants Socceroo matches at Suncorp; something that will be severely undermined by having the State's A-League franchise playing elsewhere.

So I wouldn't be surprised by an announcement of a new deal between Suncorp and the Roar in the near future. Hopefully common sense will prevail and the Roar will stay at Suncorp long-term.

john said...

Thanks Dave

Another angle could be:

1. The Roar play better away from Lang Park and away teams would be less comfortable. Away is where they show their brilliance. Particularly, I have been surprised at the number of fans who go to home games that haven't seen Reinaldo's brilliance. But if they haven't seen the away games they would have missed some of his more sublime work - first goal against Newcastle in the 1st round (a thurder bolt), his assist to Dario in the 2nd round Perth match (when Roar were under the pump from a 90 second Perth goal) - he made all the running down the right hand side and put in a perfect cross, and even his cameo to run from the forward line to left back to left wing and back to righ midfield to keep the ball in the central coast half last week. Anyway they play their best away from Lang Park. But Mori said there was no curse..

2. The Qld Govt has been 'helping' the QRU to find an alternative use for Ballymore. So they may see an angle on both sides. Also I remember seeing some kind of deal between the NSW Govt and the FAA - not sure how many games this covers. I agree that the Paraguay game - 49,000 - showed the potential of Lang Park.

So, anything could happen. Now I have access to a car, I'll be there where-ever the Roar play at home.