Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Sustainability of the A-League

I understand comments like 'Clive Palmer is out of line but his points are right on... ' But this viewpoint misses the point.

It was always going to be very difficult for soccer to survive in Australia as anything more than the largest participatory sport.

When I saw the start-up marketing strategy for the Melbourne Heart, I could have rolled on the floor laughing. And indeed by the end of their first season they were saying they were looking for new owners. There is no trend that has soccer growing as a commercial phenomenon.

Australia is an over crowded sports market in a world in economic downturn.

Add to that, sporting bodies, particularly clubs, rarely break-even in any sport in any country without massive cross subsidisation. This subsidisation is usefully from tax payers. In more recent years, free-to-air and pay TV broadcasting have offered hope. And the most recent potential is the force of betting. Cricket shows through the Indian Premier League and match fixing how damaging betting is for sport, but behind closed doors, bettings' real destruction is wrecked on families and children, undoing sport's great cultural achievements.

Then there is the force of the Australian sporting industrial complex. Which has at its heart the media and its actions to support its ownership in clubs, maintaining interest in their chosen sport and clubs and fighting off competitors. Then there is SBS Broadcasting. SBS appears to be made up of independent journalistic view-points acting in consort in an attempt to both move soccer forward and bring it back to some happier day when SBS was at the centre. The only way this will occur is if soccer returns to a low road of poorly paid players, poor playing conditions and audience disinterest. This would return Australian soccer to an EPL centric soccer world - where money wins.

If people think that by attacking the FFA and the A-League now that they will save the game or build it to its natural place in Australian sport, they are sadly mistaken. This is as good as it gets.

This is the point where the competing forces have been brought into balance to produce a league where enough players can be paid enough each week to keep the game going, where enough billionaires are drawn into the game to pay for the stadiums so that working people can watch a world class soccer game for $20 a week. So that they can go watch their local team play FC Toyko.

Clive Palmer says he has lost $18 million over three years. Are we supposed to be surprised by this? Investors with that much money should have the intuition or advice that informs them about information on the public record and what is likely to happen next. There was clear evidence that the Roar, as some owners have pointed out a much bigger market, was losing at that rate before the Gold Coast and Fury were established. Did these new owners believe that they were bringing some magic that no other individual club owner in almost any sport could bring, a money making formula within a sport where only agents, some sponsors and the players are making net benefits?

And as to the positive direction for the sport?

Firstly its role needs to be clear. For juniors and amateurs its role is about intellectual development and fitness - making good citizens and controlling society's health problems. It is not about finding the next Harry Kewell or creating new sources of income.

For the A-League? It is about sustaining a game until the sporting industrial complex and its supporting landscape is changed. Does Australia want to put all its national pride into having the best AFL players in the world? Who will notice? If we do, will we be able to sustain our claim as a great sporting nation? Or will we look like America and its quaint sports that it plays as 'world series'?

But then soccers progress in the USA has been used as a part model for the FFA. The AFL used Major League Soccer's big brother gridiron to work out its way forward. In the US, government support is harder to sustain. So gridiron developed a model that was more sophisticated and sustaining that the raw money in the model of the EPL. Each owner buys the right to an equal share of the overall performance of the league. It doesn't matter whether you play at the Meadowlands with the Giants in New Jersey or at Iron Bay with the Packers, it is in all the owners interest to work out and support a promotion strategy across the league and across multiple seasons. And with this outcome, as Australia's AFL found, comes massive TV rights deals.

This is why, Ben Buckley is so important for the A-League. Soccer's own goals have shown that the sport in Australia has not produced great administrators.  Perhaps he could still be one.

No comments: