Why A-League crowd figures are not the end of the world

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Many are quick to spot a near-empty A-League stadium and immediately conclude that football in Australia is on the ropes.

There is a persistent sense of worry which emanates from Australian football fans about empty seats, crowd figures and memberships.

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But despite year-on-year decreases in average crowd attendance, the status quo is not quite as underwhelming as it seems.

Over the last five years, the average A-League attendance sits at just over 12,000. It’s on par with European competitions including the Scottish Premier League, Turkish Super League, and Belgian and Swiss top flights.

As for the global superpowers, the bar set to crack the top ten football leagues by average stadium attendance is just 18,814, in the second division of the Bundesliga.

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(Graphic from Statista)

There is no denying that football looks, feels and sells better in full stadiums.

Out of context, a decline in spectator averages over the past five years – from 13,479 in 2013/14 to 10,877 in 2018/19 – appears troubling.

Yet one major factor decreasing attendances over the past three seasons has been stadium renovations.

Western Sydney Wanderers lost their home ground which significantly impacted their overall attendance, and Sydney FC have experienced a similar frustration with the knock-down of Allianz Stadium.

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The Wanderers’ return to Bankwest Stadium this campaign has already assisted in growing the competition’s average to just under 13,000 after four rounds.

The impact of purpose-built facilities and accessible venues cannot be underestimated.

It has been said time and time again: the A-League is crying out for a shift towards boutique grounds, where passionate crowds are poised within intimate proximity of their heroes.

The rich atmosphere and hype generated by the FFA Cup is a testament to the use of these venues in this country.

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Additionally considering the uniquely crowded sporting landscape of Australia and the country’s population, it’s clear the A-League has been punching above its weight for a number of years.

One popular reason crowds are often considered unsatisfactory is the code war narrative.

This has seen A-League figures paralleled to those from competitions such as the AFL, NRL, T20 Big Bash and most recently the NBL.

Despite the perceived appearance of more full houses in suburban grounds, NRL crowd averages sit at 16,000 and Super Rugby at 13,000 – not a far cry from A-League metrics.

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This suggests the declining attendance of sporting events in Australia may well be a phenomenon far more widespread than just football.

A well-publicised distrust between A-League supporters and the administration saw a widespread decrease in the popularity of active support, with the disbanding of groups such as the North Terrace and Melburnians.

However this season clubs are making a conscious effort to repair ties, and these collectives within the likes of Melbourne Victory, City and Newcastle Jets are slowly re-emerging – alongside a Red and Black who have reclaimed their voice upon a return to Wanderland.

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The steps towards reversing a negative trend take time, but there are many hallmarks to suggest that these baby steps are beginning to come to fruition.

One of these is expansion, which has arrived at last.

Western United have enjoyed a successful start to life in the A-League results-wise, however, unsurprisingly have attracted criticism for averaging around 7,000 at their first two home matches.

This should not be a cause for concern; being located within a large footballing catchment, history suggests the club should be allowed time to grow its fanbase.

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Even the Wanderers, the most memorable A-League expansion success story, did not begin to turn heads with their attendance figures until the latter half of their historic first campaign.

And for United, this is likely to take even longer, with their promise of a boutique stadium at Tarneit not to be constructed until 2021/22 at the earliest.

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There is no quick fix, recently introduced marketing and membership initiatives from the new administrators of the game require patience and support.

After all, a fanatical footballing culture on the level of Europe or South America cannot be crafted overnight.

And with that, as our current generation ages and young fans are brought up with the A-League being all they have ever known, the amount of people who turn up to games will inevitably increase.

By no means should we ever be striving against growing attendances in the A-League, it is just at this current moment, it should be far from our primary concern.

Feature image credit: Melbourne City

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Chris Curulli
Passionate Sports Media student and all round football obsessive, covering the Western Sydney Wanderers for the 2019/20 season.