Want bigger A-Leagues crowds? Reduce ticket prices

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There are countless factors which play into the disappointing crowd figures at A-Leagues matches this season – the solution, as with most things, comes back to money.

The gradual decline in A-Leagues crowds over the last decade is a well-documented phenomenon, particularly in the A-League Men’s competition.

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Of course, trends have been difficult to measure over the last couple of seasons due to the impact of the pandemic.

Whilst making games entirely inaccessible to the public is a valid excuse for the significant drop-off in figures since 2020, the problem extends well beyond this fact.

The average ALM crowd across a whole season has not increased since season 2013/14.

For many, the time when Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono were the biggest names in the competition, occurring in the aftermath of Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar revolution, was the pinnacle of the ALM’s short existence.

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The freshness and sense of excitement surrounding men’s football in Australia at that time has hardly been sighted since.

Compared to now, the men’s game was thriving.

Such a sustained downturn in attendance since this period cannot be put down to any single problem.

The failure to evolve the style of football being played, the inability to attract new fans to the game due to lacklustre marketing, and even frustration regarding the Socceroos can all be analysed for their influence on crowd figures.

Particularly in the current season, the pandemic’s impact continues to be felt even in places returning to some version of normal daily life.

The unpredictability of fixtures, teams like Perth and Wellington being unable to play at home for extended periods, the reliance on mid-week games, and general discomfort at the prospect of large crowds – all of which are unfortunate consequences of the pandemic – must be recognised as contributing to flailing attendances.

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Despite all of these considerations though, Saturday’s match at AAMI Park between Western United and Melbourne City reinforced one of the fundamental truths of attracting fans: the importance of removing financial barriers.

The temptation is great within football media to attribute declining crowds to all sorts of matters relating to the quality of the product, a lack of marketing, or distrust of the A-Leagues from certain groups of fans.

These ideas clearly have merit.

However, the cost of supporting an A-Leagues club underlies any other problems that may exist.

When fans are already being asked to pay a premium to watch games on a streaming service which continues to underperform, the prospect of paying for tickets on a regular basis becomes laughable for many.

Only a week ago, Saturday’s game between City and Western did not exist.

City were pencilled in to host Melbourne Victory in a Saturday night blockbuster, only for that fixture to be postponed by a week due to Victory’s champions league commitments.

As a result, it was announced mid-week that Western United would be hosting City in a Saturday twilight fixture instead.

City, in an attempt to minimise fan discontent, announced that all members would be able to attend the newly scheduled game for free.

The result: both sides played in front of their second-biggest crowd this season with 8,127 people attending.

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Despite all of the ongoing challenges created by Covid, including a short-notice game in a time slot which is hardly prime time, fans turned out in rarely seen numbers because financial barriers were removed for a significant group (who in turn made up the majority of the crowd).

The crowd came to see a game between two teams who have regularly struggled to attract meaningful attendances, regardless of on-field success.

Extortionate ticket prices have been a common criticism from Australian football fans this season.

Even this week, Macarthur’s $30 junior tickets drew significant ire from the football community.

The A-Leagues cannot afford the luxury of price gouging its fans.

At a time when there are doubts over the quality of the product, fixture unpredictability is at an all-time high, and many individuals are still financially burdened following the pandemic, the competition is compromising its own growth by pricing out significant groups of the footballing public.

The problem is exacerbated when one considers the presence of two newly established teams seeking to create fanbases. The decision to make it financially unviable for people to support these new teams is at best an illogical growth strategy.

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Unlike competitions such as the English Premier League, or even other domestic competitors like the AFL, charging excessively for tickets does not simply mean the demographic of people attending games becomes somewhat skewed (which is a problem in and of itself).

Rather, people just stop showing up to the A-Leagues. We have seen that for the last decade.

The redeeming factors of these other competitions, or the wide enough reach they have in terms of potential attendees, are not available to Australia’s domestic football competitions.

The A-League Women’s competition faces a whole range of separate challenges in terms of crowd figures, ranging from inconsistent locations, deeply embedded social biases, and a near-complete lack of media coverage.

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Nonetheless, both ALM and ALW would inevitably see a boost in attendances by becoming the more affordable option when compared to mainstream sports.

Of course, making tickets free is not an economically viable strategy.

Further, making tickets cheaper will not immediately resolve crowd attendances.

However, the possibility of reversing current crowd trends is made effectively impossible if teams continue to charge unreasonable fares.

Saturday’s events demonstrate that if barriers are removed, more people will attend.

The importance of recognising this is even greater in a post-pandemic context.

Lowering ticket prices is the necessary first step to re-engaging the Australian public in the A-Leagues.

Statistics: Ultimate A-League

Feature Image Credit: Ngau Kai Yan

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Oscar Rutherford
Sports tragic studying Law/Arts at Monash University. Second-best paid Oscar working in football who has been to China.

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