How does the A-League sit amongst the most popular sports in Australia and New Zealand?

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Out of all the great sporting nations, there are arguably few that are as defined by their sporting prowess as New Zealand and Australia are.

However, with sports such as rugby, cricket and Aussie Rules Football capturing the lion’s share of both players and supporters, soccer has traditionally found itself just outside the top five most popular sports in the region.

Despite this, Australia and New Zealand’s premier soccer championship league — the A-League — has experienced considerable growth in recent years. When combined with the participation in soccer at the youth level, this has helped it to become one of the most played games in both Australia and New Zealand.

But just how popular is the A-League and how does it compare to the more traditional sports that have tended to dominate?

Popularity of soccer in New Zealand and Australia

Although it is not necessarily the most popular sport in either country, this does not mean that soccer is in any way unpopular. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

In New Zealand, for example, soccer has hit peak popularity in the 21st century. This has been bolstered by the performance of the New Zealand soccer team in international competitions such as the FIFA World Cup and a growing number of Kiwi soccer players in the English and European leagues.

This is also reflected in the growth of grassroots soccer in New Zealand. Thanks to the efforts of the New Zealand Football Association, the beautiful game has been experiencing steady growth among men, women and children of all ages and at all levels of competition. Soccer has a broad appeal among all ethnic and cultural demographics, which has been aided by the growing diversity of New Zealand.

In Australia, we can see a similar story. Although not generally known as a major soccer nation, there are still around two million people playing soccer in Australia these days. Among children between the ages of 6 and 13, there is a participation rate of 48.7% in soccer — making it one of the most popular sports with younger demographics.

Professional soccer in New Zealand and Australia

The pinnacle of professional soccer in Australia and New Zealand is the A-League, which was established in 2004 as a successor to the National Soccer League.

A total of 11 Australian and one New Zealand teams participate in the A-League Championship, which runs between October and May. It consists of a 26-round regular season, followed by a playoff where the highest ranked teams compete for a place in the grand final.

The winner of the regular season tournament — the 26-round regular season — is crowned the ‘Premier’, while the winner of the grand final is the ‘Champion’. Since the inaugural season in 2005-06, a total of eight clubs have been crowned A-League Premier winners, while eight clubs have been crowned A-League Champions. The current Premier is Melbourne City FC, while the current Champion is Western United.

The popularity of the A-League

In terms of the popularity of the A-League in both Australia and New Zealand, there are a number of interesting points to note.

2021 marked a bumper year for the popularity of Australian A-League teams overall. According to one report, over 3.6 million Australians support an A-League club, which is up a full million from the year previously (around a 38% increase).

Of this increase in supporters, Australian teams posted healthy supporter growth figures. Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory both increased their supporter bases by around 150,000.

How does the A-League compare to other sports?

Interestingly, in 2021 around 1.5 million Australians watched the A-League on TV. However, this is quite a bit smaller than the 3.5 million Aussies who watch soccer more generally, which includes international leagues and tournaments.

In this regard, we can see that while the A-League is popular among Australian soccer fans, there is still quite a lot of room for domestic supporter growth. In the years to come, A-League executives need to focus on growing the league among this two million gap.

However, the modest growth the A-League has experienced in recent years is challenged by the W-League, which is the top-division for women’s soccer in Australia. Although it was only established in 2008 — currently consisting of nine Aussie teams and one New Zealand team — the viewing figures for W-League games look set to overtake the A-League in years to come.

According to viewing figures taken in 2019, an average of 265,000 viewers tuned in to W-League games on TV, compared to 305,000 for A-League games.

Although these viewing figures show positive signs of growth for soccer in both Australia and New Zealand, they are still considerably behind other popular sports such as Aussie Rules Football, which pulls in an average of 540,000 TV viewers per game, and rugby, which regularly peaks at over a million in both Australia and New Zealand for domestic and international games.

Despite this, the future of the A-League looks very bright. Although in-person attendance figures at games do appear to be on a bit of a downward trend, commentators have predicted it will be the most popular sport in Australia by 2030.

Feature image credit: Melbourne City

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