Why fans of the A-League Men need to let go of attendance numbers

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Australian fans often look to crowd figures to judge a team or the league’s overall health, but is this the right metric to use for measuring the success of our game?

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It’s Friday night in Melbourne early into a new season. Two of the newest A-Leagues teams Western United and Macarthur FC face off at one of United’s temporary homes in AAMI Park. The official attendance is recorded as 2,423, although if you were watching on the TV at home even this figure looked on the optimistic side. This number is the subject of much ridicule online, as opposing fans mock the small figures.

Crowd attendance figures can be a quick and easy snapshot into the health of a given sporting league. It is easy to look at a solitary number and dismiss it without a second thought. But is there any real correlation between attendance and on-field performances or financial viability?

Western United are an example of this just last season, by besting Melbourne City in the final and becoming champions. All of this was done while averaging a home attendance of 3,616, albeit while still in a COVID-impacted season.

The team was competitive against well-established clubs with bigger fanbases. The football played on the park was by all means the best in the league. What part do the attendance figures play in this?

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What does it mean for the clubs’ bottom lines?

Financial viability for clubs is one of the main reasons that gate receipts remain important, however for leagues such as the ALM, it doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all for teams to remain profitable. Fans will tune in for the narrative of the game, not just the quality itself.

A quick look at what the Central Coast Mariners are doing shows us this. Although their average attendances have always been towards the bottom end of the scale league-wise, the Mariners performances, especially in recent years, have been at a high level with finals appearances in their last two seasons.

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One of the ways they have remained financially viable is by becoming a talent-producing factory.

Since their inception, they have been an excellent producer of players who have gone on to have great success in Europe and with the Socceroos. There was Mile Jedinak, who after emerging onto the scene in Gosford, went on to captain the Socceroos 25 times with 79 appearances for the national team. The current Socceroos shot-stopper Mathew Ryan earned his move to Belgium after impressing on the Central Coast.

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The most recent example would be Garang Kuol, who after capturing headlines all around the world, has signed with English Premier League side Newcastle United, having been given an opportunity when coming through the academy.

These players all gave the Mariners a healthy transfer fee that is then put back into the club’s development, which could be in training facilities and the youth academy, or straight back into signing younger talent to repeat the cycle.

This is the financial model that ALM clubs can look towards when their fan attendance is low, and can be used as a tool to maintain their place in the league. With this model, local fans will be engaged in the stories that come from the local players that emerge, such as what has happened in the case of Kuol.

Fan attendance will build itself up naturally when this all comes together.

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How does Australia compare to the rest of the world?

Fans have to appreciate what has been built and enjoy the spectacles that do exist in the ALM. The sold-out Melbourne derby with 24,489 fans is a fantastic result and a showcase of the potential of the ALM.

However, this can’t be used as the benchmark for all the teams every game and the goal should be a more realistic figure. The attendance figures of the English Premier League and other top European leagues are looked upon with envy, but realistically this is not the level the league is at.

When compared to a similar level such as League One in England, the playing field is a lot more even. The average in League One this season is just over 10,000, compared to Australia with 8,980. The ALM is 21st in the world for average attendance this year, coming in above the likes of the Turkish Super Lig, Greek Super League, and the Austrian Bundesliga.

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While fan attendance does factor into the success of the league, there are other aspects that can more than make up for this. The peaks of the ALM are very high, and we should be proud of that, but we can’t dismiss teams on the lower end of the scale.

The ALM is still in its early stages compared to those around the world, and we have to celebrate the high moments, not focus on the lows.

Feature Image Credit: Wellington Phoenix

Attendance figures sourced from Ultimate A-League and Transfermarkt

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Will Booth
Will Boothhttp://willbooth.au
Business and Sport Management student at WSU. Interest in Data analysis. Covering the Newcastle Jets ALM and ALW teams for the 2022/23 season.

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