Friday 26 May 2017

Fans voting with their feet

Australian and British Soccer Weekly, Tuesday 12 June 2007, p. 11. and Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 13 June 2007, p. 46.

If evidence were needed of the sea change in Victorian football support then the attendance on Wednesday night for a practice match at Richmond when more than 2,000 fans turned up to watch Melbourne Victory is clear enough. According to the Victory website, spectators were ‘climbing trees and sitting on roofs to get a glimpse of the action’. Pictures show the fans crowded four deep around the perimeter of the ground. The figure of 2,000 is more than four times the claimed average attendance at recent games in the Victorian Premier League or Foxtel Cup and more than double that in the New South Wales Premier League this season.

It is true that no entry charge was made and the numbers are unofficial but the data is no more rubbery, and probably less so, than the figures estimated by the Football Federation Victoria and Australian and British Soccer Weekly in the case of New South Wales. Those people who have been arguing the urgency of reform of the game at the state level must be distraught that so little has been done to capitalise on the growth in the profile of the game in recent years.

Attendance at Victorian Premier League matches received a substantial boost in 2005 when the National Soccer League was terminated and there was a hiatus while Frank Lowy and his team took over the governance of Australian football. Two of the powerhouses of the NSL, South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights, returned to the VPL for the first time since 1977 and 1984 respectively. The league was increased to 14 teams. Crowds rose to an average of 1373 per game, atmosphere improved and the standard of play was boosted. An aggregate of over a quarter of a million spectators attended VPL home and away matches in 2005.

Subsequently it does not appear that the VPL has participated in the growth in football spectatorship encouraged by the Socceroos qualification for and subsequent performance at the FIFA World Cup in 2006, the successful launch of the A-League and Australia’s move to the Asian Football Confederation. Crowds for the first five rounds of the 2007 VPL season averaged around 1319 per match according to the data supplied by the clubs to the FFV results service. Too much reliance should not be placed on this information since the figures provided are all rounded and labeled approximate. A well informed source in the FFV commented to me, ‘I have been at games where I would estimate there was a thousand and the report will say 400 – then there are other[s] the opposite way around’. It cannot be assumed that these errors cancel each other out. A president of one of the leading VPL clubs has privately expressed outrage at the inflated attendance figures claimed by some clubs.

Since 2005 attendance has plummeted. In Round 12 of the Foxtel Cup in Victoria, estimates were given for only five of the eight games and the average crowd for those was under 500. In New South Wales the average attendance for the first 13 rounds was 779. Clubs cannot survive on these derisory figures and there are suggestions that at least one high profile club in Victoria will shortly fold.

In many ways we are repeating the errors of the past. The boom in interest after World Cup qualification in 1974 was soon dissipated and Johnny Warren believed that attendances at state-level soccer matches were actually falling in 1975, despite the World Cup euphoria, as older fans died off and were not replaced by youngsters (J. Warren with A. Harper and J. Whittington, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters: An Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren and Soccer in Australia, Random House, Sydney, 2002, pp. 177–8). The year 1975, however, saw the break in the post-war boom and a rise in inflation and unemployment in Australia, which may help to explain the decline in attendance.

It is true that television, the rise of globalisation, the internet and generally cheap communication has brought the highest level games into the homes and hotels of the mass of football supporters in this country. Hence the attractiveness of local competitions generally has declined. But it need not be so. Attendances in the second tier, the Championship, in England have risen, despite the global reach of the English Premier League.

Late last year the FFV announced plans to replace their Premier League by a new V-League modelled on the A-League at national level. The timescale for implementation was to be by the end of this calendar year with the new league to begin in 2008. Those plans were equally quickly scuppered and in recent months the FFV has been concentrating heavily on the constitutional changes required if it is to have a place in the new structure of football in Australia. So it and its constituent clubs appear to have taken their eyes off the ball at a critical point in the history of the game. Time to refocus, gentlemen and ladies.

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