Over 30,000 turned out on a December evening in Melbourne to see local team Victory take on the L.A. Galaxy and David Beckham. If the Englishman's nation of birth and current home are two countries divided by a common language, in soccer terms Australia and the United States could be separated by just a few years, or at least, that is the hope down under. The MLS has gone from strength to strength after some tough early times and it is a narrative that appeals a few thousand miles away as the seventh A-League season nears an end. It was one that had to reverse recent negative trends and in some ways it succeeded but as the season approaches its climax; it is off the field issues that everyone is talking about.
In America, when it comes to soccer, you name it and it is on the up: attendances, new teams, soccer-specific stadiums and its domestic and overseas image -- the international coverage of the last MLS Cup final proved that. That vision wouldn't have seemed out of place in Australia when the eight-team A-League was formed in 2005. First season attendances were around 11,000. Two years later, they had risen to a healthy 14,600. Two new teams were ready to join the league, like MLS run by the national federation, with two more in the planning stage as expansion gathered pace.
That is less than four years ago but feels longer. By the end of last season, average attendances were barely 8,000 and it wasn't just the fans that were disappearing. North Queensland Fury lasted just two seasons before folding while Sydney Rovers, the planned 12th team, never got off the ground. What should have been 12 by the start of the 2011-12 season became 10. Now it is slipping to nine as another club, Gold Coast United had its license revoked in February -- more of that later.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) has been quick to point out that something similar happened in 2001 in the States with Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny ceasing to operate. In Japan, eight new clubs were added between 1994 and 1998 and attendances plummeted. Both leagues recovered to be recognized as two of the best outside Europe.
FFA CEO Ben Buckley admitted that the league's expansion policy produced mixed results but was optimistic that a corner had been turned. "The MLS as well as the J-League and K-League had substantial excitement in their first three seasons as a novelty of a new league creates impetus," Buckley told SI.com earlier in the season. "Then there appears to be a tapering of attendances as club ownership changes, new teams come into the competition and clubs work harder to get repeat attendees. Over time clubs and league become more financially stable and are able to invest in marketing and engaging with fans and then crowds trend upward again. We are at that point of the cycle."
If so, it is still not automatic that an MLS-type experience will follow. According to MLS President Mark Abbott, the bad times were when the administrators got busy. "Contraction was just one part of a larger shift in the League's focus. Around that same time, we formed Soccer United Marketing and began devoting many resources toward the construction of soccer-specific stadiums. In 2001, Columbus Crew Stadium was the only one built for an MLS club, but now we have 12 venues built or renovated for soccer by an MLS owner. That has been a literal and symbolic cornerstone of the League's steady growth over the past decade."
A-League clubs do not own their own stadiums. It is something that holds that league back but Buckley pointed out that the U.S. has much more capital to build such arenas. The 2022 World Cup would have helped. America lost in Zurich in December but Australia lost more, spending $45 million on taxpayer's money to get just one vote.
The recriminations are still flying. An investigative television show claimed in July that publicly-funded broadcaster SBS had pressured its journalists to publicly support the Australian bid and that Les Murray, its football editor and member of FIFA's Ethics Committee, suggested to one of its leading writers that he attack the Americans and Sunil Gulati. Even if the FFA had such friends in the media, it still didn't escape criticism for putting all eggs in the 2022 basket, millions in the pockets of ineffective and controversial consultants and forgetting about the A-League.
Buckley admitted that there were things that could have been done differently but insisted that it was worth it. "It would have been a pivotal moment. In the short term, it created a lot of commentary and analysis that can distract people from the real strides forward that the game has made over five-six years." Would he recommend a future bid? "I don't think Australia should ever rule itself out of bidding for these things."
In both Australia and the U.S., soccer is number one in terms of participation but still has some way to go to challenge the established sports. For NFL, MLB and NBA read Rugby League, Aussie Rules Football and cricket. Soccer has long struggled for attention in the traditional media. Journalists wrestle with similar problems faced by candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination in knowing that sticking it to rivals may thrill their core support but is hardly likely to tempt potential fans over to the soccer camp.
Abbott maintains however that competing with rivals was never part of the MLS plan. "Our approach has been to quietly go about establishing a solid foundation while measuring our progress against ourselves and other soccer leagues around the world, instead of against the leagues that have great tradition here. In short, we don't need to convert fans of other sports into soccer fans. We just want all soccer fans to follow a domestic club as well as the international game."
Buckley agrees: "We want to fish where the fish are. The immediate priority is not to try to get exclusive patronage but to convert the 1.7 million participants into regular followers of teams in their regions. Once you convert that group, you can then make the game attractive to new fans." Buckley has targeted a 15,000 average attendance in the next four to five years that, he says, will put the A-League on a par with rugby. "Success this season would be consolidation and to move back over 10,000 mark and that is certainly our goal."
That target has been achieved and an average attendance of around 11,000 is encouraging as is a rise in television viewing figures. The return of overseas stars such as Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton may not have had the impact their clubs wanted on the field --though that could suggest a rise in standards -- but has helped the league's media profile off it. With most talented players still heading overseas, the salary cap is strict at around $2.4 million per roster with a marquee star exempt, the arrival of local heroes is a welcome change.
As progress went, it was steady. But then came, or rather, went, Gold Coast United. The club, owned by billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, has constantly struggled for fans ever since it started the 2009-10 season. His decisions to seal off three parts of the stadium to save money on matchdays annoyed many. Then, more recently, a bizarre plan to make a 17-year-old club captain caused a row that led to the team displaying the slogan "Freedom of Speech" on their shirts.
FFA revoked the club's license. Palmer, a man used to getting his own way, has promised legal action and has already set up an alternative regulatory body Football Australia with former A-League boss Archie Fraser at the helm. The early impression is that it is an association of the disgruntled, but while it is easy and partly correct to dismiss some of Palmer's rantings as bizarre, as the federation has done, that doesn't mean he is without genuine grievances. Some of these are echoed, though more quietly and in private, by other owners tired of losing money and what they see as too much control of clubs and league by an opaque, power-hungry and paranoid federation.
It all looks to be coming to a head. If so, it could be the episode that consigns Australian soccer back to the darkest days of the former National Soccer League that went bankrupt in 2004, or it could just be the catalyst that sends the A-league hurtling in the direction of the MLS. If so, perhaps, one day, 30,000 fans will turn out in America to see a star-studded Aussie team.