Young Talent or Old Money? The A-League Conundrum

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It’s hardly an expert insight to say that Australia’s small, divided sporting viewership doesn’t exactly lend itself to the prosperity of a relatively new enterprise like the A-League amongst its more established sporting codes. Even if you count its previous incarnation as the NSL, the A-League is still the youngest major professional sporting league in Australia. Whether the A-League’s struggles are a result of this alone or of something more endemnic is up for debate.

Popularity of the game is where the problem starts; The average crowd attendance for A-League matches has gone up to just over 10,000 fans per match in 2012. It’s safe to say that this is an acceptable level for a professional sport league, but when compared to Super Rugby, the NRL and the AFL these numbers fall woefully short, and need to lift if the A-League wants to be shown to be competitive.

To address this deficiency, many A-League clubs have turned to aggressive player recruitment to lure big names that will sell tickets. It’s a logical progression, but the way they are going about it is the problem, and the reason the A-League will never emerge as a challenger – either financially or in supporters – to the other football codes in Australia.

The one thing that anyone who so much as glanced at the football section of a newspaper in mid-2012 knows about is the marquee signing of ageing Juventus superstar Allesandro Del Piero by Sydney FC. The more recent but just as well-documented, efforts by various A-League clubs including the Perth Glory and the Melbourne Heart to pursue David Beckham’s signature as he prepared to seek options for 2013 after leaving the LA Galaxy followed in a similar yet less successful manner. These moves indicate a trend in the A-League towards the spending of resources on luring well-established and worn down overseas superstars instead of signing overseas players who, while less known, are in the prime of their careers. Marco Rojas, Bernie Ibini-Isei and Matthew Ryan all demonstrate this, as the pursuit of these players by international clubs brings attention to a corner of the world with more footballing potential than it is given credit for.

From a business perspecive, it makes perfectly good sense to sign veteran, famous players in order to raise attendance and draw public interest. In sport leagues worldwide, organisations throw away monumental paychecks on players who are past it, and whose main benefit to the team is to sell tickets. However, this benefit never lasts and leaves these leagues as novelties rather than legitimate sporting competitions. The players almost always retire within a few years, and their presence does little to improve the overall quality of the club. If this trend continues the A-League will never grow to be an internationally viable football competition. Instead it is in danger of following the lead of the American MLS and becoming essentially a retirement village for washed up European superstars.

It is a short-term solution, and a short-sighted attempt to grow the league. To raise the A-League’s quality in the long term – and by doing so, increase attendance – there must be a concerted effort to recruit and develop younger, less refined talent. The clubs must refrain from the record breaking salaries they’ve proved to be prepared to offer players like Del Piero and Beckham, and instead use that money to recruit three or four young up-and-comers from the fringes of the EPL and other European leagues, whilst continuing the development of domestic players. Such a move would pay off in a few short years, improving the overall quality of play in the domestic competition, eventually drawing viewers from the more established demographics.

This is not to say that Del Piero has been or will be a failure in the league. His career has been stellar and he has had an outstanding individual season so far for the struggling Sydney FC, but along with the pursuit of Beckham, his signing is symbolic of a league consisting of chequebooks happy clubs pre-occupied with the bottom line. Whilst A-League club finances are incredibly topical, not every marquee signing will turn out as well as Del Piero has and a league that relies on veterans to stay fit and productive will find itself with more than one potentially defaulting club on its hands.

It’s as simple as this: Old, famous players sell tickets and give a short term boost to viewership and media attention until they retire in a few short years. Money spent on the development of Young, cheap, but talented domestic and overseas players has little to no short term upside, but can eventually raise the level of play in the A-League to the level of the European leagues for decades to come, and by doing so raise viewership. Only by forgoing the short term solution of older superstars can the A-League hope to be anything more than a middle tier professional sporting league in Australia.

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