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Australian football's future: how best to maintain the greater interest achieved in recent decades

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 8 April 2021

The 2005 World Cup playoff, when Australia defeated Uruguay, was also the third highest television event since 2001 (according to the rating agency Oztam) with a peak of 3.4 million viewers watching it on SBS, while thousands watched the broadcast in pubs and clubs and 15,000 ticketless fans viewed a giant screen outside the Sydney Olympic stadium.

With 2006 international success, the newly formed A-League from 2005-2006, which replaced the NSL, soon attracted its highest ever home and away average crowd of 14,600 for the 2007-08 season.

So can the A-League today continue to prosper today, despite a much poorer performing male national football team, at a time when the 12 teams by the 2020-2021 season had a reduced salary cap of around $2.1million (besides the new teams of Western United and Macarthur), and the average wage was around $140,000 (although 40% earn less than Australia's average wage of $82,000).


I think so.

If we look at home and away attendances, while some note the recent decline to 10,400 for the 2018-19 season, this average still ranks within the top 20 league averages in the world.

A 10,000 crowd home and away average, assuming it can be maintained once the coronavirus disruption ends, is still far superior to the previous National Soccer League (1977 to 2003) average which peaked at 5600 in the 1998/99 before declining to around 4000 over the last couple of seasons 2002/03 and 2003/04.

While some embrace the A-League returning to a winter season with the current season to finish in July 2021, it is worth noting that the NSL only averaged 4000 per match during its first five years when competing directly against other football codes before declining to 2200 in 1985, thus leading to the introduction of summer soccer in 1989-90.

As far as any call for a promotion/relegation system, I am not sure whether this approach will suit Australia beyond encouraging a bigger league of say 16-18 teams which should be the immediate goal.

During 2019, the then Professional Footballers Australia chief John Didulica noted "There's no point discussing promotion and relegation until you've got 14 to 16 teams in the A-League, followed by a robust second tier of at least 12 teams".


Didulica argued that any second division needs to be operating at a higher level than existing semi-professional standards of the state-based National Premier League competitions if the objective is to build "our professional footprint" to connect "as many people as possible to the game" and produce opportunities for more players.

Unlike countries like England, which has 93 districts of more than 200,000 people living close to many major football club and venues, and its longstanding passion for football still hosting a four tier league of 92 teams (including three Welsh teams) where the average weekly wage of the third (League One) and fourth (League Two) tiers is £1,700 and £1,000 per week, Australia seeks to expand its league having only 20 cities of 100,000 people or more.

Although Greater Sydney and Melbourne have a population of over 5 million people each, both may struggle to host three teams with crowds above 10,000 in the short-term.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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