Growth of Football in Australia

How is it that a sport still often unaffectionately referred to as “sock-ah” and which has only recently made its way into free-to-air broadcasting is fast becoming a powerhouse in Australia’s sporting landscape?

Football (association football or soccer) in Australia has transformed from a pastime that migrants held onto as a reminder of their home countries to a genuine cornerstone of Australia’s sporting culture. Football Federation Australia (FFA) along with State bodies have built a stable and growing national competition as well as transforming both the men’s and women’s national teams into competitive units on the world stage (as of writing the men’s team are ranked 58th in the world and the women’s 9th).

Schedule

For starters the A-League season runs across the summer despite being traditionally a winter sport, avoiding direct competition for viewers with the Australian Football League and National Rugby League. It does coincide with the Super Rugby and major cricket season but is not as frequently in direct competition in terms of time slots (often due to these sports having fixtures in other countries) as it would be with the sports previously mentioned. The main competition is the Big Bash League which started in 2012 and it has equally seen major growth in popularity. Season attendance shows that A-League and Big Bash League are the only two to truly experience growth whilst the AFL and NRL have significantly larger audiences but they are more consistent.

Season Attendance

Sourced from Hyundai A-League Season Reports, AFL Annual Reports, NRL Annual Reports & publicly available match attendance statistics. Statistics do not include finals series.

Still connecting with Australian sports fans

The A-League competition operates very much differently to many other football competitions around the world in that it has a finals series rather than just a home and away season that sees the team on the highest point as the winner. The A-League crowns the team that finishes highest on the table at season’s end as the Premiers then it goes into a finals series to determine the Champions. The AFL, NRL and BBL all have finals series and the A-League differing from most competition models to include the finals run is clearly to engage the Australian consumers with a more familiar format.

Strong youth participation

The most recent ABS statistics show soccer as the most popular sport for males aged between 5–14 with a participation rate of 19.9%, indoor soccer also makes the top 10 with a participation rate of 4.3% to make it ninth. In comparison swimming is the second most popular with a 17.2% participation rate then Aussie Rules and cricket rank third and fourth with rates of 16.0% and 9.7% respectively. Rugby league ranks eighth with a rate of 7.0%.

For females swimming, netball, gymnastics, basketball and tennis round out the top five with outdoor soccer coming in at number six with a participation rate of 6.2% and indoor in 10th with 1.3%. Aussie Rules, cricket and rugby all do not rank.

Bias in the media

There have been some major hurdles in the growth of the game in Australia, one being getting media coverage and publicity. It is unarguable that the round ball game receives far less media coverage than its more egg shaped counterparts but some argue that there is an outright bias against football in the media. Many articles have been written about apparently negatively skewed reporting towards football in Australia. Several journalists and media outlets have been accused of selectively highlighting, and possibly exaggerating, the idea of ‘hooliganism’ in football. Some, it is argued, classify ‘hooliganism’ as an endemic nature of the sport whereas similar incidents of crowd violence or misbehaviour in other codes are passed off as more individual and isolated occurrences exclusively the fault of the perpetrators.

Going forwards

2014 saw the inaugural FFA Cup which sees top level teams from the A-League competing with teams from the lower tiers of Australian football and regional sides in a domestic cup competition. Similar to the FA Cup in England, the FFA Cup runs as a knockout competition in which sees 32 sides (after the qualification period) drawn to face other. The way seeding works in the draw ensures that at least three Member Federation Clubs (non A-League) reach the quarter finals and at least one makes the semi-finals. This allows the smaller clubs major publicity and potentially boosts the lower clubs membership, supporter and participation rates.

If the FFA Cup is able to replicate the dramas and interest of the English incarnation then it could imaginably build support for football from the lower tiers upwards. The greater support could only mean good things and growth from the sport in the country.

In early 2015 the International Champions Cup came to Australia with three of the world’s biggest football clubs; in Spain’s Real Madrid, Italy’s AS Roma and England’s Manchester City, gracing our shores. The match between Manchester City and Real Madrid saw 99,382 pack the MCG for what was essentially an exhibition match. The tournament as a whole seemed a great success and the Victorian Government has since secured a further three-year-deal to keep the ICC in Melbourne until 2018.

Average TV Audience

Sourced from Hyundai A-League Season Reports, AFL Annual Reports and NRL Annual Reports (note: NRL stats include finals series and are approximate)

Despite still not quite being in the same ballpark as the AFL and NRL in terms of the interest it garners, such strong youth and overall participation combined with the growing presence of the national competition makes it seem that football in Australia is in perfect position to continue its growth. On the world stage the national teams have established a presence and the quality of football and footballers coming into the country, either exhibition players or to play in our leagues, is ever on the rise (who thought a World Cup champion like Alessandro Del Piero would play in Australia straight from leaving Serie A champions Juventus?).

The Hyundai A-League 2014/15 Season Report says that there has been a 121% increase in the TV audience since 2010/11, a 21% increase in average attendance the past four years, 7.9 million consuming A-League news each day, broadcasts reaching 173 countries globally and the A-League ranked the 15th most attended football league in the world. Stats like these make it seem obvious the progress the sport has made and FFA CEO David Gallop saying that — “Football is on a mission to become the largest and most popular sport in Australia” back in May like less of a farfetched idea.

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