For fans of the Australian national team, it was not a weekend to remember. The Socceroos crashed to a second successive 6-0 defeat on Friday evening and, eight months from the 2014 World Cup, fired coach Holger Osieck.
Despite that, it was an exciting weekend of football down under as the A-League kicked off season nine. While optimism should always be present at the start of a new campaign there are genuine reasons for fans to be feeling good about the months ahead.
This is the first time in the history of the league that matches will be freely available and it's a huge opportunity for football to reach loyal followers that may have not been able to afford subscription television
The first round of five games broke the 100,000 mark in terms of attendances, a record-breaking start, but there is more.
Perhaps the biggest change is not a new team or a new major signing – though big-name foreign stars such as Alessandro Del Piero and Emile Heskey have stayed on for a second season – but the fact that there will, for the first time, be one game a week broadcasted on national free to air television.
For the first eight years, live A-League games were broadcasted solely by Fox Sports Australia. The cable company reaches about a third of the population down under. While all agree that the money paid by FOX for the rights has been vital to the league’s wellbeing, it has long been argued that the game, which battles for popularity in a competitive market with others sports such as Australian Rules Football, rugby and cricket, needs a more universal presence.
Enter SBS, a non-profit government funded broadcaster available to the entire country free of charge. This season, one game every round, will be shown by SBS with FOX having the other four.
So far, so good. The Friday night game between Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets was the first of the season for both the league and SBS and recorded a record breaking television average audience of 358,000 viewers.
Scott McIntrye, a senior football reporter for SBS, believes that this new arrangement will make a big difference to the game in Australia.
“As shown by the interest around the recent friendly matches featuring Manchester United and Liverpool there is a huge, often latent, interest in the local game,” McIntrye told Al Jazeera .
“This is the first time in the history of the league that matches will be freely available and it’s a huge opportunity for football to reach loyal followers that may have not been able to afford subscription television and at the same time win over or convert casual followers.”
Short and sweet
And it is not just SBS that thinks so. It could also be good for FOX. More eyeballs that come into contact with the product should result, in theory at least, in a growing market and increased demand for A-League football.
“Free to air will help grow the game by giving it a bigger audience – we hope,” said Australian television’s leading commentator Simon Hill of FOX.
“The games though, are on SBS2, which is a little strange. It’s hoped the combination will help both networks – and it’s certainly helped bring in new sponsorship already.
Off season is interminably long but it does avoid the clash with the other codes and makes the fans ravenous for football
After an up and down start to the A-League’s life, an initial period of enthusiasm and popularity followed by something of a downturn, the competition has stabilised and seems to be strengthening.
Now the lack of free-to-air broadcast of games has been addressed, perhaps next on the agenda should be trimming a mammoth off-season.
Just ten teams in the A-league means that the football tournament is a short one. The regular season in 2012-13 finished in late March. Those that made the play-offs extended their games into April but the off-season is around six months.
Hill believes that there are advantages with the league lying low for half the year especially as it gives football clear blue water to swim in, away from competition.
“Off season is interminably long but it does avoid the clash with the other codes and makes the fans ravenous for football,” said Hill.
“Inevitably, the teams lack some sharpness in the opening rounds, but really it’s a necessary evil…for now. Next year the FFA Cup will alleviate some of the lull.”
As well as the new planned cup competition, clubs can stay busy engaging with Asia, either in the Asian Champions League or in other ways, according to McIntyre.
“Clubs are getting smarter in how they use this time – and that’s leaving aside the fact that one-fifth of the competition are involved in Asian Champions League for much of that time.
“Just this year we saw Sydney FC travel to Italy for a pre-season camp, the [Western Sydney] Wanderers went to China and Japan, Perth to South Africa and the Central Coast to Indonesia.”