At conclusion of the regular season, Football Federation CEO, David Gallop, made another positive announcement:
“This season more Australians have watched the Hyundai A-League live in our venues than ever before. What they’ve experienced is the best standard of football our competition has ever seen and the best live atmosphere in Australian sport.”
“The growth is the end product of hard work and investment by 10 clubs. I thank the fans all over Australia for making this an unforgettable season.”
The aggregate attendance figure of 1,666,875 in Season 8, is the highest in the A-League’s short history. Whilst average attendance increased 17.6% on last year (third highest year), it is still down from the peak of 14,610 in Season 3.
Average Attendance – Season 8
|Team||This Year||Last Year||Variance||% Variance|
Growth in attendances this year can mainly be contributed to two phenomenons – Alessandro Del Piero and Western Sydney Wanderers. Both of these contributed to 82.5% of the growth.
Sydney FC’s attendances increased by an impressive 57.1%, and Wanderers brought in an additional 129,832 people through the turnstiles than the club they replaced, Gold Coast United. The Sydney derby has replaced the Queensland derby, with an additional 44,193 people. Even on the road, the Wanderers average away attendance was 12,977 versus 9,614 for Gold Coast. As the season wore on, the Wanderers fans started to travel more to away games, even selling out the ‘away allocation’ when they played Melbourne Victory at AAMI Park.
The Sydney and Melbourne derbies, plus the Big Blue, contributed to 14.7% of the total aggregate (that is 9 out of 135 games).
Analysing attendance figures
There are three methods to increasing aggregate attendances in professional sporting competitions:
- Increase on last year (like-for-like growth). This can achieved by increasing the utilisation of a stadium by growing attendances (maximum use of capacity), increasing the capacity of the stadium (increase the size of the existing stadium or move to larger premises), and close poor performing locations and open in new markets.
- Increase the number of locations i.e. expansion.
- Increase the number of games played.
The FFA achieved rapid growth this season by closing down Gold Coast United and replacing them with Western Sydney Wanderers. As can be seen throughout the history of the A-League, increasing the number of teams, and thereby increasing the amount of content, is not always the best path for growth. This comes down to having teams in the right location, timing, and having a robust business model that can be replicated.
A-League Aggregate & Average Attendance
|Season||Aggregate Attendance||Variance||# of Games||Avg Attendance||Variance|
During the expansion years of Seasons 5 and 6, the A-League achieved rapid growth in aggregate attendance (29.2% increase in season 5), however at the same period the average attendance dropped, due to the new entrants lower turnouts (19.6% decrease in season 5). Gallop has been wise is stating that expansion is not in the immediate plans, and that the focus is on stabilising and growing the existing clubs. As we will learn throughout this analysis, there is still plenty of work to be done, across many, if not all of the clubs.
The Del Piero effect
Sydney FC’s signing of Del Piero shows the power of signing the right marquee. However, it should not be forgotten that last year both Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory, built the platform for this season’s growth, by signing marquees Brett Emerton and Harry Kewell. Coupled with the ‘We Are Football’ campaign of engaging with the football community, the game began the stem the tide of dwindling crowds.
Newcastle Jets signed Emile Heskey, and Wanderers Shinji Ono, and this has added another layer for growing the game. But Del Piero is the real star. No only with the Sydney FC fan’s, but also the rest of the country.
The Del Piero Effect – Away Attendances
|Round||Opposition||Played||Crowd||Avg. Att (Opposition)|
Three clubs experienced their highest attendance figures for the season thanks to his presence:
- Round 1 – 12,057 vs. Wellington Phoenix
- Round 7 – 22,970 vs. Brisbane Roar
- Round 26 – 19,585 vs. Western Sydney Wanderers (it is debatable whether Del Piero or being the derby was the biggest impact).
This was the Jets best year in attendance figures. The most positive sign is that it has been increasing since the low point in Season 5 (6,358 average attendance) – three seasons of positive growth. Nathan Tinkler bought the club at the start of Season 6, and whilst it has been a rocky relationship (and ride), the crowds have been growing under his ownership despite the below average results on the field. In the last 3 seasons the club has finished 7th, 7th and 8th respectively.
Winning is not everything
Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets had their highest aggregate and average attendance in Season 8, even though they finished 7th and 8th respectively. One would hope this puts to bed the argument that winning is the best way to increase attendances, particularly in the media, as this is too simplistic of an assessment. There are too many variables in which impact crowd figures – population size, football population, price, socio-demographic, star power, connection with community, stadium atmosphere, etc.
This is not to say winning is not important. Winning helps to sustain crowd levels. Examining the history of the A-League, poor results impacted on the establishment teams’ worst year for attendance. However, winning the competition was not a sure-fire way to lift the numbers. Adelaide, Roar, Glory, Sydney and Newcastle peak season in the stands, was not from the results on the field.
Foundation Club’s Peak Season – Attendance
|Team||Season||Avg. Attend||Avg. Points/Game||Goals/Game||Home Wins||Position (Teams)|
|Sydney FC||8||18,637||1.19||1.52||54%||7th (10)|
Foundation Club’s Worst Season – Attendance
|Team||Season||Avg. Attend||Avg. Points/Game||Goals/Game||Home Wins||Position (Teams)|
|Sydney FC||6||8,014||1.13||1.17||30%||9th (11)|
Many have drawn the conclusion that the Wanderers success on the pitch (winning), is the primary reason for their crowds growing during the second half of the season. Yes, results have helped. But what many have failed to mention is holding two Sydney derbies also contributed as well (average attendance minus derby matches is 11,317). Also the growth began to occur during the school holidays, when all children were able to attend for free (general admission). On the back of this, the club offered discounted multi-game ticket packages. Add in the atmosphere created at Parramatta stadium, additional activities that the city of Parramatta provides, and a robust community engagement strategy; and you see the effort required in attracting people to games.
The problem clubs
Some of the commentary on the Mariner’s low attendances, despite their excellent results on the park, has bordered on the hysterical. With only 10,651 attending the semi-final match at Bluetongue Stadium, only added more reasons for people to pass judgement. On several occasions, Leopold Method has highlighted the issue, that the club has a small total and football population to draw from. In fact, the ability of the club to penetrate a higher percentage of their market than the rest of the league, is something to be celebrated.
However, the reality is sustaining sub-10,000 crowds is not the answer. For any business to survive it must grow its revenues above the rate of inflation or technically it is going backwards (this is to cover rising costs). Attendances have a direct correlation with revenue streams, as it impacts merchandise sales, memberships, corporate sales, and sponsorship. The encouraging thing for the Mariners is that in Season 3, they did average 12,738, so returning back to those numbers should be a primary goal.
The next step for the club is to work out the ceiling level of support in their market. Is it 12,500, 15,000 or 20,000? Once the club has reached its potential, the next option for the club is to grow the market. A mass population boom does not look likely for the area in the medium term, so it will have to look at options of growing the football market. This can be done in two ways. Firstly it is grow the number of people who play the game, so the club is actively involved in increasing grassroots participation. Secondly, is to grow the football fan base. A quality marquee signing that has broad market appeal is one option (easy to say, harder to obtain), and it could provide the quickest rate of return (also the greatest risk). Increasing the player pool, is a medium-long term strategy, but it could help sustain the club in the future.
Instead of analysing the results of just one season, it is best to look at the trends. The Mariners have been slowly climbing since Season 5. The clubs that are of greater concern are Adelaide, Glory and Phoenix. Adelaide have been trending downwards since a Season 3 high of 12,697 average attendance. Glory’s lack of real movement in attendances since Season 1 (the club’s best year), is a real cause for concern.
Phoenix, hurt their attendances this year with the decision to change playing styles mid-season. But more of a concern is the rapid swings in attendances, which must make it difficult for the club to plan cash flow forecasts (collection of revenue). The club operates under similar conditions to the Mariners – small catchment area – and will need to confront the same questions raised above. The Phoenix have shown in that they too can obtain larger average crowds (11,683 in their first year).
Analysing Melbourne Heart
Melbourne Heart’s management will see some positives coming out of attendance figures this year, even though they were down 5.7%. This season, Heart only hosted one of the derbies (one of the main impacts to Victory’s growth this year), compared to two in the first couple of seasons.
The best way to analyse whether Heart’s support is growing, is to take out the derby matches, as it is a given that people will turn up to these events:
- 1st Season: 6,310
- 2nd Season: 6,181
- 3rd Season: 7,069
Analysing data is only useful if people use it wisely. Some valuable insights can be learnt not only from this season, but also throughout the entire history of the A-League.
This season has shown that the right marquee can make an impact on crowds. Ironically, the same clubs that trumpeted the findings in the Smith Review about their ‘high wage costs’, began to nearly fall over themselves, as they chased the signature of David Beckham. One minute the Wanderers Executive Chairman, Lyall Gorman, is dismissive about the merits of marquees. Then after seeing the media and public reaction to Sydney FC’s signing of Del Piero, he finds himself waiting for his own at the airport. As humorous as this might be, at least the club’s have learnt a lesson.
The Wanderers have shown the importance of fan engagement, match day experience (atmosphere/stadium size), and placing teams in football areas (expansion strategy). Victory might be a bit miffed, since they have provided an excellent atmosphere at their home games since the inception of the A-League. Sometimes lessons take longer to set in. A different messenger also helps.
Clubs now have the benchmarks set across the league to be able to use within their clubs. It is up to them on whether they heed these lessons.
The new mantra is fan engagement. Social media tools, feedback forms and fan forums can all give insights. But the real value is actually asking people “why do they support a team”, and “why they attend games?”. Most of the answers can be found there.