Cover Feature: Expanding the A-League in the right location

This article first featured in Edition #8 of the RMD magazine (March 4, 2020)

Australian football has been on an upward journey over the last few years, as greater investment floods into the domestic top division, the A-League, and fanbases become vaster and more established. Well-known names have moved to play their domestic football in the country, while similarly the country continues to export more and more talented young stars.

Operating their top flight on a franchise system not dissimilar to the MLS in the United States, financially-strong, successful clubs are able to be born out of far less heritage and pre-established history than in traditional promotion and relegation systems, but it does also present officials in charge of Australian football’s premier division a different dilemma.

After all, Australia is a pretty significant landmass. How does the A-League choose the most appropriate places to set up new expansion teams?

It’s no easy decision for the football executives to make, having to opt between maximising commercial revenue, and as such risking being biased towards the few main commercial hubs around the country, and providing a more widespread and encompassing representation of the entire Australian populace.

At present, it seems the A-League is favouring towards the former.

Of the two most recent expansion sides, Western United and Macarthur FC, the former becomes the third team to play out of Melbourne, while Macarthur represents a suburb of Sydney, also becoming that city’s third top flight team, as well as the fifth within only a short stretch of eastern Australian coastline.

Now, financially-speaking, such a decision does make sense. Expansion bids require commercial backing from wealthy businesses and investors, and often these are based in Australia’s most prosperous cities. As such, they want their new sides close to home. That naturally leads to a big city bias among expansion bids.

However, of the 12 teams set to compete for the latest A-League season, only four clubs are based outside of the wider Melbourne and Sydney areas. One of those is Wellington Phoenix, who aren’t even based in Australia but rather neighbouring New Zealand.

That leaves just Perth Glory on the west coast, Adelaide United in the south and Brisbane Roar on the east coast flying the flag for the rest of Australia. No teams represent cities in the north or central areas of Australia, nor Tasmania or even the capital, Canberra.

Better representation and coverage of football will do nothing but benefit the sport, especially in a country so vast and where football is forced to compete with other sports for dominance and attention.

Australian rules football in particular has done wonders connecting closely with often overlooked communities in Australia. It is the reason the sport has a significant Australian Aboriginal representation, something missing from association football. Why would the young members of these communities look to the A-League, when they can see stars like themselves making it at the highest level elsewhere.

The A-League must think honestly about changing their policy if they want to break that cycle.

Cities like Hobart, Cairns or Darwin have the potential fanbase to support a club. It’d be a financial gamble, but it seems like one that is worth the risk.

These cities have a proven fanbase already established, waiting to be tapped into by an ambitious, forward-thinking owner or group of investors. Well-supported clubs represent these places in the lower tiers of Australian football, yet they remain a less lucrative option for top flights clubs, missing out on vast talent pools, in particular in the case of the Australian Aboriginal communities, where because there simply isn’t the options there for young potential players, the wider Australian game misses out on future stars.

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