‘All guns blazing’: Ten readies for A-League reboot after $200m TV deal

Imagine a parallel footballing universe where the most luminous rising star in your AFL team quits mid-season to go and live in the north of England. Or to watch your favourite rugby league players you have to subscribe to five different streaming services. And big games are constantly being played in the middle of the night or early morning.

Welcome to the world of following the world game.

Scenes from the clash between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory (from left): Josh Brilliante, Robert Mak and goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne.Credit:Getty Images

The round-ball code in Australia is in many ways in the rudest of health. Thanks to the “grey Wiggle”, goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne, the Socceroos will be playing in next month’s World Cup Finals in Qatar. Across four days in July, Manchester United twice drew crowds of more than 74,000 to the MCG. The first Australian coach to break through in Europe, Ange Postecoglou, will be here in November with his Glasgow Celtic side, and next year Australia and New Zealand play host to the Women’s World Cup, at a time the women’s game is drawing record crowds in the US and Europe.

But while the game thrives at an international level, Australia’s top competition, the A-League, finds itself at a crossroads after a prolonged spell of restructuring, languishing crowds, a new media deal and, of course, COVID.

In the midst of the pandemic last year, ViacomCBS inked a five-year $200 million deal with the league to show matches across Ten, the streaming service TenPlay, and the associated Paramount+ streaming service.

Following the initial rush of enthusiasm where the US media giant (with more than 60 million subscribers globally) declared plans to make soccer the nation’s No. 1 sport, reality kicked in as last year’s COVID-wracked season commenced, blighted by constant fixture cancellations and changes, and fans complained about the Paramount+ streaming controls, which didn’t have familiar sports functions such as pausing or viewing games that were in progress from the beginning.

Simon Hill: a chance to reboot the A-LeagueCredit:Network 10

With the new A-League Men’s season having kicked off this month, the genial voice of Paramount/Ten’s coverage, commentator Simon Hill, is frank about the challenges facing the league.

“It’s the chance to reset the competition after a difficult two years, really because of COVID.” he says. “Twelve months ago we started [on the new broadcaster] all guns blazing, and then COVID’s really messed us around.

“Now we can start to reboot this competition and get fans back through the turnstiles and get fans engaged in the narratives, and that should be a little bit easier this season as we’re not changing venues and dates sometimes at 24 hours notice, just because of COVID.”

Since its inception in 2005, the A-League has boasted a string of marquee signings, the most notable being Dwight Yorke and Alessandro del Piero, both at Sydney FC. After an absence of high-profile visitors the past few years, Melbourne Victory will field former Manchester United and Portugal star Nani, while Brisbane Roar’s team includes another striker with a Premier League pedigree, Charlie Austin.

Competition for eyeballs though, is fierce, warns Dr Hunter Fujak, a lecturer in sport management at Deakin University, and author of Code Wars. “Years ago, soccer moved to a summer season to avoid competing directly the AFL and NRL. But recently, you had two NBL games, two AFLW games, a cricket 20/20, and Bathurst Supercars, all on a Friday night. And the A-League Mens. So it’s difficult to capture hearts and minds when there are so many competing options.”

The clash between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory in Sydney’s new Allianz Stadium on the season’s opening weekend is a good example of the game’s promise, says Adam Cush, Paramount’s head of sport production.

“Everything that’s good about the A-League was shown by what happened on that Saturday night, so it’s a really encouraging sign for us; that despite all the challenges that happened last year, those challenges we all faced last year, it’s really good grounds for us to build and get the A-League where we want it to go.”

The game swung dramatically, Victory’s marquee star Nani provided a moment of class to create his team’s second goal, and despite heavy rain there was a healthy crowd of almost 22,000 generating a stirring atmosphere.

Manchester United surge forward in their game against Melbourne Victory at the MCG in July.Credit:AP

That’s another A-League selling point, Hill says. “I went to a business lunch a few years ago when I was still at Fox Sports; Michael Miller (now executive chairman of News Corp Australia) gave a speech where he was talking about the future growth of sports and he said each sport really has to find its point of difference and capitalise on it. We’ve got more points of difference than most sports, and one of those is the atmosphere that our fans create inside stadiums.”

Passionate, noisy supporter groups have been a hallmark of the A-League teams, particularly the big Melbourne and Sydney clubs. But it has been a complicated relationship, with clubs often in conflict with their own fans over behaviour that was deemed too boisterous.

“It’s my opinion that over a certain amount of years we actually killed off a lot of that atmosphere because we were trying to appease a mainstream that didn’t understand it,” Hill says. “I think that’s changed now. But again, a lot of those fans need to be wooed back into the stadiums because they weren’t treated very well.”

Cush describes his son’s enthusiasm for watching games like that Sydney-Melbourne clash, highlighting the fact that soccer has more young players than any other football code.

But unlike other codes, which can boast that their stadiums are showcasing players who are the best in the world, in global terms Australian soccer is a relative minnow.

Fujak says: “If you look at the AFL, part of why they’re able to be perceived as such high-quality is because obviously it’s the only place in the world where we play AFL so there isn’t a baseline comparison against a global standard.

“But with the A-League a lot of people are followers of one of the big five European leagues, for instance, so they’re fans of Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona etc. They’re making those comparisons of standards, so it becomes a harder sell for the A-Leagues.”

Simon Hill though has an answer for the Euro-snobs – the stream of young local talent being snapped up by European clubs. The latest shining example is Garang Kuol, who honed his skills growing up in Shepparton and at the ripe old age of 18 has been signed by England’s Newcastle United. Until January, when he joins the Premier League giants, he’ll ply his trade with Central Coast Mariners in the A-League.

“There’s a bit of a perception that the A-League is not as strong as Europe,” Hill says. “But Europe keeps coming and taking our players, so we must be doing something right.”

The A-League is on Channel 10, 10Play and Paramount+

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