Soccer in Australia – What’s going wrong?

Damon Kobe (Griffith University)

 

Abstract

This paper examines the reasons why soccer has been unable to establish itself as a dominant sport in Australia. The suggestion is made that the game’s ethnic origins, substandard national league and limited support by commercial television stations and industry have contributed to the issue. The background and current situation are analysed and future recommendations made. The paper will attempt to discuss factors contributing to the circumstances and endeavour to imply possible solutions, such as taking advantage of Australia hosting the 2000 Olympic games.

Introduction

Soccer has encountered many obstacles over the years in its attempt to achieve mainstream recognition and support in Australia. It has had to compete against the country’s dominant sports of rugby league and Australian football, as well as the smaller, less entrenched ones, such as basketball and baseball. The objective has been primarily to attract spectators and the limited amount of sponsorship dollars available in the Australian market. What are the limitations in Australia of the sport, known globally as the ‘world game’?

Current Situation

Sport is a major part of Australian life. Australia is a very sports oriented nation, who loves to play sports and loves even more to watch it. This becomes evident in the amount of sport being televised both on free to air and pay television. Australia has produced many world class athletes over the years such as Dawn Fraser, Rod Laver, Greg Norman, or more recently Susie O’Neill and Patrick Rafter.

It has been demonstrated in recent times with the increased interest in tennis after Patrick Rafter’s success at the US Open in 1997 and 1998, that success of a sports person tends to increase public interest and participation levels in that particular sport. Attendance at the Australian Open has increased from 389,598 in 1996 to 391,504 in 1997 and 434,807 in 1998 (Source: 1997 Fact Sheet, Tennis Australia). The 11% increase from 1997 to 1998 may be attributed to Patrick Rafter’s win at the US Open, which took place less than six months prior to the Australian Open. His success may have provided additional awareness and interest in the event. It will be interesting to observe 1998 figures, to see whether the number of registered tennis players in Australia has increased since Rafter’s win at the 1997 US Open.

The question arises of why Australia’s on-field success in soccer has not translated into off-field success, more specifically increased attendance figures at National Soccer League games. There are currently 92 Australian’s playing professional soccer in some of the most prestigious soccer leagues in the world, such as the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Japanese J-League (Source: SBS Sport, Research Department, 1998). The Australian national team, the Socceroos, came close to qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France. The team lost at the last hurdle to Iran in the play-off for the last remaining spot at the Finals, in front of a sold out crowd of over 85,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 29 November 1997. The Brisbane Strikers won the 1996/97 National Soccer League Grand Final against Sydney United in Brisbane in front of a league record crowd of 40,440 at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. Those attendance figures are equal to any sport in Australia or anywhere in the world.

However, according to Soccer Australia, the national governing body, the average attendance at soccer games in the 1997/98 season was 5,200 spectators per game (Mr Anthony Clarke, Soccer Australia, September 1998). It appears that the Australian public is prepared to support soccer for important events, such as the World Cup qualifiers or the Grand Final, but have shown only limited interest in supporting it on a weekly basis.

This view is shared by Mr John Appleby, CEO of the Professional Soccer Federation of Western Australia. Mr Appleby remarked that soccer in Australia is still associated with its ethnic origins, which may prevent many Australians from attending matches of the National Soccer League (Phone conversation, September 1998). Soccer Australia instructed clubs in 1994 to drop any ethnic associations the club names may have contained (for example, Sydney Croatia became Sydney United and Melbourne Croatia became the Melbourne Knights). Those name changes, effective from the 1995/96 season onward, were attempted by Soccer Australia to make the sport more appealing to the mainstream Australian public. Mr Appleby noted that those changes had not been enough as the teams were still being associated with their supporters’ origins. He also remarked, that there seemed to be rivalry between various ethnic communities. For example, Italian and Greek supporters would get involved in clashes at games. These issues might be contributing factors in the decision making process of many ‘average’ Australians, when it comes to making the decision on whether to attend a soccer game, especially as many sporting organisations attempt to promote their team’s matches as family events.

Television Coverage

For many years there were no live soccer games shown on free-to-air television on a regular basis. TV station SBS has been the only station, which has continuously covered soccer in its programming. A major reason is that the station’s programs are viewed by a large proportion of Australians with ethnic origins. A significant part of SBS’s programming is targeted towards persons with non-English backgrounds.

This can be observed in the large number of non-English speaking movies and news programs being broadcast. It has produced special programs covering Australian as well as overseas soccer for the past 18 years (Bombara, 1998). Mr Appleby said that unless a major commercial station would take over coverage of soccer in this country, the sport would not be able to move forward significantly.

Since then, a notable development has taken place. From season 1998/99 Channel Seven will take over as the primary soccer television station in Australia. Soccer Australia and Channel Seven have agreed to a long-term contract. The 10-year deal, worth $2.5 million a year, will effectively wrestle soccer out of the hands of SBS. It will be interesting to see whether this deal will be able to raise the profile and standing of soccer in Australia. Under the deal Channel Seven will broadcast all Australian internationals, while contracting the ABC to cover national league matches and it will also show matches on its new Cable Seven Sport pay TV service through Optus Vision. This deal will go a long way in making the national soccer league more competitive compared to leagues in other countries, as well as with other sports in Australia (rugby league or Australian football). South Melbourne president, George Vasilopoulos believes the deal will provide Australian soccer with "stability and security we’ve never had before. For 22 years we’ve dreamed of having a commercial TV station involved in soccer" (Reid, 1998). The deal is the first ground-breaking commitment by a commercial TV station to significantly support soccer in Australia.

Commercial TV stations have previously tried their hand at soccer, by broadcasting one-off games, such as the international between Australia and Croatia screened by Channel Seven in mid 1998 just prior to the World Cup in France. The question can be asked if it will be enough to show games on the ABC, or whether they should be screened on Channel Seven. It can be argued that scheduling games on Channel Seven along with supporting advertising and promotion of the league and its games would raise the awareness of soccer more than it would using the ABC.

Professionalism

Clubs participating in the national soccer league are starting to become more professional. Examples can be found at Sydney United and Carlton United. In the 1996/97 season Sydney United attempted to make their club more professional, by having their players train twice a day with the goal of increasing their skills and abilities and therefore making the team and club more successful in the national competition. This in turn would lead to increased attendances at their games and a more profitable organisation. Carlton United entered the national soccer league in the 1997/98 season. It is part of the Carlton Blues Australian Football League club. Carlton decided to enter the sport of soccer, as it had already been very successful in the AFL and had the necessary knowledge, staff and infrastructure in place to run a sporting club. It was able to support the soccer unit of the organisation financially and with personnel and both clubs were able to share the same facilities and home ground, Optus Oval. Carlton United was the first club in the league to have a full-time physiotherapist and masseur travel with the team to all away games. A commitment was made by the organisation to achieve a high degree of professionalism, which at the end of the season was translated into the team taking part in the grand final in their first season in the league.

Olympic Games

The awarding of the 2000 Olympic Games to Sydney will provide an enormous opportunity to increase soccer’s popularity in Australia. Soccer will be the only event at the Olympics played outside of Sydney. Games will be held in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Brisbane. The possibility of seeing quality players of the highest calibre from around the world play in Australia, should provide a good opportunity, or even serve as a test, to see if Australians will support soccer by going to the games. It will be crucial for marketers of the soccer tournament to be successful in promoting the soccer games, in order to achieve a positive long-term effect for the sport in the country.

A successful tournament will provide the foundation on which soccer’s future in Australia can be built.

 Player Movements

An increasing number of Australian players have left over the years to play for clubs in overseas countries. Two reasons can be observed. The main one has been that financially players can make a much better living in countries like England, Italy, Germany or Spain. Australian Mark Viduka has recently been transferred in a $5 million deal from Croatia Zagreb to Celtic Glasgow. The player stands to earn over $30,000 a week (Soccernet, 1998). This can not be compared to Australia, where the majority of players competing in the national soccer league are amateurs. Another factor has been the higher quality of soccer played in those countries. Players have the opportunity to compete against the best talent in the world. Those reasons have been a major factor in Australia losing its players to overseas clubs. This, of course, has meant that the level of competition in the national soccer league has been negatively effected.

Some of the players who left the country in the 80s and early 90s are now returning to finish their careers in Australia. Players like Frank Farina, Robbie Slater or Graham Arnold have been able to raise the level of awareness and competition of the national soccer league. However, Australia should not be seen as a country where players can wind up their careers and make ‘a few extra bucks’ before retiring from the sport. It is crucial that Australia retain its young, promising talent in order to improve competition and quality of the National Soccer League. This means that opportunities will have to exist for players to make a living in Australia comparable to that offered in European or Asian countries.

 

Comparison to Other Nationally Watched and Played Sports

Is there a connection between soccer’s limited popularity and registration figures for the sport, compared to other nationally played and watched sports? Does soccer have low participation levels at the grassroots level, which translates into low attendances at National Soccer League matches and the long time reluctance of commercial television stations to embrace soccer as a major sport?

The following team sports have been chosen in the comparison: rugby league, Australian football, basketball and baseball. It should be noted that all figures are provided for the year 1997.

Sport

Average attendance per game

Registered players -nationally

Soccer

5,200

287,274

Rugby League

10,976*

142,230

Australian Football

33,197

428,870

Basketball

4,408

Approx. 600,000

Baseball

2,500

Approx. 80,000

 

(Figures provided by Soccer Australia, NRL, AFL, NBL, ABL {September, 1998})

(*1998 figure)

The above figures indicate that there were 287,274 players registered with Soccer Australia in 1997. Average attendance at National Soccer League matches was 5,200 spectators per game. In the same time period the Australian Rugby League (ARL in 1997) had 142,230 registered players. The rugby league competition in Australia was split during the 1997 season due to the Super League war. Two independent competitions were run that year by the Australian Rugby League and Super League. Figures were provided by the new unified competition, the National Rugby League (NRL) for 1998. This year the average attendance at NRL games was 10,976 spectators per game.

This paper will assume that the total of registered players would not have changed significantly from 1997 to 1998. The Australian Football League (AFL) recorded 428,870 registered players and an average attendance of 33,197 per AFL game (Phone interview, AFL, Media Department, October 1998). The National Basketball League (NBL) indicated approximately 600,000 registered players and an average attendance of 4,408 spectators per NBL game. Finally, the Australian Baseball League had approximately 80,000 players registered for the same year with an average attendance of 2,500 people per game (Phone interview, ABL, Media Department, October 1998).

The figures indicate that even though soccer has a relatively high number of registered players, its average attendance per game is considerably lower than both the rugby league and Australian football competitions. An interesting observation is the high number of registered basketball players but a relatively low average attendance rate per NBL game. The assumption can be made that a high participation rate does not necessarily translate into high attendance figures.

Research into the topic was disadvantaged by the fact that various state-controlled, as well as national sports organisations were unable to provide accurate attendance figures as well as the number of registered players in each state. It appeared during various phone calls that some organisations were not particularly interested in providing accurate information to the questions asked. ‘Passing the buck’ was a prominent attitude amongst those at the first point of contact as well as those in higher positions such as management.

 Future recommendations

It appears that even though soccer in Australia has relatively high participation levels at junior and amateur level compared to other nationally played sports, this does not translate into increased attendances at national soccer league matches as discussed previously. The question needs to be asked of what Soccer Australia, as the governing body, has to do in order to increase the popularity and attractiveness of the game.

The first step, and one of the most crucial ones was taken recently, with Channel Seven becoming Australia’s major soccer television channel by signing a long-term agreement with Soccer Australia, as described earlier. This will no doubt raise soccer’s profile in this country.

The Uncle Toby’s Ironman Super Series provides a good example of a ‘small’ sport that was able to raise its profile and people’s interest. With the help of the Uncle Toby’s company and nationwide television coverage on Channel Ten, the ‘Uncle Toby’s Ironman Series’ supported by the company since 1988/89 has been screening on Channel Ten since 1994 (Source: Channel Ten, Brisbane, 1998). It would have been interesting to see whether, and by how much the amount of prize money being offered by the competition has changed over the years. Increasing prize money would have given a fair indication of increased backing by Uncle Toby’s, probably due to increased popularity of the competition. However, financial details were not available due to confidentiality reasons. The Ironman Series has clearly profited from a commercial television station supporting the sport and a major company sponsoring the competition. It was also able to increase awareness of the sport by promoting it with its star athletes, such as Trevor Hendy or Grant Kenny.

Uncle Toby’s has used Trevor Hendy in its advertising and promotion for many years, most noticeably in its Vita Brits commercials. This has put a face to the competition itself and therefore increased awareness and interest in the sport. This is were the challenge lies for soccer. Due to its ethnic origins in Australia it has often been referred to as ‘wogball’. The general public’s negative associations with the sport will have to be altered. This could be achieved in a similar way as was done by the ironman competition, by ‘putting a face’ to the sport.

Over the years Australian’s have quite successfully been playing professional soccer overseas. As mentioned previously there are currently 92 players earning a living abroad. Players like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka or Ned Zelic are considered great talents and are respected as players in the leagues they play in.

Advantage should be taken of this by promoting those players here in Australia and highlighting their successes and opportunities that exist for soccer players here. Of course, Australia should try to retain young talent in the country in the future rather than to encourage players to go overseas, which weakens the local competition.

Furthermore, Australia’s National Soccer League has been able to secure a major sponsor in Ericsson in 1995. The short-term contract with Ericsson for the naming rights of the competition, the Ericsson Cup, comes up for re-negotiation on an annual basis (Source: SBS Sport, Research Department, 1998). With the new Channel Seven deal in place, Soccer Australia will have more leverage and should take advantage of it, when the Ericsson contract is up for renewal.

 Location

A major limitation Australia faces in almost all sports is its location. This becomes particularly crucial in soccer. Most of the strongest soccer countries are located in Europe and South America. In order for Australia to become a stronger soccer nation and improve its national competition, it regularly has to play against the best countries in the world. This has not been the case in previous years. For example, World Cup qualifying has been limited to the Oceania region with Australia playing such countries as New Zealand, Fiji or the Solomon Islands. No doubt this level of competition has limited Australia’s development as a soccer nation.

A better alternative would be to move Australia into the Asian group, where it would have to compete against considerably stronger countries in order to qualify. This would provide Australian players with more match play and improve their skills, which in turn would translate into an improved national competition.

The chance for Australia to play in the Asian qualifying group would better its standing world wide, as it is clearly more prestigious and competitive than the Oceania group. Success there would increase soccer’s exposure and awareness in Australia and improve Australia’s global standing. Australia might be seen as a second rate soccer nation. Previously mentioned factors may have contributed to that. This could prevent some Australian’s from attending soccer matches of the national competition. Not qualifying for the World Cup in France in 1998 has certainly hindered soccer’s progress in this country. As previously mentioned, 85,000 people attended the qualifier against Iran in Melbourne in the hope of seeing the Socceroos qualify for France 98, which is a remarkable figure for a sport that attracts 5,200 spectators on average per game in the national competition. It appears obvious that Australia needs to qualify for the World Cup in order for the country to embrace the sport more and to consider the competition in this country as being of a high standard. It can be assumed that taking part in the World Cup Finals would improve soccer’s attractiveness in Australia in terms of attracting additional sponsors, which is clearly what is needed.

As mentioned earlier most of the players competing in the Ericsson Cup are amateurs. By attracting additional sponsorship funds clubs would be able to offer improved salary packages to their players. This would provide the chance to keep young, talented players in the country and would even enable clubs to attract quality overseas players to their teams. This has been the case in the NBL, which over the years has been able to secure players from abroad, particularly from the USA. This has clearly improved the level of play in the NBL. High-grade foreign players would no doubt increase the standard of the competition here and would also likely attract additional spectators to the games. This has been the case in the English Premier League, where over the last 2-3 years an influx of foreign players has dramatically increased interest in the English game. It has improved the national competition to such a degree that Pay TV station BskyB, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, has offered $1 billion to take over Manchester United Soccer Club (Hirschler, 1998).

 

World Cup Finals

In July 1998 Australia applied for the right to host the World Cup Finals. Soccer Australia made a formal application to host either the 2006 or 2010 World Cups (CFRA, News Talk Radio, 1998). This would provide a great opportunity to showcase soccer to the Australian public. The Socceroos would have the chance to compete against the best countries in the world. Australia would be guaranteed a place at the Finals, as the host nation is not required to qualify for the event. Soccer’s top nations competing in the world’s largest single sporting event in Australia’s ‘backyard’, would increase awareness and interest in soccer to a level not seen before in this country.

 Conclusion

Since the first soccer game was played in Australia in 1880 (Australian Sports Commission Home Page, 1998), soccer in Australia has had a difficult time getting established. Contributing factors have been its ethnic origins, limited support by commercial television stations and the below standard national competition compared to other team sports in Australia and overseas soccer leagues.

Clubs in the National Soccer League should attempt to reach a broader audience. It has been established that the core of most NSL clubs is its ethnic supporters base. These supporters are the ‘heart and soul’ of the club. However, in order for the competition to grow, a larger part of the mainstream public needs to embrace soccer on a regular basis. Sports marketers for clubs, as well as for Soccer Australia should attempt to market soccer matches, and soccer in general toward the general public. As the soccer season takes place outside of both the rugby league and Australian football seasons, it does not have to compete against those sports, which are among the most popular ones in Australia. Soccer has the opportunity to attract those particular spectators to their games during the summer months.

As has been described above, for Australia to become a stronger soccer nation, it has to improve the level of the local competition and attempt to gain additional support in the form of sponsorship funds. This will help keep Australian players in the country, while also encouraging quality foreign players to come to Australia.

The commitment by a major commercial television station to support soccer on a long-term basis will provide the necessary funds as well as television coverage and attract additional sponsors, which are essential to improving soccer’s image both in Australia and abroad.

 

References

"Australia bids for 2006 or 2010 World Cup", 1998, CFRA News Talk Radio, July 8. URL = http://www.cfra.com/1998/07/08/46113.html.

Australian Rugby League (1998), National Players Statistics 1997 (Facsimile).

Bombara, P. (1998), "Seven sees ad boon in soccer coverage", B&T Weekly, August 14. URL = http://www.yahoo.com.au/headlines/140898/marketing/903046502-1812897777.html.

Channel Ten, Brisbane, Programming Department, 1998.

Hirschler, B. (1998), "Murdoch paying $1 billion for Manchester United", Reuters, September 9. URL = http://pathfinder.com/money/latest/rbus/RB/1998Sep09/305.html.

"History of Soccer in Australia", 1998, Australian Sports Commission Home Page, September 28. URL = http://www.ausport.gov.au/soccer/aboutsa.html.

NBL Mitsubishi Challenge (1998), Crowds in 1997 (Facsimile).

Reid, M. (1998), "Support for Soccer Australia TV deal", The Age, August 5. URL = http://www.theage.com.au/daily/980805/sport/sport9.html.

SBS Sport, Research Department, 1998.

Soccer Australia (1998), 1997 Census (Facsimile).

Tennis Australia, Fact Sheet, 1997.

"Viduka: Celtic’s richest", 1998, Soccernet, October 28. URL = http://www.soccernet.com/scottish/news/SCO-CFC—018-92898.htm.

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