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The A-League regional roadshow has potential

by Sebastian Hassett on Jan 27, 2012

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Some people will have seen the raw crowd figure from Wednesday night's community match in Bathurst and recoiled in horror. For the record, not that it was published anywhere at the time - the Fox Sports crew weren't told about it and I, the only journalist who made the trip from Sydney - and it was a very nice journey, too - was reduced to making an estimate.

I guessed 3000, which was a fair way above the official total of 2363, which has eventually come out. Either way, given they sold 2500 before the match took place, and the main stand was full and the surroundings also nicely filled, it seemed like a reasonable guess.

Anyway, my talents at estimating - or lack thereof - aren't the issue. My beef is with anyone who is lining up to have a crack at the raw numbers who've attended the FFA's community round of matches.

So far, here's the crowd totals from the four games.

- 2951 at Morwell for Melbourne Heart v Wellington Phoenix
- 4628 at Dunedin for Wellington Phoenix v Brisbane Roar
- 5505 at Campbelltown for Sydney FC v Perth Glory
- 2363 at Bathurst for Adelaide United v Newcastle Jets

Let's be brutally honest - they're not great figures. Crowds of 4000-5000 were expected in Morwell and Bathurst and figures closer to 10,000 in both Campbelltown and Dunedin.

Next Wednesday, the A-League heads to Launceston, and with it go Melbourne Victory and Gold Coast United. Neither team is firing at the moment - I'm still figuring out how Jim Magilton's side coughed up that two-goal lead on Australia Day and, by the same token, how Sydney FC were also able to perform more last minute heroics against Gold Coast the week before. (I guess that makes up for the Sky Blues' late horror shows against Brisbane and Perth, but I digress.)

I'm expecting a solid crowd down in Tasmania, even if it's hardly a glamorous fixture in terms of ladder position. But should we bust the Launceston locals if the crowd doesn't top the 10,000 mark as expected? Hell no. For the record, I think they'll get close, especially given that 8061 turned up to watch Melbourne play Adelaide in the pre-season of 2007.

How should we look back on the success of the 'Community Round'? In terms of attendances, it's true, this hasn't been a blockbuster success. I'll be the first to admit that and so will the FFA. They're the ones putting the money up for these games and they'd have been expecting to recoup their losses in each centre. As I understand it, these matches will have probably fallen into the red, though not by much.

I really hope the FFA keep persisting with the regional concept because it has genuine merit. Taking football out to the people who might not ordinarily be able to access elite-level competitive matches has to be commended. And let's also be brutally honest - none of these fixtures are exactly marquee clashes. You wouldn't think Melbourne Heart and Wellington Phoenix, who were both struggling when they played, would have drawn far over 4000 at AAMI Park, a certain loss-making exercise for the club.

The FFA has learned a great deal about what works and what doesn't going into these markets. For example, if you're getting into rural settings like Morwell and Bathurst, you need to get all over the local media for weeks in advance, not just on the day of the game. In Campbelltown, you can't expect a family-friendly area like that to respond to an early-evening kickoff on a school night. In Dunedin, famed for its University-driven sports crowds, the match was played when all the students were out of town.

I hope many of these places get another go, but I also hope to see other areas putting their hands up and really lobbying hard in the years to come. And I'm not just talking about predictable markets like Wollongong, Geelong and Canberra. Let's take games not only there but to smaller areas like Coffs Harbour, Bendigo and Cairns.

The A-League is a more 'mobile' league than its competitors and we should be the sport that takes the game to the people. We have a national footprint and we should take that responsibility very seriously.

If we can create an annual Community Round, we'll find that regional centres and their people - and their councils - will come to the party in much greater numbers and with much more enthusiasm.

It should be a very prestigious thing to host an A-League match in your town, and perhaps we need to create something more of a 'bidding' process, where the locals actively demonstrate why they want the round ball game to come visit.

Either way, while it hasn't taken flight as hope this time around, don't kick the community round concept in the guts. Let's bring rural Australia into the football fold and grow this into an annual event on our domestic calender.