A sea change for the A-League

by Teo Pellizzeri on May 11, 2011

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While skepticism about working the bugs out of the A-League fixture is rightly justified, there is one initiative which suggests workable innovation — one round set aside to be played in regional areas.

A prospect that for some, jumps off the page and smacks you in the face like a drive past the SPC processing plant at the wrong time of day. As a former city-slicker who knew little of Victoria beyond Epping Stadium to the north or Paisley Park to the west, this idea excites me.

Ultimately, the decision to "go regional" is only one game in one round of the A-League season, and will no doubt be the tip of the iceberg when fans finally see a fixture and start picking holes in the logistics. But that's no reason not to get the decision on where to go right.

While adventurous fans may welcome the opportunity for a "different" road trip, for many others it will mean distance, lesser-quality venues and facilities, extreme weather and a date with Foxtel.

Some Melbourne Victory fans have interpreted "regional" to mean any one of three potential places; Canberra, Geelong or Tasmania. As far as drawing a crowd and making money goes this is probably the best bet purely on the balance of population and relative attractiveness for travelling metropolitan fans. Geelong would be a good fit for Melbourne Victory, with high ease of travel and an appropriately sized facility in Kardinia Park. I doubt there'd be too many hassles beating the crowd of 50 that the Victory women pulled in January of this year when the W-League made an ill-fated venture to the Cattery.

But in the case of Melbourne Heart, there is a case to be made for the smaller towns in the state.

I was interested to read last week Scott Munn in the Shepparton News saying that without a purpose-built venue the town "wouldn't be suitable for an actual A-League match". While Heart did commit to playing a pre-season game in the town against Wellington, albeit at a modified AFL-size venue, dismissing Deakin for a season-proper game was disappointing.

With the right temporary seating arrangements, there is no reason such a venue could not draw more than Heart's 2010-11 season average crowd of 8312. Three different AFL NAB Challenge matches in Shepparton featuring the likes of Hawthorn, St Kilda, Collingwood and Richmond have drawn upwards of 8,000 on three occasions since 2008.

Just last week at Albury's Lavington Oval, itself an AFL-size venue, the NRL City v Country representative game drew 8056. But there hasn't been much agitation to get A-League in the twin cities. Maybe the prospect of a three-hour drive for any Melbourne based fans was enough to scare A-League away.

So heading north looks like being spurned for the east. Munn told the La Trobe Valley Express in February "we think the local stadium in Morwell is fine and one of the best football facilities outside of Melbourne."

WIth all due respect to the Gippsland-based fans, I doubt Heart could better a potential Shepparton or Albury-Wodonga crowd by heading to Morwell. The stadium record crowd (8400) was set at a Gippsland Falcons match in 1994, in recent times the best crowd at the venue was under 4000 for a Melbourne Rebels trial Super Rugby match.

In other states, crowd sizes at major metropolitan venues would suggest a venture to a regional venue may be a significant mark-down. While more than 3000 was impressive for the impromptu visit to Port Macquarie last season, the same optimism for a (relative) bumper crowd may not be there for a Campbelltown, Penrith, Wollongong or Griffith.

It's important that the NSW clubs don't all line up for Canberra, expecting that fans will simply attend because three games, regardless of the opponent, is better than no games. Again maybe a trip to the border region an Albury Wodonga could be a viable option.

Regardless of the venue selected, I hope that Melbourne-based fans do make the journey to whichever town gets the nod. Having gone to the likes of Morwell, Geelong and Campelltown Stadium this last summer to sit in empty stands and watch W-League, the potential for "what could be" if they were full for an A-League match does sound like a worth-while idea.