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What we can learn from this week's Beckham Mania

by Teo Pellizzeri on Dec 12, 2011

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Maybe engaging with grass roots and trying to reconnect with "old soccer" was gambling the wrong way. Maybe the new team in Melbourne should have been for starf***rs.

It bordered on obscene that on Tuesday night, 34,608 fans made their way into Etihad Stadium to sit like church-mice for the most part as Melbourne Victory played LA Galaxy.

After no active fan area was assigned at Etihad Stadium for the match, many of Melbourne Victory's noisier, more colourful regulars abandoned the fixture.

I'm not sure if the promoters got what they wanted as a result, but that result was a haunting silence with the occasional cheer for Becks. Etihad Stadium was noisier when a pathetic 4,825 attended an Asian Champions League game against Jeju United back in March.

So often the media bangs on about how the Socceroos and big soccer occasions such as a Beckham visit can help grow the A-League. If Tuesday night was a fans' first experience, they would have left wondering what all the fuss was about, never mind making plans to come back and watch a game without Beckham in it.

If you were only the occasional football fancier who went to the big occasions, you'd be forgiven for thinking the game hadn't progressed a step since the national team played Manchester United in 1999. An in-season friendly, with no narrative other than to parade a star whose on-field best was behind him, decided by penalties for theatre rather than sporting purposes.

But while some disgruntled Victory regulars have said they "don't want" the fans that went on Tuesday night, there is a compelling reason to want to keep them coming back.

The high-priced seats, on the seldom-rolled-out seating on the ground level at Etihad, were going for $170.

That much money to watch one guy have a 90-minute jog. You would have had a far more enriching experience putting that money towards Elton John tickets, given he was performing in town that same night.

The Beckham visit and sizeable crowd at top dollar has really highlighted how much more work both teams in Melbourne need to do to turn people who are interested in football, into actual A-League fans. I hope someone at Etihad Stadium was paying attention to the broad demographic of fans attending the game. I hadn't seen so many women and mother-daughter combinations at a sporting event since...well since the last time I went to an AFL game but you get the picture, it was a very different crowd make-up to what you normally get in the A-League.

The great untapped potential that we football die-hards keep banging on about being "out there".

Tuesday night could not have been a more stark contrast with Sunday in Gippsland. Melbourne Heart, the club with admirable aims of being engaged with the football community, getting burnt with a crowd of less than 3,000 in what will surely be the A-League's one and only season-proper venture to Morwell.

Heart came in to the A-League talking tough about their style of football and what they stood for off-field. Right now they've engaged with enough fans to regurgitate the rhetoric in social media, talkback radio and web forums, but not enough to actually make money.

Case in point, I was flamed on Twitter last week for suggesting that Heart members having to pay at the gate in Morwell was a disincentive to go... by three people who ultimately didn't go to the game. Heart's rhetoric did well out of the discussion, but the club didn't actually make any money as a result.

As plastic as Tuesday night was, it would have grossed a power of money, anecdotal evidence suggesting more than three million dollars, and at least got the untapped football followers of this city to hand over money to watch a game, even if that game was the football equivalent of WWE.

It would be irresponsible for both Melbourne clubs to write off Tuesday's crowd as the "Beckham factor" though.

We were issued a reminder that the fans will part with big money for a highly questionable product. We know the A-League is noisier, more colourful, played with more drama and passion and more intensity. What it doesn't have is Beckham, and that's a blow, but it should not be the excuse to concede that fans who went on Tuesday can't be tempted to A-League games.

It's time for Victory and Heart to take stock of what they're doing to get people through the gates and maybe re-think what is and isn't actually engaging fans of the game.