Mariners’ predicament represents new era of A-League expansion

The A-League’s tenth season has started rather uncharacteristically, with a distinct gap between the top 4 and bottom 6 consolidating as the season unfolds. The current top 4 were part of Season 1 and are each from different capital city markets around the country; Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. The unpredictable nature of the A-League means it could well be argued that it is as much a coincidence that there aren’t any non-capital city startup clubs that have yet posed as a serious threat, as it is that we find the current Asian club champions struggling desperately to register their first win.

In my opinion it goes deeper than just being an anomaly, and I can’t help but continue to think that there are teams which are simply unsustainable moving forwards. The Central Coast Mariners are the club in mind when I question whether or not the A-League can have 10 profitable and prosperous teams as a base from which to expand. Given that neither Frank Lowy nor David Gallop have shied away from the question of expansion in recent interviews, with Lowy making it clear that it isn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when the A-League will add two more teams to the competition, the league’s equality will become harder to maintain.

Gallop has explained that the markets for the new teams will be based largely on the size of the pool of football lovers in that area, or as he put it in a recent issue of FourFourTwo Australia, “We need to fish where the fish are.” While this makes sense, it goes against the model that established the first eight A-League clubs. In the new model, a club like the Mariners may never have been established. In the same interview, Gallop said that “expansion should only occur in markets where the population is in the millions, not hundreds of thousands.” The population of Gosford City Council’s shire is just under 170,000. It seems now that if you were to suggest a regional community with a population of that size as a place for the next A-League club to Gallop, he would laugh at you for even considering it.

“There’s no point being a stable club if you’re stabilizing duds.” – Andy Harper

There’s no questioning the Mariners in terms of what they’ve been able to achieve in, as implied by the FFA, an unviable market. On the field they have been one of the most consistently performing clubs in the league’s history. Four Grand Final appearances for one Championship and two Premierships speaks for itself, while players have been able to head overseas or become internationally capped in the nurturing environment of the community-based club. Mat Ryan, Alex Wilkinson, Trent Sainsbury, Michael Beauchamp, Mile Jedinak, Mustafa Amini, Tom Rogic, Oliver Bozanic and Bernie Ibini are all beneficiaries of the system, proving that the Mariners have defied the odds to maintain their standing in most Australian football fans’ eyes as a strong, stable club. At Central Coast Stadium the Mariners have won close enough to 50% of their games, which is a formidable record, but it’s off the field where their problems appear to lie.

In my opinion, the simplest ‘off-field’ indicator of how well a club is going is their home attendances. The  history of the Mariners’ home game crowds is what worries me the most about the notion that you can only achieve so much in such an environment. The club’s most successful years have yielded the following averages:
2007-08 – Premiers and Grand Final Runners-up – 13,318 average
2010-11 – Regular season and Grand Final Runners-up – 8,540 average
2011-12 – Premiers – 9,505 average
2012-13 – Regular season Runners-up and Champions – 10,018 average

When you consider that the highest home attendance in the Championship-winning season came courtesy of a 6,000 boost from the travelling Wanderers fans, the figures aren’t pretty.

But that’s what the club has existed as; unlikely, hard-working and plucky. The question will always remain. What happens if they miss the finals this season, and the next? Central Coast have been blessed with the leadership of players like Mile Jedinak, Alex Wilkinson and John Hutchinson as well as the promise and services of the aforementioned youngsters, but when their fortunes change I’m afraid that the club will struggle to rebound. So far this season they have shown contentment for draws and brave defeats, but for this club, survival depends on winning. What the Mariners’ situation does is reaffirm the A-League’s confidence in the new model for constructing a club, because the league can’t afford to have such constant uncertainty hinder clubs from being able to flourish.

About Tom Riordan

Tom Riordan is in his second year of a Bachelor of Journalism at Swinburne University. He loves all sports, and plays for Brunswick Cricket Club. He supports the Western Bulldogs and can be found on weekends among half a dozen others in Q38 on the top level of the MCC.

Comments

  1. Very thoughtful analysis Tom. If AFL struggles to support 18 clubs how can soccer support more than 10? Fanciful, particularly if they are to have the financial base to retain and attract the standard of footballers the A League finally has.
    Quality over quantity makes sense to me.
    On another matter – I am astonished at the sacking of Mulvey. The most successful manager of recent years.
    I assume it is a case of player infighting as they struggle with the loss of their stars. The management has taken the expedient decision that it is easier to find one new manager than ten new players.
    But this sort of short term thinking erodes the club culture, and ensures that the cycle repeats.
    Is that how you read it Tom?

  2. Tom Riordan says

    Even though I wasn’t Mulvey’s biggest fan, I do think that his sacking had to be based on more than results, and because of that he’s just unlucky. Unless you’re owned by an Abramovich or Sheikh you don’t usually get sacked because of a poor start to defending your title! You’re spot on when you say that a club can’t develop a culture if it doesn’t try to fight its way out of tough times.

  3. dennis gedling says

    The club has always had the support of the local Gosford community. Hell, even the ex-coach is now the mayor. They want to move more games to Sydney as you break even with crowd numbers down there but they don’t want to alienate their local fans even if there isn’t that many of them. Lose them and it could be curtains.

  4. Luke Reynolds says

    Well thought out piece Tom. The Mariners have done so well from their limited support base. Hope they can continue on. A-League expansion will be very interesting. Townsville and Gold Coast didn’t work, so why would Wollongong, Hobart or Geelong? Is Canberra a better bet? Or would a second team in Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth be a better, safer option?

  5. dennis gedling says

    There is a massive pool of support in the Sutherland shire so the Wollongong gamble should be the next one but after that where do you go. Perth and Adelaide are too small to support two teams. I’d try and go for Townsville again if they had a good business model. Geelong maybe. See what crowd figures are when Victory play Perth at Kardinia Park in early January.

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