Modern football is about money and markets. That’s the reason the shirts you see on kids and adults across New Zealand aren’t their local regional or NZFC team, they’re Barca, United and Arsenal. It’s why the sports TV coverage goes for what happens when most of us are asleep rather than what’s happening on weekends on pitches around the country.
It’s an easy dominance, with TV friendly packages of the English Premier League and the A League simply a case of acquiring the media files and pushing play. With most TV channels feeling the pinch, the idea of expensive outside broadcasting of sport makes terrestrial stations blanche.
There needs to be an acceptance that New Zealand Football and football in New Zealand cannot compete with the A League and the EPL as an equal rival because as Cruyff said ‘Football is now all about money…’. And, aptly demonstrated by the Phoenix’s license extension, there’s not yet a large enough market to either attract or generate money in live New Zealand football.So here’s the question. How does New Zealand football attract people to games? People equal money, they equal a market. In terms of spectators, you could probably fit everyone who went to see a mid-season NZFC game across one week of fixtures inside the Trusts Arena, capacity 4,500. You couldn’t say the same for winter league fixtures, but that’s mostly to do with the sheer number of clubs who kick off at 3pm on Saturday afternoons. So what can change?
Let’s talk about money first, in deference to the modern game. It costs $15 to watch a NZFC game. It costs between $15 and $20 for the cheapest ticket to see the Warriors play at Mt Smart. It costs $26 to go and watch the Blues at Eden Park. It’s the same price to go and watch the Mystics at the Trusts. Could $10 tickets be the answer, or part of answer?
Promotion is an issue too. Sure, those tickets are $15 for adults, but kids get in free to NZFC games! How much is that promoted in, say, every school within walking distance of a ground? And whose job is that, the franchises or NZF itself – because if it’s not happening because each sees it as the others responsibility then that’s another part of the problem.
There’s also a question about the ability of some franchises, rooted deeply in individual winter clubs, to reach supporters of other winter clubs during the summer. If that is a problem, how do we find out what effect it’s having and then how do we solve it?
Then there’s televising games. The Sky coverage of the 2015 -16 NZFC was enjoyable, if only because previously there was almost zero coverage. But the shift to Thursday nights at 7:35 pm and 4:35pm on Sunday afternoons exacerbated the existing issue of low attendances. There were solid technical reasons for games to be played at the Waikato Stadium or the QBE, but none of them included making people actually want to go and watch the games.
Watching live sport is an event, it’s something you go and do of a weekend. It’s time off, so it shouldn’t feel like work. Friday nights at Eden Park this season have been entertaining, the Warriors games on Saturday nights draw crowds to Mt Smart. Sunday may be the right choice for accommodating youth games, but it’s also the day you get some jobs done around the house, get dinner on and possibly try and sleep off the hangover from whatever you did the day before. Like going to the football, perhaps.
The aim of the NZF competitions review is, by the 2018-19 season, to have a ten team, thirty game season as part of a league which teams can be relegated from and promoted into from regional playoffs. That’s great, a single season in which all clubs participate and importantly all clubs have the chance to get promoted or get relegated. The Chatham Cup wouldn’t exclude the teams that play in the country’s top flight any more. Structurally, excellent, ka pai.
The question is will any of that be possible if they cannot reach the proposed 1000 average attendances and develop revenue streams via broadcasting? If not, then NZF has to start developing a plan which recognises that if they can’t engage outside of players, coaches and administrators, if they can’t engage existing supporters and work out how to attract new ones, then no matter how good the plan is, it won’t get far.