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Lessons Down Under: The Canadian Premier League can learn from Australia

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What the A-League can tell us about starting a brand new soccer league

A-League Grand Final - Brisbane v Perth Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Ed.: To begin with stating the obvious, I want to acknowledge on behalf of WTR that we made an error earlier this week. We know the CPL will be a fully professional league, among other inaccuracies. It was an honest mistake, and it in no way affects the central topic of Tej’s article, which is (in my opinion) a very strong one.

As the Canadian Premier League ramps up preparations for its inaugural season in 2019, I’m sure they’re looking at plenty of case studies from startup sports leagues around the world. I’ve seen plenty of comparisons, from the obvious (early MLS) to the obscure (non-soccer team sports in Europe).

One case that mirrors the CPL’s situation pretty well is Australia. The A-League first kicked off in 2005, hoping to revitalize soccer Down Under after a troubled history of the club game in the country. Like Canada, soccer is the most-played sport among Australian youth, but it lags behind a slew of other sports when it comes to the professional game’s popularity.

So, you’re looking to expose people to the culture of professional soccer, not necessarily the game itself. Of course, Australian sporting culture probably more closely mimics that of European soccer than North American culture does, but soccer still lags well behind two codes of rugby, Aussie rules football, and cricket.

A-League Rd 19 - Central Coast v Western Sydney Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images

To start, let’s look at some of the things the A-League does well, which the CPL should take notes on.

One thing that seems to drive attendance in the A-League is derbies and rivalries. There are two teams in Melbourne (Victory and City), as well as two in Sydney (the Wanderers and Sydney FC). Natural rivalries have also formed between the Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United, as well as the Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets; those teams have history between each other.

To me, that says the CPL should be putting teams in both Calgary and Edmonton. They should have a team in Ontario to rival Hamilton. Maybe one in the Maritimes to hate Halifax (Moncton, maybe?).

Some of the most successful A-League teams were built on pre-existing brands and history. Teams like the Brisbane Roar (established 1957) and Newcastle Jets (1995) already had semblances of a fanbase when they entered the new league.

The CPL has a chance to do that in some Canadian cities with soccer heritage already in place: FC Edmonton, for example could go straight in. Calgary has some groundwork with Foothills FC, and all of Winnipeg, Hamilton and Halifax had CSL teams in the late 80s/early 90s.

Like MLS, the A-League has a lot of complicated salary rules. Over there, designated players are called marquee, and you can have two of them. One rule that probably hits on what the CPL wants to emulate is a native player quota — no more than five of the 26 on your roster can be international players. Similar quotas have been rumoured for the CPL, and if the idea is to grow the game as a whole among Canadians, you want Canadians playing.

As a result, the Australian clubs have invested in youth teams and academies. The league itself has been working recently to encourage teams to build their homegrown systems, rewarding the best A-League academies in its accreditation system. Reflecting the emphasis on local players, seven of the league’s top 10 all-time leading scorers are from Australia or New Zealand, as are all of the top 10 appearance leaders.

There has, of course, been more of an international infusion in recent years as the league has grown, but two or three Australians almost always appear on the leaderboard.

Top teams in the A-League get to qualify for the Asian Champions League (the top two regular season teams and the playoff champion, usually). Entry to the CONCACAF Champions League is something the CPL wants, and thankfully this gives them some precedent for that. Adding to the CPL’s case is the fact that Australian clubs are actually competitive in the competition, with the Western Sydney Wanderers winning the tournament in 2014.

Gate receipts have grown fairly regularly since the A-League’s inception (according to Wikipedia, at least). The league is certainly still afloat with 10 teams, most of them averaging near or above 10,000 fans per game.

Australia v Ireland - Virgin Australia International Rules Series 1st Test Photo By Ray McManus/Sportsfile via Getty Images

The A-League also has some serious flaws, though. To begin with, its only broadcast deal until 2012 was with a specialty channel that not much of the country has access to. I’m not sure how easy it’ll be for the CPL to negotiate with bigger media brands, but it would definitely by nice to see the league on local channels.

The CPL definitely won’t want to be expanding and folding teams willy-nilly. Three separate A-League teams have gone defunct within three years. On the bright side, though, two expansion teams (Melbourne City and Western Sydney Wanderers) were top-five in attendance last season.

NB: Both those teams entered the league as the second teams in their cities; for the first five years of its existence, the A-League granted market exclusivity to its founding clubs, allowing them to gain their footing before competing for attention with a local rival.

Australia’s league has some similarities to MLS that some CPL execs seem to prefer avoiding. For one, the A-League has no promotion and relegation, and it has a playoff system at the end of the season. Those are both pretty North American concepts, but I think the CPL would rather tend toward the European league model (that said, A-League grand finals pull some killer attendance figures in giant rugby stadiums).

Then there are the grounds issues. Currently, only two A-League sides (Adelaide and Central Coast) are the primary tenants in their stadium, all the rest playing second fiddle to rugby or Aussie rules. By extension, not a single A-League team owns its stadium.

Stadium ownership generally works out pretty darn well for clubs; it’s basically the norm among many teams in Europe. Control over all revenue is a very nice asset to have, and complete autonomy over your own facility can do a lot for a club’s identity. A lot of fan talk about prospective CPL teams has referenced existing stadiums, and in the early days of the fledgling league that might be necessary for some cities.

I’m a lot more encouraged by the idea of places like Surrey and Saskatoon, where new CPL teams could build their own soccer-specific stadiums with reasonable capacities. 10,000 fans is a charming atmosphere in a stadium built for that size; it just looks sad in cavernous, 40,000-plus CFL buildings. For a new league, we’re aiming more for Plymouth Argyle than Barcelona when it comes to crowd size (for now, at least).

A-League Rd 19 - Adelaide v Perth Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images

Finally, this is an issue for well down the road, but the CPL has to be careful about scheduling. Australian clubs have struggled with attendance and TV ratings when competing with rugby or Aussie rules. Derby matches have been slated for poor timeslots, like Sunday nights. You’re not going to engage the youth population that participates so actively in soccer by having so many important games on school nights.

So, in Canada, this means you don’t have games on Saturday nights; nobody’s competing with hockey. You probably also don’t want to have many CPL games while the Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps, or Toronto FC are playing, because the quality won’t quite stack up. Play afternoon games, get kids engaged as well as the budding supporters’ groups.

Overall, the A-League is a pretty reasonable reflection of what the CPL might be when it gets going. That said, there’s plenty of room to learn from the A-League’s mistakes. With careful planning (and there seems to be no shortage of that from Paul Beirne and David Clanachan at the moment), the league can absolutely be a success. The key is to grow a sport that’s already so popular at the grassroots level into a more professional enterprise.