Who would’ve thought regional Australia would be hanging a gold medal around the figurative neck of the A-League? In the past couple of weekends, the National Rugby League has hoofed its way to Tamworth for a competition match; AFL clubs have played under lights at Launceston; and now, by virtue of a sequence of events, domestic football’s season-stopper, the A-League grand final, will be played in Newcastle.
It is the first time the A-League decider will be held beyond the confines of a metropolitan city. That Newcastle is that venue speaks to the city’s deep and long-standing relationship with the code. There have been peaks and troughs, and the troughs have been depressingly low. It wasn’t that long ago – in 2015 – that football’s governing body terminated the Jets' A-League licence after owner Nathan Tinkler put the club in voluntary administration. That’s low.
But business and managerial expertise – and unflinching community support – has turned the tide. Just hours after the Jets ‘bagsed’ the first grand final spot at their Hunter HQ, Melbourne Victory scored all five goals in an emotion-charged 3-2 over an expectant Sydney City.
This was the moment the A-League came of age, from a regional perspective.
The competition’s rules say: “The highest placed club to advance to the Hyundai A-League Grand Final will be considered the ‘home’ club”. The Jets were higher placed than the Victory. So that’s cut and dried? Well, no. There’s a but – and it’s but of Kardashian proportions. The competition rules also state: “The selection of venues, dates and kick-off times for all Finals Series Matches, including the Grand Final, will be at the sole and absolute discretion of FFA and a decision to allocate a Venue, dates and kick-off time may be made based on a variety of factors including, but not limited to, venue availability, broadcaster preferences, player welfare, security, commercial, marketing and financial considerations.”
In other words, the Football Federation of Australia has a get-out clause. It can move the goalposts. The federation didn’t. Instead, tickets to the A-League’s first non-metro grand final went on sale on Sunday.
It is a sell-out. It was always going to be a sell-out. That, of course, has posed a whole new series of dilemmas – to the Jets, to the official broadcaster and, not least of all, to fans. It brings to mind that age-old cliché of “pleasing some of the people all of the time”.
But let’s look at the long game.
We’re quick to malign sports and sports administrators for what we perceive as “token efforts” when it comes to promoting sports in regional Australia.
You know the sort. The “wham, bam approach” of we came (well, we dropped by for two hours), we saw (we stood about and lobbed a few balls around to the swarm of adoring kids before we retreated to the sidelines), we conquered (we signed up a few new junior members and sold a stack of merch) has had its day.
Instead, there is an increasing understanding of mutual benefit. It’s pretty simple – it’s about creating relationships. Create partnerships at your sport’s grassroots, foster the game in those relative ‘outposts’, nurture talent, offer support and constructive criticism, and promote opportunities.
But, as we know all too well, sport is a business. It’s just better when it’s built on a sustainable model that involves us all.
The A-League has kept its word to regional Australia. That alone is worth celebrating.