Does soccer need to be Australia’s number one sport?

Date: October 11, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Soccer is the world game – of that there is no dispute.

It is played in more countries by more people than any sport and the World Cup is arguably the biggest sporting event in the world.

However, that does not mean that it will become the number one sport in Australia, as proffered once again this week – this time by FFA CEO David Gallop.

Whether soccer achieves its aims is really immaterial for it will always command a significant space within the Australian landscape and that space will continue to grow.

But the likes of it eclipsing Australian Football, for instance, is unlikely – or if it does, it will be many decades away.

But again, should it not does it truly matter?

Traditionalists in this country decry the term ‘soccer’, believing it to be a slur on the sport.

That is not the case.

It is simply indicative of the code’s history in Australia.

The same is the case in the likes of New Zealand, Ireland, United States, Canada and South Africa where other primary forms of ‘football’ are called just that given their increased popularity.

Throughout the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa the locals referred to the sport as soccer.

President Jacob Zuma referred to soccer throughout his address at the opening ceremony while the official name of the stadium that housed the final in Johannesburg was ‘Soccer City’.

In this country, the vast majority of sports fans will always use the word ‘soccer’ to describe Association Football and fans should not see it as a put down, although many do.

For those up in arms perhaps they should contact the FFA and complain of the bastardization of the word with respect to our national team, the Socceroos.

Most fans love the name and many times an entire nation has united behind them, especially in recent times with regular qualification for the sport’s ultimate tournament.

Nothing will ever change the fact that soccer is the world game.

And nothing perhaps will see it eclipse all other sports to become Australia’s number one code.

There is no better way to attract a following then to stage a World Cup.

We tried but failed, although the recent efforts by FIFA would indicate that the playing field was anything but even.

Many felt that hosting a World Cup would result in substantial growth in the sport in Australia.

That cannot be argued but whether it would have seen soccer usurp other codes and become the nation’s number one sport is a moot point.

The United States played host to the World Cup in 1994 and its presence certainly lifted the profile and interest of the sport in America.

However, 19 years on, the NFL, MLB and the NBA are still more high profile sports, attracting more spectators, revenue (commercial and TV), and TV ratings than soccer.

As of next year, when the new TV contract for the NFL comes into play, the TV networks that will cover the sport will shell out US$39.6 billion dollars over nine years ($4.4bn/year).

The current TV rights deals in place in the US for MLB amount to US$800m per year.

At present, the TV networks that broadcast the Major Soccer League (the US’s equivalent of the A-League, the nation’s highest profile soccer league) between them pay US$38m per year.

TV broadcast rights are one of the ultimate indicators of a sport’s popularity as they are driven by ratings and the associated advertising revenues that can be garnered to offset the massive investments that networks make.

The disparity in TV rights fees in Australia is equally as stark as the US.

In terms of revenue alone, the AFL pulled in $425m in 2012, while cricket stood at $206m, tennis $186m, NRL $136m and soccer $95m.

In 2012, the AFL had 6,778,824 spectators through the turnstiles (207 games at an average of 32,748 per game); NRL 3,486,494 (201 games at 17,346); Super Rugby 810,511 (41 games at 19,768); and the A-League 1,770,553 (140 games at 12,647).

Of the top-23 clubs by attendance per match in 2012, only one was an A-League club – the Melbourne Victory, in 18th spot.

On the field (or pitch), soccer has certainly had a participation explosion with the figures for male participation outranking other codes with a total of around 280,000 compared with Australian Football (240,000), netball (245,000), cricket (136,000), tennis (131,000) and rugby league (97,000).

But whether those numbers translate in the future into fans watching soccer as opposed to the likes of AFL and NRL remains to be seen.

As far as the domestic codes are concerned in this country, soccer has a distinct disadvantage – something caused by its standing as the world game – in that so many of the country’s top players do not ply their trade regularly in Australia.

With the other three footballing codes the best in the country play here (yes, an obvious point re the AFL, but like the NFL in America, fans are able to access the best players each week live).

In the end, what we should all celebrate is the fact that a country of just 23 million people can sustain four separate football codes – something that no other country has ever done.

And on top of that we have the likes of cricket, basketball and netball.

As I started this column, soccer is the world game.

That will NEVER change.

And whether it usurps all other codes in Australia in the years ahead or continues to occupy a lesser spot in the pecking order it will ALWAYS be the world game.

That is assured.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 10 October 2013