Has it really been the worst A-League Men season on record? Crowds, coverage, goals and VAR

Under new management and being shown by a new broadcaster, the 2021-22 A-League Men season was always going to be a challenging one. 

Any hope of the competition hitting the ground running was undone by COVID-19 as a spike in cases and state restrictions played havoc with fixtures early on creating an ultimate need for mid-week games. 

To make matters worse, new streaming service Paramount Plus is still finding its feet with fans left frustrated by their coverage of matches. 

Former Socceroo Robbie Slater stated last week that this has been the worst season on record for the competition, but has it really been all that bad?

A-League Men crowds continue downwards trend

Crowds are more often than not a good indication of a competition’s overall health and the numbers for the A-League Men don’t make for good reading. 

While the impact of the COVID-19 on fans in stands over the past two years can’t be overlooked, average crowd figures for the league have decreased every season since 2013-14. 

As it stands, this season will be the worst ever for average crowd attendance, currently sitting at 5,327 per game, according to Ultimate A-League, with a handful of matches remaining. 

Season Average crowd per game (excluding finals)
2021-22 5,327
2020-21 5,595
2019-20 8,726
2018-19 10,423
2017-18 10,667
2016-17 12,295
2015-16 12,309
2014-15 12,511
2013-14 13,025
2012-13 12,347
2011-12 10,497
2010-11 8,441
2009-10 9,791
2008-09 12,180
2007-08 14,610
2006-07 12,921
2005-06 10,956

The two newest A-League Men clubs haven’t done the competition’s overall numbers any favours with both Western United and Macarthur FC averaging the lowest crowd figures across the past two seasons. 

The silver-lining here is things can’t get much worse.

With COVID-restrictions hopefully lifted for the forseeable future, the A-League Men should have every chance to build crowds back up. 

By selecting future expansion sides with ready-made fanbases and continuing to build bridges with active support, there is a hope that this season could be a low point that isn’t repeated. 

New broadcast deal off to a mixed start but needs perspective

While most football fans were happy to see the A-Leagues leave Fox Sports behind, their first season with Network 10 and Paramount Plus has been a shaky one. 

Streaming issues have been a sore point for many fans with Paramount’s lack of features like a pause/rewind button or a user-friendly interface not helping overall engagement. 

These limitations are to be expected for a new service though, and if Optus Sport’s start is anything to go by, Paramount can still get its act together and become a premium streaming provider. 

Positively, the Australian Professional Leagues have already been getting fan feedback on the platform so off-season fixes and improvements should be on the cards. 

The new broadcast deal has also seen one match every round broadcast for free on Channel 10 getting precious new eyeballs on the competition. 

The early TV ratings aren’t great, especially compared to other sports, with TV Blackbox reporting in January that the A-League Men was attracting fewer viewers than Super Rugby, Super Netball, AFLW and the WBBL. 

The season did start solidly though with 146,000 people tuning into Channel 10’s coverage of the Sydney Derby – viewers who may not have watched if it wasn’t on free-to-air. 

In terms of actual game coverage, the new broadcaster has earned a mixed early grade. 

Bringing back Simon Hill as lead commentator was an easy early win, while the addition of female co-commentators like Grace Gill, Amy Chapman and Georgia Yeoman-Dale has brought more than gender balance with all three bringing great insights to games. 

Pre-game coverage is close to non-existent this season, however, and the A-Leagues’ new mid-week show Round Ball Rules can only be found on 10 Play and not Paramount.

The competition needs more love and coverage beyond the actual 90 minutes if it is rebuild its popularity anytime soon. 

But nailing those 90 minutes from a streaming perspective needs to be a top priority and fixed sooner rather than later. 

What about the actual football? 

While matters off the field might not be ideal, A-League Men games this season have often delivered in spades. 

Aside from Perth Glory and their failed marquee signing of Daniel Sturridge, most clubs have been competitive at times with the premiership set to go down to the final round with three clubs still in the hunt. 

Even sides out of finals contention have entertained, with Newcastle Jets deserving a special mention for the attacking football they’re playing under new coach Arthur Papas. 

In terms of sheer statistics, this A-League Men season also stacks up pretty well compared to others in some key categories:

  • An average of 2.94 goals have been scored each game – the sixth most in history 
  • There have been just six 0-0 games across 146 matches – the third lowest percentage ever
  • A record 318 different players have featured in the competition this season 

Though that high number of players hasn’t always helped the quality of games and alludes to broader issues, it has given younger players like Garang Kuol and Nestory Irankunda a chance to shine. 

Sturridge aside, there have also been some inspired signings brought to the A-League Men this season too.

Newcastle’s Brazilian midfielder Daniel Penha has contributed a league-high 11 assists to date, while Central Coast Mariners struck gold by bringing striker Jason Cummings back to Australia from Scotland. 

Unfortunately, VAR’s implementation has continued to frustrate players, coaches and fans with long delays for microscopic errors not doing anything to help the flow and excitement of matches. 

While hard to compare to years gone by, most games this season have certainly not been bad nor worthy of being associated with ‘the worst season’ tag. 

Though the A-League Men is certainly at a low ebb overall, there are signs of life and if the actual football is anything to go, a steady heartbeat might not be that far away. 

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