Sage advice provides little comfort for A-League

PASSIONATE: Tony Sage estimates he has spent $35 million on the Perth Glory over the past 14 seasons. He considers that an "investment" in soccer's future. Picture: Getty Images
PASSIONATE: Tony Sage estimates he has spent $35 million on the Perth Glory over the past 14 seasons. He considers that an "investment" in soccer's future. Picture: Getty Images

If, as they say, a week is a long time in football, it is an eternity in a pandemic.

Dramatic changes are occurring to life as we know it on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis, and in such an unpredictable environment, last week's abrupt about-face from Perth Glory owner Tony Sage is perhaps not hard to understand.

Within 24 hours of insisting the glass was half-full, Sage encountered sudden misgivings about continually trying to top it up.

On Friday the mining magnate, who has owned the Glory, in part, since 2007, and outright since 2009, revealed he was expecting to lose more than $3 million on an A-League season that appears certain to be written off by the coronavirus.

By his own estimation, that takes his overall expenditure on the club to around $35 million - a huge sum, in anyone's language. Yet far from crying poor, Sage preferred to look on the upside.

"It will be about $35 million now since I started 14 years ago," he said.

"I love football. Look at the numbers - 1.9 million registered players across Australia. There is a big future for professional football and grassroots football in this country, and I don't see it as a loss, I see it as an investment."

Yet the following day, Sage became the first A-League owner to stand down players and staff in response to the season being suspended because of the coronavirus.

Sage's decision prompted threats of legal action from the players' union, Professional Footballers Australia, who demanded he reinstate players immediately.

Sage, however, remained unrepentant, arguing that he would be $800,000 out of pocket because the Glory are likely to lose revenue from four home games.

"The whole of the income structure of the league has stopped. There's no income," he said.

"The FFA has stopped the league. What do they expect?

"I think all 12 clubs, 11 of them playing, will be doing the same thing in the next three days. So what are they going to do - sue everybody?"

Sage's stance should come as no surprise, given that most of Australia's sporting codes - along with countless industries across society - have been forced into similar drastic action.

But whereas the NRL, AFL and cricket are so dominant they will presumably recover their share of the market, if and when they are cleared to resume playing, the A-League - and rugby union, for that matter - appears to have reached a make-or-break juncture.

The round-ball code was in a worrying downward spiral long before coronavirus had even appeared as a black cloud on the horizon.

TV ratings, both on free-to-air and Foxtel, are reportedly less than 50 per cent of what they were six years ago.

The Foxtel deal is worth $56 million a year, a pittance compared to the broadcasting contracts the NRL and AFL negotiated. Yet given that Foxtel reported a $306 million loss last year, speculation has been rife that it is looking to cut costs by offloading "second-tier" sports, which leaves soccer in the cross-hairs.

Meanwhile, a procession of sponsors have been severing ties, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported last month that Hyundai, after a 15-year naming-rights affiliation with the A-League worth $6 million per annum, is poised to pull the pin in June.

Only three of the 11 clubs have averaged more than 10,000 spectators to their home games this season.

New franchise Western United, who were launched without a proper home ground, and Central Coast Mariners, who were in line for their third successive wooden spoon, were both averaging less than 6000.

All of which had combined to raise the question, even before COVID-19 started wreaking havoc around the world, of how sustainable the A-League is.

Remember that when the A-League kicked off, in 2005-06, there was no Big Bash League cricket, and the NBL basketball was at close to its lowest ebb. Both are now competing for the same spectators, TV revenue and corporate support as soccer.

The only glimmer of hope, as Sage noted last Friday, is sheer weight of numbers. According to Sports Australia research last year, there were more people playing soccer in Australia than cricket and AFL combined. The two rugby codes did not even rate in the top-20 activities.

Soccer has long been described as the "sleeping giant" of Australian sport. Never has it been more in need of a wake-up call.

This story Sage advice provides little comfort for A-League first appeared on Newcastle Herald.