Underwhelming build-up to A-League Men grand final fails to justify controversial NSW deal

When the deal to sell hosting rights for its next three men’s and women’s grand finals to Destination NSW was announced, A-Leagues’ chief executive Danny Townsend spoke of the vindicating qualities of the “fullness of time”. This elixir to heal all wounds would eventually produce a level begrudging understanding, if not appreciation, from a furious supporter base.

As a strategy, it’s simple. Persevere through initial scepticism before delivering something that forces naysayers, through gritted teeth if needed, to acknowledge that perhaps the whole idea had some merit.

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Heading into this weekend’s ALM decider between Melbourne City and Central Coast Mariners, though, ill feeling towards league administrators remains stubbornly persistent. It may not be as visceral as the riotous fury of six months ago, but a day out from the first men’s title decider under the deal, it is still deep-seated and contemptuous.

Which brings us to the inaugural Festival of Football. Envisioned as a weeklong celebration of the local game, the concept was supposed to provide a foundational underpinning for the initial deal with Destination NSW. It gave a sense of purpose and legitimacy beyond a simple deal to host the league’s biggest games. It wasn’t about a quick cash-grab, but the creation of a tentpole event that would elevate the game in the public’s consciousness and establish a week on the sporting calendar that was its own. To plan festivities that would do this concept justice, it was said, it needed a fixed location and government backing.

The festival became one of the most critical measures of the deal’s success and, importantly, a tangible deliverable. Other touted benefits were nebulous – hard to quantify, undermined by mixed or inconsistent messaging, or obscured by commercial in-confidence deals – but the festival was highly visible by design; an opportunity for fans to see and judge for themselves.

Cold as the comfort would be, a well-executed event would provide some level of evidence to jilted supporters that their loyalty had not been discarded for indiscernible benefit and that the league was genuinely creating something worthwhile. Simultaneously, it would bring quiet or less engaged consumers through the door.

Now, it’s ALM grand final week and the festival is upon us. Cue the party horns.

On Wednesday, the league staged a NSW parliamentary reception, allowing access to the halls of power that would not have been possible without a deal for a fixed host. On Thursday, the league will mark the Dolan-Warren Awards at the Star Casino. And for the festival’s main event, there will be a free grand final party at Moore Park on Friday, planning for which, according to officials, has been under way for months thanks to that fixed location.

No doubt those in attendance will have fun. There will be music, street food, fireworks and five-a-side games. Beyond what the league has described as significant government, corporate and media interest, officials are touting a bumper grand final crowd (the NSW-based Mariners are sending 17 coaches down the Pacific Motorway to spare any blushes on the attendance front).

Yet none of this is a zero-sum game. To not consider this week against a broader context of the Destination NSW deal is to miss the woods for the trees.

A year on from 70,174 watching the A-League All-Stars clash with Barcelona just three days out from the grand final, a similar fixture against Bayern Munich fell through after an 11th-hour withdrawal by the German giants. Attempts to find a replacement came to nought and the festival’s biggest attraction for the neutral fan or football tourist is now absent. The A-Leagues’ calendars also prevented any kind of crossover between the men’s and women’s deciders this year.

Given expectations around the event, there is scant evidence of the “week-long extravaganza” touted six months ago that would capture the imagination of football and non-football fans alike. Nor is there much to justify the loss of an opportunity to host a grand final for non-Sydney-based clubs.

Compounding matters, a two-week break between the semi-finals and the final – a buffer against Covid disruption that may be scrapped in future years – has sapped momentum.

Given the underlying role of legitimisation that the festival plays, perceptions, in this case, absolutely matter. Theatregoers provide energy, but it is the rusted-on fans who give football life. For them, mostly watching on at home as the festival gets under way, the fullness of time is yet to arrive.