The A-Leagues, the organizer of the top men’s and women’s soccer competitions in Australia, has struck a deal with the New South Wales government to stage its annual grand final matches in Sydney for the next three years in a move that has sparked a wave of criticism from fans and team owners.
The new deal, reportedly worth more than AUD$15 million ($10.16 million), will see the grand final of the men’s A-League played at either Accord Stadium, Allianz Stadium, or CommBank Stadium in Sydney from 2022-23 to 2024-25.
The deal also includes hosting rights to the finals of the women’s A-League and the esports E-League, which was struck with the state government department Destination NSW.
The finals to be hosted by Sydney in 2023 will start with the A-League Women's decider (April 30), followed by the E-League final (May 27). The A-League final will be on June 3, while the Dolan Warren Awards on June 1 will also be held in the city.
Hosting rights to the men’s A-League grand final has traditionally been given to the home stadium of the highest-placed team in the league, which has taken the decider to all five major capital cities in the competition’s near two-decade history.
The NSW government said the move is aimed to leverage recent interest in soccer off the back of the Socceroos’ successful World Cup campaign at the ongoing FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the upcoming Women’s World Cup being hosted by Australia next year.
The new deal also follows other Australian sports leagues including rugby’s NRL, which traditionally plays its grand final at Sydney’s Accor Stadium, Australian football’s AFL, which does the same at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and Super Netball, which recently signed a similar deal with Visit Victoria.
Danny Townsend, chief executive of the Australian Professionals League, the new commercial and marketing body for soccer in the country, said: “The FIFA World Cup 2022 showed that we are a country of football fans and whet the region’s appetite for the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year.
“This is a unique opportunity to build a tradition for football fans. When you think about a cup final in England, you think about the trip to Wembley, and we want fans in Australia to look forward to the A-Leagues finals in the same way.
“We have already broken the previous record for attendance this season in the Liberty A-League Women and have a clear objective to make history again with Grand Final attendance in the year that we host the FIFA Women’s World Cup.”
“We are working with transport and accommodation providers to develop special packages for traveling fans, including our official hotel partner IHG which has committed to offer a special discounted rate to traveling fans.
“Because we have certainty about which city will be hosting the final from a long way out, we can build a ‘Festival of Football’ around these major events.”
However, the move has sparked anger among fans with two official Melbourne support groups, Victory’s Original Style Melbourne, and rivals City Terrace planning to walk out of AAMI Park at the 20-minute mark of this Saturday night’s derby, one of the competition’s marquee events.
In a statement, Sydney FC’s active support group, The Cove, also opposed the decision, adding: “In our game, the term ‘home advantage’ couldn’t be more true. Whilst of course this decision benefits us, it is completely unfair and unjust to the rest of the league. A home final is a privilege, not a right.”
Western Sydney Wanders fan group, the Red & Black Bloc, added: “This once again demonstrates the lack of fan consultation. A home grand final is the reward for the effort throughout the season. Earning the right to host the final was our tradition. We urge APL to reverse this decision ASAP.”
Perth Glory chairman Tony Sage said clubs without APL board representations were blindsided by the announcement, while Adelaide United and Socceroo’s star Craig Goodwin took to social media to oppose the decision despite being featured in the deal’s promotional video.
On Twitter, Goodwin said: “I wanted to clear things up publicly. I may be in the video for the choice to host Grand Finals in Sydney, but I do not support it. I am a player, but I am also a fan.”
One of the most memorable men’s grand finals was played at Adelaide Oval in 2016 when 50,119 fans watched Adelaide United beat Western Sydney Wanderers.
Responding to the criticism, Townsend said the league’s seven-person board – which features the chairs of Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers, Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar, and Melbourne City, as well as representatives from Football Australia and private equity firm Silver Lake – reached a unanimous decision for the long-term good of the game.
The men’s A-League is currently contested by 12 teams but only five chairs from clubs that are located on the East Coast of the country sit on the APL board.