It’s Australian soccer’s burning issue – how to take a claimed 1.7 million participants and turn them into paying, passionate fans. Socceroos crowds are down for the current World Cup campaign and A-League support has not kicked on exactly how the FFA would have hoped in the past few seasons.
Looking for answers, at the Sport is Fantastic conference in Sydney this week, are two football men with strong track records at building supporter bases, Lawrie McKinna of Central Coast Mariners (pictured) and Bart Wiley of the Seattle Sounders, of Major League Soccer in the United States.
The pair will sit on a panel – subject: “Converting the grassroots participation base into ticket-purchasing fans”- on Monday evening along with Damien Brown, the GM of game development at Cricket Australia and Andrew Fagan, CEO of the Brumbies Super Rugby outfit.
McKinna, a one time Mariners coach and now the GM of football, is renowned as a passionate worker for the game from grassroots to the highest level. Always accessible to media and fan forums, McKinna is the pin up of Australian soccer fan engagement, ready to roll up his sleeves to spruik the sport.
Wiley oversees the poster child of US pro sports as Director of Business Operations for the Seattle Sounders FC.
Wiley works closely with ticket sales, corporate partnerships, marketing, scheduling, community outreach, fan experience and game presentation, public relations and marketing of the team.
In addition he oversees game day operations and was named Major League Soccer Operations Director of the Year in 2009.
The club is part owned by comedian Drew Carey, a fan of English football who stumped up cash on the condition that the fans had a greater say than usual in the operations of the team. Fans get to decide on senior positions, naming, colours – virtually everything except team management and finances.
No one in any sport has fully embraced this idea in Australia, although the FFA did go further than before with its fan forums and votes on the name and colours for the new Western Sydney franchise, an announcement on which was also due Monday.
The Seattle franchise has won plaudits from outside soccer as well, NBA Commissioner David Stern describing the Sounders as “the most successful expansion team in the history of sports.”
Conference organiser Simon Arkwright says Wiley has “got his feet in grassroots”, having helped lead the franchise from a lower level league into the MLS. They now get crowds around 40,000 and outdraw the local Mariners MLB team.
“Bart’s perspective is of major interest for our audience,”says Arkwright. “Seattle Sounders is the poster child of professional sport in north America and people want to know how they get 15k more to games than other franchises.
“I’m sure Bart will say it’s not just one thing but a number of different elements, managing to understand them and get them all right.”
Arkwright said Carey’s emphasis on supporter-based decision making was significant.
“Sounders fans have genuine power,” Arkwright says.
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