It was great to see Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United secure important wins in the ACL this week.
It’s also great for the competition that Chinese teams, like Jiangsu Suning are fulfilling their enormous potential.
Yet for all its promise on the field, there’s little doubt the ACL has not connected with the majority of fans in Asia.
There are pockets of strong crowds and some fantastic atmospheres, such as the one at Muangthong United’s victory over Ulsan Hyundai, but overall the product feels flat.
Certainly, compared to the European version, the ACL has failed to hit its mark.
It’s crucial not to put the blame on football fans in the region, the product should provide for its market, not the other way around.
Also, this should not be an indicator that a continental Asian football competition has no chance of success. If the product on and off the gives supporters what they want, it has every chance of success.
Part of the problem is that the AFC appeared to copy the UEFA Champions League and paste that format into the Asian region.
This doesn’t take into account the cultural and geographic differences of Asia. The continent is enormous and already in the preliminary stages is be split into East and West.
The geographic distances are psychological as well as physical with local fans less likely to engage with teams they know little about. This means there’s a smaller chance of creating rivalries, a vital component for a competition to succeed.
Academic work demonstrates that rivalries are not just geographic, but can eventuate for a number reasons, including successive or major one-off encounters. In the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders yet sit on opposite sides of the United States.
ACL scheduling also appears a major problem, particularly with the great distances teams need to travel during the week, sandwiched in between their domestic competitions.
Midweek matches work in Europe because the distances aren’t as great, while also being a tradition going back to the competition’s formation.
If UEFA was considering how to an implement a Champions League from scratch today, it’s doubtful the matches would be scheduled midweek.
Fans also want to see marquee players. China’s massive football investment could be used strategically to fulfil this aspect.
Chinese football expert Simon Chadwick told The World Game he could see China being happy to work closely with the region’s other big nations Australia, South Korea and Japan in a competitive collaboration.
Having a more focused and concentrated league, centred around these four nations might be the key to the ACL better engaging with fans.
One possibility would be scheduling two Chinese, Korean and Japanese teams to play in Australia over two weekends where they face two A-League sides.
The same could take place in the other countries and so on. It could be split into two groups with two teams from each of these nations and possibly other nations such as Thailand.
It gives time for the local fans to become more familiar with teams in the region as the media are likely to report on the visiting teams during the week, particularly if they have big stars like Oscar or Carlos Tevez.
Playing matches on weekends will also help fan engagement.
It means the whole format of the competition will have to be rethought with many other factors to consider outside of what’s already been mentioned.
The reality is the ACL cannot continue in its current format if it is to truly give the football fans of Asia what they want.