Western United CEO Chris Pehlivanis says the second-year A-League club is focused on the long-game after his club set an unwanted record for the lowest attendance in A-League history.
The official crowd of 990 people that watched United down the Jets’ 2-0 on Monday evening represented the sparsest, non-behind closed doors crowd in A-League history - 13 less than the previous low-water mark between North Queensland Fury and Brisbane Roar in 2010-11.
United themselves don’t fit the on-field profile of a club that would attract such a small crowd: their win on Monday evening moving them into the league’s top-six as they seek to back-up a semifinal appearance from a year ago.
Nonetheless, crowds - with some notable exceptions such as Central Coast Mariners’ clash with Sydney FC on Saturday - have been consistently down across the entire A-League in 2020-21.
Numerous factors such as COVID-19 related restrictions, a chaotic media landscape, governance civil wars, the structure of the league and its relation to the broader Australian football ecosystem, and a failure to properly extol the competition’s virtues, amongst others, have all been blamed by various stakeholders for the downturn.
Playing 'home' games in Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, and Tasmania has also blunted United's efforts to establish a consistently attending fanbase.
Speaking to The World Game, Pehlivanis said the circumstances surrounding the staging of Monday night’s fixture had made attracting a crowd very difficult.
“We had nine days to promote this game,” the CEO told The World Game. “We were forced into playing on a Monday because of the rescheduled Brisbane game.
“Brisbane was flooded out and couldn’t reschedule and as a result, we had to move their game and [the Jets’ fixture] had to be brought forward.
“It was played the day after two of the biggest games in the Melbourne sporting calendar - Melbourne Storm’s ANZAC Day Clash and the Essendon and Collingwood one - it was played on a Monday night when kids were training and the week of [community] football is back.
“We also clashed with schedules of homework, schooling, parenting and the timeslot wasn’t ideal either, at seven o’clock at night, considering kids have got school the next day and [they wouldn’t] be home until ten o’clock. Parents chose not to come.”
The executive said that the club would continue to work with the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) - who recently took control of the competition from Football Australia - and adopt a long-term approach to building a fan base.
“We’re going to continue to work with community clubs,” Pehlivanis said.
“Our last game [in Melbourne] against Melbourne City was very well attended and the crowd was predominantly ours.
“If you were at that game you would have seen fireworks, you would have seen everything we did and it was a great experience. We’re not worried about the fan experience.
“For us, we’re in here for the long game, not the short game.
“We’re really focusing on getting the product on the field right and really focused on getting all the plans off the field right and then the fans will come.
“Generally, crowds are down and something we’ve got to work on as a league.
“But once we secure the new broadcast rights going forward, once we give the consumers clarity then I think the whole league needs to get that main emphasis to growing. We’ve all got to work together as clubs more to grow crowds.”
United’s plans for the future include the construction of a brand new, privately funded stadium in Melbourne’s West - the promise of which was a key part of their successful push to join the A-League during its last round of expansion in 2018 .
Both the club and Football Australia, which under the title of Football Federation Australia was responsible for the awarding of licenses in 2018, have faced significant scrutiny over the timeline of the construction of the venue ever since that decision.
United earlier this year touted the securement of “a key planning amendment” from Victorian State Planning Minister Richard Wynne that would allow “detailed design of the stadium and development to be finalised and construction timelines to be determined”.
When probed on its current status, Pehlivanis reiterated to The World Game that the project remained on track to break ground in July or August of this year, with an 18th month build time then enabling the club to move in 2023.
“We’re finalising the design and we’re going to tender for a project manager,” he said. “The best deal could vary for us. If you’re running a competitive tender process why wouldn’t you go to market on a $150m deal? For us, a 5-10% variant could be a significant difference.”
He also said that planning was already underway to provide clarity over Green and Black home arrangements in 2021-22.
“We’re working with APL co to find a suitable venue,” he said. “We don’t want to be jumping around venues.
“We know we’ll definitely play two games in Ballarat, two games in Tasmania and we want nine games in one venue. We need to find what that one venue is.
“Clearly a suitable option would be AAMI.
“We’d have to look at [Knights Stadium] again but we have to work with APL Co to know what works are needed to make it A-League suitable.”