MELBOURNE, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Australia’s soccer bosses have ambitions of expanding the game’s footprint in one of the world’s most crowded sporting markets and will hope a raft of high-profile homecomings can boost the A-League’s appeal ahead of a new broadcast deal.
Soccer has become the nation’s most popular team sport in terms of participants but its share of broadcast revenues and gate receipts remains trifling next to the dominant football codes of top-flight Australian Rules and rugby league.
While international matches featuring the Socceroos often draw huge television audiences, crowds and ratings for A-League games have disappointed.
Both were down last season, undermining governing body Football Federation Australia’s (FFA) hopes of further expanding the 10-team competition.
The FFA’s current four-year broadcast deal with News Corp-owned Fox Sports, which has included Socceroos matches and is worth about A$40 million ($30.45 million) per annum, has propped up the league and ensured the survival of a number of cash-strapped clubs.
It is set to expire next year, so getting more fans to tune into the 2016-17 season starting on Friday could be paramount for the game’s growth.
The FFA previously spoke of doubling revenues in the next deal but pundits have cast doubt on the claim, given the national side’s final World Cup qualifiers for the 2018 tournament in Russia will be absent from the contract.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) awarded those rights to media group Lagardere.
So, much has been invested in the recruitment of marquee striker Tim Cahill, one of the few players to command a profile outside of Australia’s core of diehard soccer fans.
After resisting entreaties to head home for years, 36-year-old Cahill has signed for Melbourne City to become the league’s most valuable promotional tool since former Italy and Juventus great Alessandro del Piero played for Sydney FC from 2012-14.
“When you speak to the television networks he will often come up in the first few sentences,” FFA CEO David Gallop told the Australian Financial Review.
“It is great to have our number one target in Tim back in the A-League, and a number of current or fringe Socceroos back, too.”
The buildup to the start of the season has been dominated by the returning internationals, with World Cup midfielder Brett Holman joining three-times champions Brisbane Roar and former Middlesbrough captain Rhys Williams landing at Perth Glory.
Australia forward James Troisi returns to Melbourne Victory after two years overseas marred by ill-fated stints in the Middle East and China.
Although average crowds were down last year, one of the 11-year league’s finest achievements has been the pulling power of its newest franchise Western Sydney Wanderers.
The Wanderers, who have carved out a passionate support base in the harbour city’s working class west, made their third championship final last year since joining the competition in the 2012-13 season.
Their opener on Saturday against cross-town rivals Sydney FC on is tipped to draw a record crowd of 60,000 at the city’s Olympic stadium.
Another bumper crowd is expected a week later for Cahill’s debut in front of home fans in the derby against Melbourne Victory, which should give the competition vital early momentum.
The season is expected to be wide open but champions Adelaide City may struggle to match their run last year after the departure of a number of club stalwarts in the off-season.
They will also need to cope with the added demands of playing in the Asian Champions League tournament, having qualified for the continent’s premier club competition.
$1 = A$1.3137 Editing by John O'Brien