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A-League Crisis: The Fans Have The Power

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A-League fans are not just a voice on the terraces anymore. As they executed their boycott of matches last weekend, the general consensus was that it was a great show of fan power. The majority of people involved in the game thought it was a shame, but applauded the action.

However, approaching a landmark meeting between supporter groups and the Football Federation of Australia on Wednesday, one thing started to dawn -- it wasn't just a show, the fans actually did have power.

They had taken collective action, a work-stoppage almost, and forced a governing body to the negotiating table over the controversial banning process. By doing so, the fans became not just an important voice but a political force within football which had the power to affect the central body's bottom line.

Before Wednesday's meeting, there was a distinct possibility that fan groups could have continued their boycott. This prompted calls in some quarters that fans were now doing more harm than good to the game. Others pointed out that without the FFA's reticence to act, the fans wouldn't have needed to boycott.

It was like a classic trade union dispute, where the bosses say the workers are hurting the business and the workers say that they wouldn't need to strike if the bosses would be more reasonable.

The successful boycott of matches and the bringing of the FFA to the table opens a precedent in Australian football whereby it can be reasonably claimed that because the fans have boycotted before, there's no reason they couldn't do it again.

The fans will have been emboldened by the success of their action -- and this is one of the things underpinning the nervousness about the whole affair.

Sports fans in Australia have for the most part never been massively political. It is hard to imagine an organised fan boycott of AFL or NRL matches, for instance.

In other parts of the world, however, football fans have banded together to take political action against clubs, administrators, and broader societal issues. This is particularly prevalent in lower leagues where fans are literally stakeholders in their clubs.

Here, the A-League is set up on the same sort of franchise model being run by the other major domestic codes. It's a model where fans are stakeholders, but only in a corporate sense. Until they actually do something akin to what A-League active supporters did last weekend, they wield no real power except the ability to turn up or not turn up.

The action last weekend, however, was an organised political action to achieve a desired outcome. That opens up a whole new raft of possibilities and dynamics in domestic football. Those who were nervous about the possibility of the boycott continuing another week were primarily nervous about the damage to the game -- but were also nervous about the balance of power shifting.

For many reasons, professional sport which relies so heavily on commercial outcomes needs to be top-heavy. It needs consistency of product to take to potential sponsors or TV rights holders. To this end, the current model has worked out fantastically well and professional sport continues to be a lucrative business.

The question is whether the A-League boycotts throw a spanner into the works for this model. If the fans and the atmosphere they create are a huge part of the attraction for sponsors and TV rights holders, then fans have more leverage.

They have shown that they can use this leverage to get a desired political outcome by organising a mass protest which cut across club allegiances.

When there's a massive shift in power like we've seen in the past week, there's always going to be cause of concern. What if fans use their new-found voice for ill rather than good? What if they start 'striking' at the drop of a hat?

Will the sponsors and broadcasters so integral in modern sport start to get nervous that the game is in flux? Why would you want to make a multi-year investment in a sport when you have no reasonable idea what direction it's going in?

These are all legitimate questions to raise, but there's also a real positive here.

Football just became the one game in Australia where the fans can claim they are real stakeholders, and not just at the consumer level but as integral to the future of the game.

Others may claim the title of "the people's game", but football just became the living embodiment of it. Or, closer than any other sport to the title.

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