Crowds abound for Rivalry Round

The Hyundai A-League's first dedicated Rivalry Round in week 3 sees, potentially, the largest aggregate crowd for a weekend of national league matches in Australian football history.

The Hyundai A-League's first dedicated 'rivalry round' in week 3 sees, potentially, the largest aggregate crowd for a weekend of national league matches in Australian football history.

Leading into this weekend's five fascinating fixtures, the highest aggregate audience to watch a full round of National Soccer League or Hyundai A-League matches was 84,685, in the four matches of round 20 of the 2007/08 Hyundai A-League season.

That weekend's bumper round included crowds of almost 32,000 (Brisbane v Sydney), 25,500 (Melbourne Victory v Wellington) and a club record 19,238 for Central Coast (v Newcastle).

Although there will always be room for improvement, there is no doubt that the birth of the Hyundai A-League in 2005 raised the interest of domestic football to a level only dreamed about in National Soccer League (NSL) days.

In more than 750 rounds of NSL matches from 1977 to 2003/04, where up to 12 matches were played per round, the highest aggregate attendance for a round was 58,800 over eight matches in round 2, 2000/01, which included 14,000-plus home crowds for Newcastle United and Perth Glory.

It was a different story at Melbourne's Bob Jane Stadium that weekend however, where a mere 1400 watched Archie Thompson score for Carlton in its 2-2 draw with Wollongong Wolves. (Now, I know its difficult to forecast crowds, but I'm predicting that more than 1400 will be watching Archie Thompson in this weekend's Melbourne derby!)

But let's go back to those 12-match NSL rounds. Yes, that's right, at one stage the old national league had a whopping 24 teams up against each other each weekend.

This was from 1984 to 1986, when the league was split into two conferences, based loosely on a north-south breakdown of teams.

It was a bold move by the authorities, expanding from a single tier competition of 16 teams in 1983 - the theory for the struggling league at the time being that more local derbies (the north division consisted mostly of Sydney teams, the south division was mostly Melbourne teams) would stimulate increased interest in the terraces.

After registering an average 4,200 crowd per game in its first three seasons 1977-1979, the NSL-s average attendance had dropped to 2,700 in the 1983 season.

However the two-conference format didn't really work - in its first year (1984) the regular season average dropped to 2,300, then down to an all-time low of 2,200 per game in 1985.

It's amazing looking back at media match reports from the 1985 NSL season and seeing crowds such as 125 for a Green Gully home game, 150 watching four-time NSL Champions Sydney City at inner-Sydney Wentworth Park, and 202 at Penrith Park to see Penrith City take on Canberra City.

After taking out players- wives and girlfriends (and a few mums and dads) there mustn-t have been too many others in attendance!

After reverting back to a single conference system in 1987, then to "summer soccer" in 1989/90, the trend in national league average crowds was upwards.

But nothing comes close to the increase between the last NSL season (2003/04) and first edition of the A-league (2005/06), when the season average skyrocketed from 4,050 to 11,600 per game. By 2007/08 the A-league average crowd was just over 15,000, before easing to an average of just below 9,000 per game in a challenging 2010/11 season.

Early indications for 2011/12 Hyundai A-League crowds, however, look much more promising than last season, and with rivalry round this weekend the only way is up.