22 August 2013

Go West

I've been on hiatus, but there's a rumbling out West that's awoken me from my slumber.

There's been quite a bit of talk recently of Ipswich, and surrounds (known as the Western Corridor) getting an A-League license. Don't be fooled, this isn't West Brisbane. This is a completely different entity altogether.

Being born and bred in the area, I know all too well the inferiority complex that us Ipswich folk have been put under by those fancy big city Brisbanites.

There is a fair chance that this rivalry dates back at least as far as the mid 1800's, considering Brisbane stole the mantle of capital of Queensland away from Ipswich in 1859, but that's a story for another time.

It's this rivalry that could see quite a heated derby in the South East Queensland region, rivaling the likes of the derbies in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Speaking of Sydney, it's interesting that the recent Western Sydney Wanderers team talked up it's credentials as being the first football team in Australia, also being from Australia's "traditional" football heartland. Interesting because, in much of their promotion, they talked up being the first team to play in Australia, in 1880. Problem is, a game played in Goodna featuring Brisbane Football Club v Woogaroo Asylum happened in 1875, five years earlier than the Wanderers. According to football historian Ian Syson, there are records of earlier games being played in other parts of Australia, but it is a point that could certainly serve as the basis for another rivalry for a proposed Ipswich Team.  Ian is currently working on a story on his blog about the prospect of an A-League team in Ipswich too.  I implore you to head over to Neos Osmos and check it out.

So what is it about Ipswich that makes it a potential target for an A-League license? Well, as alluded to previously, there is a rich football tradition in the region, dating back to the late 1800's. Things really kicked off in the 1890's when Ipswich teams were admitted into the Queensland British Football Association (QBFA). This saw a dominance of Brisbane Football competitions by Ipswich teams through to around 1960.

Much of the interest in football and strength of players can be attributed to the British miners who were working in the various colliery's around the area during the mining boom of the late 1800's. It is this interest in football that, interestingly, seemed to keep other types of football from becoming popular in Ipswich in this era. Take a minute to think about that. It wasn't until 1909 that the first recorded game of RL took place in Ipswich.

Ipswich would field a team from 1910 in the Queensland Amateur Rugby Football League competition, but were not in the competition for long. In fact, there was a gap of around 70 years before Ipswich would see a team again in the top state competition, with the Ipswich Jets joining the Brisbane Rugby League in 1986.

During this time, there would be many Ipswich football teams in the top flight Brisbane competitions. Teams such as Dinmore Bushrats, Blackstone Rovers, Bundamba Rangers, St Helens & Coalstars all made appearances, with these names being amongst the most successful teams in the competitions. In fact, Dinmore, with 10 premierships are only bested by Queensland Lions who have 11.

With such a strong history of teams to draw from, it did strike me as odd that the NPL team decided to go for the team name of Western Pride. It is understandable that they wanted to create an entirely new entity that the whole area could get behind, and that they wanted to be inclusive of teams from the whole area, hence the use if Western instead of just Ipswich, but it would certainly be interesting to see how an A-League team under the name of, say, Ipswich Rovers, or to take a different path, Ipswich United (a name used by Ebbw Vale's St Helens for a period of time) would go down.

As much as it would be great to see something like Coalstars, with it's name being a reference to those British miners who helped forge the roots of Ipswich Football, it may not be the right fit for the area. For a start, Coalstars would seem odd in anything but a light blue kit. Any team from this region would be predominantly green, white & yellow, so that may be a step too far. Also, some, such as supporters of Western Spirit and Ipswich City Bulls, may see it as being linked too heavily to Ipswich Knights, the team born from the merger of Coalstars and St Helens.

No-one disputes the fact that the community in this region takes great pride in themselves and where they are from, but as a sporting team name, it's as horrible as both Fury and Roar, some of the most ridiculous names for sporting teams ever, let's be honest.

Quite a few people have remarked that Ipswich is nothing but a Rugby League stronghold and "those rednecks will never understand or care for soccer." (I kid you not, I've read many comments like this in the last few days.) Perhaps some of these people need to brush up on their history.

That said, Rugby League is the biggest game in town currently. It's also a game that is toying with expansion to Ipswich. It was announced in 2012 that NRL would be looking to expand at the end of the 2014 season.

The bid's website (which is still under construction) states that the bid is Bringing Our Game Home. Talk on expansion has become quite silent in the later half of this year though, and there are some supporters of the bid who are concerned about the area's ability to support a team, given the apparent small turnouts that the QRL team, Ipswich Jets, are experiencing.

If there are concerns that the community wouldn't back "their team playing their game" in the national competition then what hope is there for an A-League team? Could an A-League team in Ipswich work? Potentially. Is a second team in SEQ sustainable in the A-League? If done correctly, perhaps, but as we've seen with the failed Gold Coast United (GCU), and the North Queensland Fury (NQF) experiments, it's definitely got the potential to also be a major disaster.

In the interests of both expansion bids, and the community as a whole, the best outcome is a combined effort, working towards building support, building the stadium, and showing the respective national competitions that the area not only deserves to be included, but also that they can't afford to be without teams from the area.

It is the Western Pride's duty as the area's ambassador in the NPL to make the necessary inroads to show the A-League that they mean business, but is all this talk a little premature? The NPL is only one season in, and already teams are getting ahead of themselves.

It would be fantastic to see a national sporting team from my hometown of Ipswich but not at the expense of seeing a well supported Brisbane Roar, which is struggling to consistently get home crowds of 15K (last season's average was 13K). The best thing to come from the NPL will be, in say 5-10 years time, when teams have shown they can be fully sustainable, getting regular crowds of at least 5k or more, with good finances, a stadium that can hold no less than 15K (or access to one) and a professionally run set up, that only then should they be considered to be earmarked for "promotion" into the A-League.

I base this thought process on recent additions to North America's Major League Soccer (MLS). Take Portland, for example. The Portland Timbers were a team that originated in the old North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1975. There have been various incarnations of the team since, leading up to their debut in Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2011. It was 2001 when the third incarnation of the Portland Timbers debuted in the A-League. (Coincidentally, Seattle, Vancouver & Montreal's A-League teams have also been "promoted" to the MLS.)

In their first few seasons they were averaging 5K fans, which grew to almost 10K by 2009. It was in 2009 that the MLS announced that both Portland & Vancouver would be joining the MLS in 2011 as expansion teams. As for results on the pitch, they were fairly consistent, usually finishing the league in the top 4, only twice in their 10 seasons did they finish lower than tenth. They were also regular playoff participants, again, only missing out in 3 seasons.

Now, for these teams, and any other prospective expansion teams, the MLS have a set of criteria that must be met, which are;

(1) Owners that are committed to MLS and have the financial wherewithal to invest in a team.

(2) A stadium or approved plans for a stadium (preferably a soccer-specific stadium) that allows the team to control revenue streams such as parking and concessions.

(3) The size of the market of the metropolitan area.

(4) An established local fan base.

I have attempted contact with the A-League to clarify if there is such a list of criteria but as yet have not receive a clear response. A similar list of requirements should be paramount to any future expansion prospects here in Australia, and as much as they may not be about to make their list public knowledge, you would have to think they would be along the same lines as those proposed by the MLS.

Putting the Ipswich (Western Corridor) bid to these tests, would it stack up?

(1) AFAIK This criteria isn't something that would currently be met RE funding required to run an A-League team. As for being committed to the A-League, I'd say that part isn't going to be a problem. If you look at the approach taken by the Western Pride's set up in the NPL, they are taking it very seriously, and one can only imagine that this would be amplified if ever there was a chance of being accepted as an A-League team.

(2) A stadium would need to be built. Current plans being thrown around, which appear to have some backing from the Mayor & Federal member, including building a stadium at North Ipswich Reserve in the region of 15 - 20K. Without this, however, there is no other suitable option in Ipswich/Western Corridor that would meet A-League standards.

(3) This one's a tricky one. The biggest concern isn't necessarily the population of the area, as this region is certainly experiencing a boom which is estimated to see a population of 360K by 2031, but what impact it will have on crowds for the nearby Brisbane Roar. This alone needs to be taken into account, as we have seen the detrimental effect that GCU had on the Brisbane market. It's one that needs to be done right, and it's almost for this reason alone that I would say the bid won't get off the ground, not until Brisbane can comfortably draw 15-20K crowds consistently. Creating a derby would be the only thing going for putting this bid up against Brisbane, but not if it dilutes Brisbane's sustainability. The flip side to this though is that the creation of a new A-League Derby in SEQ could generate the kind of interest needed to grow football exponentially in the area, which can only be a positive outcome for all parties.

(4) Being that this would be the first (and only) team from the area competing in a professional, national competition, I think there could be potential for this. Is it there right now? No. The current average crowd for their games this first NPL season is in the region of 400, so there's clearly a long way to go before they get anywhere near 5K. Is 5K a realistic quota? In Queensland's NPL, perhaps not. The only team I can think of in the NPL consistently reaching over 1K is Northern Fury, a team that was born from the demise of A-League expansion team NQF.

Along with Northern Fury, the other NPL team harbouring A-League ambitions is Sunshine Coast Fire. There is, an has been for some time, quite a strong footballing community in the Sunshine Coast. If crowd figures were to be rounded down to a more manageable 2/3K, you would still think it will be Fury ahead of the pack, at least at this early stage.

Using these MLS points as a guide, Ipswich/Western Corridor's bid still has a way to go. If the Ipswich Jets are successful with their NRL bid, this may very well strengthen the case for an A-League team, especially if it means the stadium at North Ipswich Reserve is constructed.

It is still more important at this stage for the A-League's current teams to consistently be getting good, sustainable crowds before any further talk of expansion, but it could be possible that we'll see some form of expansion within the next 10 years.

Whether that includes a team from Ipswich, or Queensland for that matter, remains to be seen. If an Ipswich team does emerge from the pack, I certainly have a tough decision to make.


  1. I am guessing that Brisbane Football Club v Woogaroo Asylum was a wild affair.

  2. Good write up Troy. Whilst I think it could be an expansion possibility, I don't think that day is anywhere near close. The very fact that there is no stadium is a real setback. And you're right re Roar crowds.

    I'm personally hoping Northern Fury are frontrunners to be returned to the league in a few years.