By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Still headlined by marquee names like Alessandro Del Piero and fired by a breakthrough 2012-13 season, the ninth year of A-League gets underway this weekend with the target of making further inroads into the affections of Australian sports fans.
Buoyed by a 40 percent increase in attendances and 100 percent rise in TV viewers in the last campaign, Football Federation Australia (FFA) chief David Gallop boldly proclaimed this week that soccer would become the "largest and most popular sport" in the country.
That goal might be a long way off yet but the decision of former Italy and Juventus great Del Piero as well as English striker Emile Heskey and Japan's Shinji Ono to return for a second taste of Australasian football are grounds for some optimism.
A new TV deal which includes free-to-air broadcasts of matches for the first time as well as an agreement with state broadcaster ABC for radio commentary on all 127 matches has bolstered Gallops' view that the A-League has hit the mainstream.
The schedulers left nothing to chance in their bid for maximum impact on opening weekend with Del Piero's Sydney FC getting the season underway against Newcastle Jets on Friday night, even if an injury to Jets standout Heskey has taken some gloss off the fixture.
That is followed on Saturday by a rematch of last season's championship final between champions Central Coast Mariners and Ono's Western Sydney Wanderers, who provided the compelling narrative of the last campaign by reaching the title decider in their first season.
Following that is the Melbourne derby with former Liverpool forward Harry Kewell returning home to captain Melbourne Heart against his former club Melbourne Victory in a fixture that attracted 42,000 to the Docklands Stadium last year.
The 35-year-old Kewell's return was in part inspired by his desire to get back into national team reckoning in time for next year's World Cup finals - the lure of which will provide another subplot to the season for Australian, and potentially New Zealander, players.
The trio of marquee imports last year certainly helped build the profile of the last season but the passionate support attracted by debutants Wanderers was perhaps a better sign for the future health of the league.
Del Piero's much heralded arrival papered over more than a few cracks in the image of a league which had previously made headlines for teams going out of business and players going unpaid.
Those financial problems have not gone away for at least half the 10 clubs, as Gallop admitted in an upbeat blog posting this week.
"I'm delighted to report that five of the 10 clubs are forecasting profits, breakeven results or manageable deficits for the year ahead," he said.
Gallop faces a monumental task in getting soccer, once dismissed as a game for immigrants, ahead of the National Rugby League (NRL) he used to run and the Australian Football League (AFL) in the popularity stakes.
In an indication of the ground to be made up, the FFA sealed a four-year deal for the broadcast of national team, A-League and Asian Cup matches last year worth A$160 million ($151.08 million).
Against that, the AFL has just completed the second season of a five-year A$1.25 billion television deal, while the NRL agreed a A$1.025 billion contract, again over five years, with broadcasters in August 2012.
"Continued success won't follow as a matter of course," Gallop warned in his blog. "In the ultra-competitive Australian sports market, we can't rest for a moment.
"Football has the potential to be the biggest and most popular sport in Australia. That's our mission, but for this weekend I hope you, like me, can just get excited about the new season." ($1 = 1.0590 Australian dollars) (Editing by Patrick Johnston)
- Sports & Recreation
- Alessandro Del Piero
- David Gallop
- Football Federation Australia