Welcome to “Del Piero Day”, where Football Federation Australia takes the golden goose, piles his eggs into a basket, loads it onto the back of a rickety bandwagon and rolls it down your street inviting pot-shots and ridicule.
Or is it where FFA makes a daring decision to leverage the hype and expectation surrounding the best credentialed player to join the domestic league, in a bold bid to cut through to the vaguely interested yet non-passionate and get their bums onto stadium seats across the land.
FFA’s national ticket on-sale for all A-League clubs starts today and it chose to involve Sydney FC’s new Italian signing by naming the day in his honour. Marketing masterstroke or misjudgement? Take your pick.
With this move FFA has positioned Del Piero as the marquee of the whole A-League, not just Sydney FC, making him bigger than the contest, and upset fans of rival clubs who are reserving the right to view the former Juventus player with the customary disdain, even hatred, given to opposition players as the on-field narrative unfolds.
On the Brisbane Roar Facebook page they departed from the company line to call Friday “Back to Back Champions Day”. It’s a reminder that there was an A-League before Sydney FC CEO Tony Pignata and Tribal Sports Management’s Lou Sticca came home from Turin with Del Piero’s signature.
Reaction from some in the soccer media was that the marketing decision to focus on Del Piero across the country was “cringeworthy”.
While individual sports often use the power of a Tiger Woods or Roger Federer to hawk tickets to Australian tournaments, and it might be a great marketing ploy for Little Athletics to have a national “Sally Pearson Rego Day”, I can’t recall anything similar to this in Australian team sports, where rivalry is a necessary and respected part of the overall package.
Fans of Sydney’s rival clubs weren’t impressed either, taking to Twitter with varying levels of intensity (sample tweet from a Melbourne Victory supporter: “So today is dubbed ADP day, how bout we call today HOW BOUT YOU GO AN **** YOURSELF DAY YOU SCUMS.”)
On the other hand, Ned Negus, former GM marketing and commercial of Central Coast Mariners described the campaign as “simple, memorable and light-hearted”.
“I don’t find it cringeworthy at all,” he said. “I would be scared if FFA wasn’t jumping on the bandwagon.”
He added the FFA needed to “milk” opportunities with Del Piero “big time”… adding “images of him stretching at training isn’t going to keep the buzz going for too long”.
Del Piero’s signing has resulted in a blizzard of media superlatives and statistics, noted Sports Business Insider columnist Eric Winton, who added to those superlatives by placing the transfer in a list of 10 top game-changers in Australian sportsbiz, alongside events such as the 2000 Olympics.
But is it really that important?
“Could be,” says Winton.
“What is already clear is that the ‘calculations’ that this signing would give the club and the game a major lift are already proving true. I have no doubt this move will stimulate a couple more such high profile signings, be a major boost to sponsors who will undoubtedly be keen to ride this wave of new visibility and popularity and very much change the broadcast and new tech distribution negotiating parameters of Sydney FC and of football.”
Winton was speaking before Newcastle added former England striker Emile Heskey to the marquee list, rumours linking Western Sydney Wanderers to German Michael Ballack and reports that Sydney were on course to sell 30,000 Adidas shirts at $160 a pop.
Sydney will pay Del Piero $4 million over a two-year contract and Pignata says “break even” is the goal.
“We’ve already achieved the membership target we wanted… they have skyrocketed,” Pignata says.
“He’s captured the imagination of football fans, and a lot of fans who haven’t wanted to be part of the A-League for whatever reason, now they’ve got a major reason to come to games. We’re hoping this will blow all the ratings and attendances through the roof.”
There is no doubt that the FFA has been surprised by the levels of interest the Del Piero signing has generated here and overseas. The A-League chief Damien de Bohun admitted as much this week.
“It’s fair to say that this level of interest and excitement surrounding the league is something I’ve never seen before,” says de Bohun.
“To see football occupying the media space during the NRL and AFL finals, and creating a frenzy of sorts within the Australian population has been massive.
“It really gives us a platform to build on to really take this league to new heights.”
Walter Bugno was the inaugural chairman of Sydney FC and architect of the move to bring Dwight Yorke – the original and many believe still the best marquee player – to Australian football.
“Committing to a true marquee player is an expensive exercise … it is an investment, and as such one needs to drive for results and return on that investment,” says Bugno.
“In a single move, Scott Barlow, the Sydney FC Chairman, has created what arguably could well be as big a game-changer for the club and the A-League, as John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay was for the game at international level.
“With Del Piero, Sydney … have the opportunity of showing the whole game in Australia what you can do if you are prepared to take the risk of investing in the game, what you can do if you manage a great asset professionally, and what you can do if you develop a long-term strategic plan and stick to it.”
The signing of Del Piero is clearly a massive moment for the sport in Australia. But soccer, as with all sport, has a way of mocking your expectations and plans.
Harry Kewell was the man at the centre of all the attention a year ago but didn’t meet the hype. This year Harry is back in England, without a team.
And FFA never pushed out its one man worship with “H” to the extent they are with “Ale”.
Del Piero is 37 and regardless of his past glories, his body is ageing and ageing bodies break down.
Perhaps FFA has this in mind, making the most of him before he has done much more than a few gentle stretches. And who can blame them for trying?
Tony Harper is editor and co-founder of Sports Business Insider website, an online resource showcasing views, news and trends for the growing Australian sportsbiz industry, and soon to start a media services division. Look out for Tony’s regular contributions as a new blogger to SmartCompany on all matters sports business-related. Follow Tony on Twitter: @toneharper.