As the first Destination NSW Grand Final approaches, A-Leagues face trust deficit with core fan base

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Grand Finals are supposed to represent the culmination of a journey, the realisation of a season's worth of blood, sweat and tears with either the ecstasy of a championship or the heartbreak of defeat at the last hurdle. All or nothing. Sunday's A-League Women decider between Western United and Sydney FC, in some regards, will be no different.

For United, it's a chance to secure a storybook ending to a remarkable debut season in the competition, damning the doubters one more time as they secure the ultimate endorsement of a vision years in the making. Sydney too, is searching for validation, looking to turn their continued regular-season dominance and ability to reach the final day of the campaign into additions to their trophy cabinet: this is their sixth-straight Grand Final, with only one title to show from their previous five.

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But as much as Sunday represents the terminus of United and Sydney's 2022-23 seasons, it is the beginning of a three-year experience of the A-Leagues' women's and men's deciders being held in Sydney. With all the complications that entails.

United, nominally, are the hosts. They defeated Sydney in a qualifying final a fortnight ago and, in previous seasons, this format of finals would have seen them tapped to stage the decider. Perhaps it's austere that the Sky Blues' premiership advantage could be lost in such circumstances, but it is a process with history; Australian Professional Leagues (APL) chief executive Danny Townsend himself ran afoul of this very scenario in 1999 when his Sydney United topped the NSL table only to lose home ground advantage for the decider when they lost to South Melbourne in a major semifinal.

Now, though, a "neutral" site means that despite their status as the home team, United are surrendering the competitive advantage that comes with a home ground to the Harboursiders.

It's all not so much an elephant in the room as it is an entire herd. The decision to sell hosting rights to Destination NSW has been the defining storyline of this current season and now the moment where hypotheticals go out the window is at hand. This Sunday, the footballing public finally gets a chance to see some fruit of the sale's labour, and league administrators the APL get their first opportunity to demonstrate that their vision is worth dropping the nearly 50-year practice of sporting merit serving as a host location's arbiter.

In truth, it's unlikely that anything that occurs this weekend alone will do that. Advertised attractions don't suggest that it will redefine what it means to stage a footballing showpiece in Australia and even with large ticket subsidies throughout NSW, hopes of a record-breaking crowd of up to 10,000 were dealt a blow when United, with its nascent fan base as an expansion side, emerged as one of the two qualifiers.

Unrealized supporters drawn from United's men's side or the west of Melbourne are unlikely to splurge on travel to Sydney for a Grand Final being played at 4 p.m. on a Sunday in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis (albeit, it's likely the APL were forced into a damned if they do, damned if they don't situation of playing the game Sunday afternoon or not have it broadcast on free-to-air television at all).

Perhaps the most realistic scenario is that this weekend serves as a foundation to build on in the years ahead. A proof of concept. Indeed, speaking at the launch of the finals series in early April, Townsend said that next year -- when Australia will (hopefully) be basking in the glow of a successful FIFA Women's World Cup; the expansion of ALW and move to a full home-and-away season; and a rejigging of the calendar to bring the women's showcase closer to the men's and a high-profile all-star game -- will provide much greater insight into why his organisation genuinely believes this path is in the best long-term interest of the local game.

But the preeminent challenge facing this objective -- more pressing than any questions of logistics, marketing or finding a touring side of sufficient star power for an All-Stars match -- is that of trust. Specifically, regaining it. Five months on from the initial revelation of the sale, there remains a deficit of confidence between the league and its most engaged and vocal supporters, one that has grown as ALW finals commence and the ALM playoffs near.

Even if the APL can turn its Grand Finals into something approaching a footballing version of Lionel Hutz's world without lawyers, it will mean relatively little if a sense of anger and/or apathy that has crept into the hearts of its ostensible die-hards festers throughout the other 358 days of the year.

In effect, the only way that the APL can move some way toward soothing emotions is by demonstrating in the coming years that its vision is worth it. Not through words that at this point would probably be discarded, but through action. Assuming alignment between the men's and women's leagues, getting the Grand Final week itself right is probably the easy part of this. All-Stars opponents such as Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich would likely sell enough tickets, lure enough visitors, and attract enough eyeballs to go a long way towards justifying Destination NSW's investment and as a result, provide greater scope for tailoring a grand final experience for existing fans through expanded outreach and subsidy efforts.

And while it's unlikely to be fully exhibited this year, the celebrations and events in 2024 and 2025 will probably prove to be very memorable spectacles.

More difficult is following the successful delivery of a week of celebrations with concrete demonstrations that it's all benefitting the competition year-round, as well as communicating and consulting on what that linkage and progress look like. The efforts need to be tangible and obvious as increasingly apparent in observing the evolving discourse is how, in a few short months, the core base of the A-Leagues, the hardcore fan that has taken on a disproportionately greater voice as other, less engaged supporters drift away, have lost any desire to provide any semblance of the benefit of the doubt or leeway. In a recent communication announcing a boycott of the men's finals, for example, Sydney FC active supporter group The Cove cited a lack of a promised supporter committee amongst their reasoning.

APL figures have assured ESPN that such a body is coming before the end of the season, as per an agreement previously reached with active supporter groups, but it's illustrative of continued breakdowns in trust and communication. Feeling disrespected, supporters are giving that back tenfold. Almost anything and everything that ails the game, be it their actual responsibility or not, invariably creates further discontent towards the APL and its various projects. Blogs, articles, posts and comments from commentators and influencers that previously would have been the first to defend it now launch attacks.

Though his tenure would have quickly ended if he wasn't executing the will of his board, Townsend has become a continuous target of ire, and some, invariably anonymous, online posters too-often cross into unacceptable abuse, threats and violent rhetoric. As a side effect, it also means that positive steps to grow the game such as the expansion of the ALW and ALM and a move to a full home-and-away season in both are minimised, brushed over, or assigned ulterior motives. In the current environment of disillusionment, there's little appetite for recognising anything that the APL is doing as positive -- making turning this all around even harder.

Of course, it also bears noting that the Grand Final decision isn't the root cause of Australian football's ills so much as it is a symptom of broader struggles with finances and relevance. There are many issues afflicting the game in this country and while some are the purview of the APL, a great number are not; squabbles over a Grand Final or a lack of pause and rewind on A-Leagues streams aren't as much of a priority if you can't afford junior fees or your daughter doesn't have a suitable change room at her local football club. This whole affair probably (and rightly) feels very indulgent to these types.

The Grand Final has simply added another flashpoint. As custodians of the league, who fought a bitter fight to earn that title, it will be up to the APL to chart a path forward and to earn the trust and support of fans back -- no league, or any form of entertainment, is entitled to the gift of someone's patronage, passion, or money. While clubs as a collective make up the organisation, many fans have separated their teams from the APL in their minds, as evidenced by in-form clubs such as Adelaide United and the Central Coast Mariners boosting their attendance in the ALM. Love for clubs remains. That's a foundation to build on and treasure.