SYDNEY – Organizers hope the homecoming of local hero Tim Cahill will fuel enthusiasm for Australian football's A-League which opens its 12th season on Friday.
Cahill has joined Melbourne City after playing overseas for the past 20 years — at Millwall, Everton, New York and for the past four years in China — while remaining one of Australian football's favorite sons.
He is the highest-profile player associated this season with a league which has lacked star power since Italy's Alessandro del Piero turned out for Sydney FC between 2012 and 2014.
While the television audience for the league has grown by almost 50 percent since 2011, it is not yet as popular as other domestic football competitions including the Australian rules Australian Football League and the National Rugby League.
The A-League has in its favor a broadcasting agreement which allows matches to be shown on subscription and free-to-air formats. But viewership last season slipped on the previous year, even though recent surveys show soccer has overtaken swimming as the most popular sporting activity among Australian children.
The television rights deals enjoyed by the AFL and the NRL are vastly bigger than the $40 million agreement which covers the A-League this season.
But Cahill's presence in the league this season, even at the age of 36, and the closeness and unpredictability of the 10-team competition may swell TV and live audience numbers and ultimately lead to a significantly bigger broadcasting rights deal. Melbourne City received financial support from Football Federation Australia to swing a deal with Cahill, and the FFA also sought to help other clubs attract marquee signings.
While the clubs haven't managed to attract foreign players of Del Piero's stature, they have managed to draw several Australian internationals back to the league, including Brett Holman at Brisbane, James Troisi with the Melbourne Victory and James Holland at Adelaide.
That seems an important turning point for the league as leading Australian players have often pursued their careers offshore.
Cahill said the return of players formerly based overseas to the A-League is a compliment to the caliber of the competition.
"To be finally home as international Australian players is good for us, good for our families and great for the game," he said. "You're talking about good quality players, national team players, who are not choosing something else. They're looking at the A-League and saying 'this is positive for my career.'"
The league kicks off with a match between Brisbane and the Melbourne Victory and the first round features a derby clash between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers.