These here are crazy times

As published by The Footy Almanac, 27 June 2012

In an era where games often follow scripts more predictable than Two and a Half Men, and finals aspirations tend to expire well before the home straight, the last thing football needs is another reason for supporters to stay at home.

Yet those most heavily invested in their team’s fortunes couldn’t help but feel they (the League) ‘just aren’t that into us anymore’.

Home and away crowds have indeed been declining since 2008 when the high water average of 37,000 was reached.  This season attendances have slipped 7.8% on last year.   And in 2011 crowds fell 5.8% on 2010, despite AFL club memberships at the same time rising 5.9%.  Since 2008 numbers have dropped almost 5000 per match.

The Giants and Suns are easily proffered rationalizations.  However the ‘big four’ in Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton and Richmond, have harnessed their enormous armies like never before and Hawthorn and Geelong have become power clubs in their own right.  Record club membership figures might be inflated by minimalist categories, but the significant year to year growth can’t be denied.

Also consider football’s ubiquitous presence on MSM, Twitter, blogs, additional FTA channels, Dreamteam comps, Fox Footy and of course AFL Media.  And although no games fall between the cracks now, Seven’s middling coverage and Foxtel’s pricey alternative should have more members than ever inclined to make use of their pre-paid privileges.

But they’re not and I’d venture a prime reason is that Chief Operations Manager Gillon McLachlan has made a meal of the fixture.

Only three clubs have enjoyed decent gains on last year and another three are roughly on par.  Two thirds of the competition have suffered moderate to sizeable reductions in their average crowds.

I can appreciate the round peg/square hole vagaries of the current competition in terms of fixturing fairness.  And I accept the commercial and logistical permutations across nine games per weekend which requires a state of the art software program to navigate.  It’s much harder to correlate how the AFL was pressured to schedule all but nine afternoon games this year at either the tail end of lunchtime or the neither here nor there front end of dinner.

Because of an unapologetic subservience to TV ratings, the AFL is now at cross purposes with its clubs.  This desire to court the unconverted and theatre goers whilst playing hard to get with its core audience will potentially lead to mass break-ups.  There’s a growing number already headed for divorce it seems, or at least a trial separation from the game they love.

People like continuity and they resent being unnecessarily dicked around.  Perhaps the only winners in all this are stadium catering companies.

Until recently, family unfriendly times usually entailed semi-blockbuster games guaranteed to deliver acceptable numbers.  Even if a grudging 38,000 (St Kilda v Carlton this season on a Monday night) rather than a contented 46K+ put the passion for their club ahead of the hassle.   But when a standalone Queens Birthday clash starts at 3.30pm, requiring the 64K patrons give over both their afternoon and evening for their trouble, is there any chance of an explanation for us lemmings as to why?

I guess McLachlan did warn us three years ago the League was committed to this curious path.  Pity there was bugger all consideration or consultation with the spectators on whose passion and patronage the game is built.

As for the clubs, Etihad tenants bent over and inserted with dud stadium deals might have at least hoped for greater support to minimise the cheque regularly written to that charming football man of the people, Ian Collins.  The Bulldogs could have done without playing Port Adelaide on a Sunday at 4.40pm.  Only 16K attended a game promoted as a tribute to their greatest legend bar EJ Whitten.  You’d expect a few more of their 30K members to pay their respects.

Earlier in the year when the Dogs met North (33K members) as the away team, just 20K showed up between them.  Well, would a reasonable governing body expect any more at lunchtime (1.10pm) on Mothers’ Day?

In this context the AFL’s special assistance contributions would appear as pointless as slinging a homeless drunk $10 to buy his daily goon bag.

It’s not just the strugglers whose crowds are taking a hit.  Only a fraction of the 70K Magpie devotees could be arsed with the recent Sunday twilight game against Gary Ablett, for a fair slice of the 36K at the match would have entered as general public, MCC or AFL members.

As for the three bye affected rounds just concluded, I can only speculate a virus must have infected Gillon, his computer, or both.  I really do wonder if there is a scintilla of empathy for the logistical hurdles facing common fans with jobs, families or physical or geographical impediments.

Perhaps the AFL aren’t as interested in crowds as they once were, but I reckon there has got to be rumblings greater than the Melbourne earthquake at Headquarters.  The League can spout all the ratings figures it wants, but bums on seats, or lack thereof, is the tangible measure of a sport’s health that garners widespread coverage.  Empty stands are a poor reflection, and soon enough perception becomes reality.

A harsher critic might say the AFL’s approach to the fixture is testimony to sheer arrogance.  Because it may shock League powerbrokers to learn there are basic happenings in people’s lives occurring at reasonably predictable times that often take precedence over football.  This effortless gem from an AFL spokesperson defending the West Coast v Carlton Thursday night game was instructive;

“It’s another prime-time broadcast opportunity for us, and coming off a bye it’s possible to do it, Carlton and West Coast are big-drawing clubs and you’ve got multiple states involved, which is good. From our point of view, a six-day break is acceptable, so it fits together.”

Like the concept of fairness, football goers have dropped off the League’s radar. The heir apparent’s blasé attitude was in evidence back in 2009 when after a terrible Melbourne crowd at an MCG twilight game, McLachlan offered this faux apology;

“I put my hand up and say when we fixture Melbourne at the MCG on a Sunday night and it’s terrible weather I accept that in the end it was poorly fixtured.  We try to avoid scheduling games at the MCG at night during winter. It was poor fixturing on our behalf, but the slot’s great.  It works very well and it has done for over two years now.”

Welcome to the twilight zone folks.

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