Loyalty at breaking point

As published by The Sunday Age, 4 August 2013


The AFL is losing touch with its heart and soul and should be facing an uprising in the outer.

Amid the most contentious season in living memory, the recent new high-water mark for a single-round attendance represented an ice-cold frothie in the desert for the AFL’s PR machine. But what does this really mean for the fans in weighing their experience of the game?

Whilst club membership and TV ratings are spruiked as barometers of the competition’s health, it’s ultimately bums on seats that reflects how strong the heartbeat. Though still impressive by world standards, average crowds – at their lowest since 1996 –  have dropped 17 per cent   since 2008. As spin doctors fret over  the recent supplements  tumult, other festering sores do more to have regular bums leaving their seats to question their emotional and monetary investment in football.

Despite all the mulah and mod cons, surely the real question is whether the greater majority any happier with the product than 15-20 years ago? Back when the quaint traditions and pre game rituals, such as meeting at the Cricketers’ at midday and actually sitting with your mates at the ground, was a reassuring constant in our hectic lives.

Pandering to theatre goers and corporates and comparing yourself to American sports has a price. Sadly, the egalitarian nature of attending the  footy  died with the once maligned Waverley Park and its bawdy suburban cousins. Sure, general admission remains remarkably inexpensive, but for those who cannot afford premium seating or wish to book weeks in advance, the choice between the couch comforts of home or vertigo perched in the God section, is made even easier by family unfriendly scheduling.

To add anchovies to the exorbitantly priced pizza, Essendon members at a recent Docklands twilight clash were confronted with colossal queues due to an inexplicably pre-ticketed match against Port – where the ticket booth  announcer even thought it useful to admonish those lined up in slow moving lines for not arriving early enough.

Meanwhile, finals ticket prices based on Zimbabwe’s CPI, and morally bankrupt Grand Final ticket allocations, are a perennial affront. But the administrators have us by the short and curlies. They know love and loyalty to club is a mighty hard habit to break.

It’s been said growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell. Of course the newbies are travelling just dandy according to absent Andy, notwithstanding larger gatherings attend semi-pro netball. In a bid to circumvent a speculative market as incurably barren as Pipeworks, and another chronically overcrowded bazaar, the bloated competition has become a stage-managed affair running on a two speed economy. Soccer fans simply would not stand for a gerrymandered fixture, never mind a great divide between the top echelon and the rest.

So in these tumultuous times, who is actually protecting the interests of Jo Average, more inclined to trust a fart in Delhi than the quasi political party running the sport? On the rare occasion the League has sought feedback (via an online survey earlier this year), respondents were posed such pertinent head-scratchers as whether the ball and the field being oval-shaped was important to them. No, I prefer my football the current pear shape, where rules and interpretations are as erratic as absent Jeff’s explanations.

Way back in 1974 an underappreciated VFL playing base mobilised to form the AFL Players’ Association. Their obvious trump card was there being no show without quality punch. Similarly, there is no game without the eyeballs which have directly and indirectly financed the whole shebang for 117 years. Might an ‘AFL Supporters Association’ demand Commission recognition, with the cache the AFLPA has enjoyed under Matt Finnis? Or would ‘fan power’ merely be blowing hot air into the ether?

In the UK, the Football Supporters Federation comprises 220,000 soccer fans serviced by seven staff. The amalgamated body was formed in 2003 as ‘‘one united, strong voice for professional football’s most important people’’, according to policy manager Steven Powell.

FSF campaigns include ‘No to Game 39’, which helped put the kybosh on the EPL’s plans for a 39th game played on foreign fields and, says Powell, ‘‘a slowing down of the massive increase in ticket prices’’. Another lobby, ‘Away Fans Matter’, railed against rising travel costs, TV influenced fixturing, inhospitable seating arrangements and police interference with kickoff times. The FSF has a representative on the Football Association council and works alongside other campaigns advocating for disabled supporters, racism and other diversity issues.

With roughly 750,000 AFL club members as a base captive audience, one could extrapolate even a 10 per cent  take-up, at say a $5 per annum subscription, would generate a robust fighting fund to promote and lobby in similar fashion to the FSF.

Australians are an apathetic lot though. Rather than unified, direct action, talkback radio and social media provide convenient (yet futile) venting mechanisms. Easier still to just switch on the plasma and accept ‘the people’s game’ has gone the way of $2 VB’s on ‘one eyed hill’ at Vic Park.

Is it too late to reign in the AFL juggernaut? Well, if there are any charismatic public figures out there in football world with boardroom clout, able to strategise and inspire a critical mass, I can think of at least one disgruntled comrade keen to be their wingman.

* Note: In December 2013 the AFL Fans Association became incorporated.  Presided over by Brian Clarke, the association aims to give fans a voice and to ‘reclaim the game’.  Membership is free – go to http://aflfans.org/.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rhonda Pocknee says:

    I totally agree and have discussed this with my husband a number of times. I am an AFL member = Demons supporter. We need an AFL supporters association, to maintain rights of ALL clubs supporters in the face of the AFL doing whatever they like re ticketing / reserved only seating. I have been to games at Etihad where AFL have reserved only seating policy – only 20K there!! Also to encourage / establish a “respect full supporters code” – good skills should be applauded which ever side has them.


    1. jeffdowsing says:

      Thanks Rhonda. Yes, the ticketing issue is one that could be far better managed. In that respect it’s not just the AFL to blame, Etihad, the clubs and the ticket agencies are all out to maximise revenue. Another annoyance is games where thousands of reserved seat holders don’t bother turning up, leaving a stack of empty seats whilst regular supporters are forced to swing from the rafters. A few weeks back I couldn’t get into a ‘sold out’ game where 70,000 attended the MCG – and they didn’t even allow standing room. In the NFL most clubs enable members to sell back their seats to free them up for others. I believe Essendon also do this.

      One of the challenges a fan association would need to overcome, and it seems to have been a tricky one for the UK version, is looking after a range of fans from different clubs, all with their own specific issues. The other would be agreement on the scope – trying to do too much and spreading too thinly might achieve very little.

      Hope your Dees pick up for you Rhonda. One of my gripes about the new AFL run franchises is their entry has made it even tougher for long time struggling clubs. If I barracked for the likes of Melbourne, Bulldogs etc, I don’t know how I would cop GWS & Suns being handed success on a platter.


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