AFL Fans Association kicked goals despite itself

As published by The Footy Almanac, 18 November 2014

Back in August 2013 I posed the question to Sunday Age Sport readers as to why, given the groundswell of fan disenchantment with the AFL, there was no organisation to represent the interests of football’s greatest and arguably most important collective.

Whilst an AFL Fans Association had been conceived as Facebook and Twitter accounts, it was yet to be truly born.  And now strangely, almost 12 months since the AFLFA was formerly established last December, and despite having won the game going by the AFL’s new fan-friendly initiatives, the Association is in a critical condition.

President Brian Clarke has quit and the webpage and Twitter account stripped of content a month before the first election had been scheduled.  Unfortunately the AFLFA is now in need of the magic spray, not even invited by the AFL to their upcoming fan experience summit.

Ironically, the League’s off season action on variable pricing, fixturing, curtain raisers and kick-to-kick may have killed the AFLFA with kindness. Who has the fire in the belly to hold the League to account now, should their fan-love be setting supporters up for a sucker punch down the line – as some cynics have suggested?

As with the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, which rode the zeitgeist this Spring Racing Carnival, the AFLFA did not need to be a huge lobby group to be hugely successful at being heard.  Even now, at a modest 5000 Facebook followers, the page is well shy of the 20k end of year target. Nevermind, once mainstream media caught wind that fans were mobilising and there was a semi-organised mouthpiece, it was all systems go.

Having been invited to a few early meetings on the back of my aforementioned rant, I eventually joined the Association’s board which was struggling for numbers, dollars and a sense of where to begin.  Like a duck sitting calmly on the surface the AFLFA was paddling like an Olympian to stay afloat.  There was no time to think, or properly strategise.  It just had to do.  Although the group knew variable pricing would cause a shit storm once the season began, the tsunami arrived early and there was no option but to surf the wave of discontent.

To that end freelance journalist cum media officer Cheryl Critchley was the AFLFA’s gold medallist, pumping out concise press releases at all hours, at a moment’s notice.  Despite reservations, Vice President Joffa Corfe had the requisite profile and handled himself well, cognisant of the need to build rather than ruin relations with the AFL.  And President Brian Clarke was an erudite, credible media performer (despite a run-in with ‘yesterday’s man’ Andrew Demetriou, who alleged Clarke ‘caused havoc everywhere he’s gone’).

Whilst I’m quite the armchair expert myself, some of the criticism and expectations of the AFLFA were perplexing.  Essentially the Association was half a dozen volunteers with full-time jobs and busy lives taking on the biggest professional sporting league in the nation, one resourced to the nines financially and staff-wise, not to mention with its own media company equally adept at playing attack or defence.  All we had going for us was Mabo and the vibe.

In fact we weren’t so much playing David versus Goliath as we were David’s kid sister. There was no point threatening shirtfronts – or fan boycotts – but nor could the Association afford to play patter cake either.

Whilst the AFLFA prioritised key issues – and steered clear of others such as the Essendon saga – in order to build a critical mass it was obliged to engage on some level with its cohort on whatever sank their boat.  The Association was very effective at getting its message across on the big ticket items in a constructive rather than combative manner.  Obtaining a sit-down with AFL CEO elect Gillon McLachlan and commercial operations manager Darren Birch was in itself an unexpected outcome and a victory for fan power.  Headquarters had recognised the Association’s partially realised potential.

Unfortunately, after the Association’s somewhat successful ACCC complaint was lodged against variable pricing, momentum stalled.  Cheryl Critchley and Joffa quit in the aftermath of a blow-up between Clarke and another short-lived board member Mark Davis (brother of Fairfax journalist Michael Davis).  By this stage the AFLFA was hamstrung by internal politics, a lack of regular meetings and planning whilst being bogged in the minutiae of organising petitions, caps and stickers.

Personally, all this meant the AFLFA was no longer a pleasant distraction from my own soul destroying workplace of the time. When the president and secretary’s nearby catch-up with new potential board members organically morphed into an official Association meeting (to which I was not invited), it was an opportune time to walk away.  That my repeated resignations weren’t acknowledged was instructive.

Still, bringing fans of different allegiances and personalities together was never going to be easy.  This week, following Clarke’s resignation, Joffa was quoted as saying ‘some of us were in it for the wrong reasons, and some of us were in it for the right reasons’.  Clarke’s vision of a professional, income generating AFLFA that would sustain paid staff was not unreasonable.  However, a unilateral approach did not bode well for the Association’s ongoing viability.

Hopefully the AFLFA will soldier on to ‘keep the bastards honest’.  Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd and it’s the colour and atmosphere the fans bring to the game that is its lifeblood.   Always has been, always will be.

AFL Fans Association

A sad site…

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