Part 9 – Whatever it takes
“Right now everyone’s angry and they’re angry for 100 different reasons.”
Collingwood President Eddie McGuire, August 2015
Since Jock McHale was a boy players played because they enjoyed it and watchers watched because they loved it. Footy was a diversion, an emotional outlet, a way of feeling connected to a tribe and like-minded people. For some it even gave their life purpose.
Its popularity, like so many sports, gave rise to an undeniable monetary value.
For a long time most fans were oblivious to the value, or its direct correlation with their level of investment. All they wanted was a weekly football match at a reasonable price and convenience. Even though the League’s quest for new audiences and new money meant football lurched further towards the entertainment industry, pared back to basics, it was still football. Given the value for money, a degree of corporate intrusion and compromise was reasonably seen as inevitable.
“Now tell me that AFL doesn’t manipulate the game to its own end. They treat the game as a theatre production not a fierce competition.”
Grant Thomas on one of his pet AFL peeves
At some stage in the 21st Century the AFL ceased to administer a football competition. It became a facilitator of content arranged to fulfil a lucrative television contract.
By 2011, the weight of numbers following the game meant the content possessed massive value; $1.25 billion over 5 years for TV and $23.2 million for radio broadcast rights. It was the deal of the century and the ten AFL executives pocketed bonuses averaging almost $700,000 each. In 2013 CEO Andrew Demetriou received an extra $2 million on top of his $1.8 million salary.
The AFL won plaudits for their professionalism. Geelong president Colin Carter, gave credit to “the amazing decision they made 25 years ago to have an independent commission, which got all of the big conflicts of interest out of the management of the game. The impact of that has been profound, because it enables them to pursue a whole bunch of strategies which would not have been possible.”
So, no more conflicts of interest, with the AFL starting its own media company and entering their own team in a competition it administers… And besides Collingwood winning a flag, football was in a great place, yeah?
For sure an independent commission saw the game survive and thrive but, as David ch-ch-changes Bowie posed in his 2013 comeback single, ‘where are we now?’
So this went on, and on, and on…
As we know, since 2011 the game has been an ongoing exercise in crisis management. In a perverse way the media giants are getting more than they had bargained for, despite a strong argument to say the game is at its lowest ebb since WW2 (at least back then the League had Hitler to blame).
Record (Collingwood boosted) crowds over 2010-11 actually served to exacerbate what has been a mighty fall from grace.
“The league got too clever by half with its scheduling and ticketing, presuming the supporters would, once again, obediently fall into line.”
Rohan Connolly, The Age, 2015
Year on year crowds dropped 5%, then 10%, and have been in a holding pattern since. Gains in Adelaide and Perth offset a sorry state in Melbourne where half the clubs reside. The catalogue of woe over the past five years (not all of the AFL’s making) has drawn unprecedented negative coverage to the point where the actual footy has become a sidelight. Consider;
- Essendon supplement saga
- St Kilda schoolgirl sex controversy
- Ben Cousins’ public drug battle
- Illicit drug culture and three strikes policy
- Melbourne tanking investigation
- Adam Goodes racism imbroglio
- Stephen Milne rape charge
- Game blighted by congestion
- Variable pricing and fixturing backlash
- Finals price hikes, Grand Final packages and club member ticket access
- Significant gambling problems (yet betting agencies heavily promoted)
- Clubs relying on pokies revenue to survive
- Widening gap between clubs, ongoing bail-outs
- Suns and Giants draft concessions, disinterested market, huge financial drain
- Match Review Panel inconsistency
- Chris Judd’s Visy deal
- Seeded/inequitable draw
- Substitute rule
- Soccer fast overtaking the hearts and minds of our youth
Mind you, whilst football as far back as the 1920’s adopted a business model to varying degrees of capability and success, external pressures of competition, globalisation, technology, media, population and societal changes have had a massive impact. Such has been the unprecedented tumult and unrest, it’s little wonder sentiment was so low as to spawn a dedicated fans association. The traction the AFLFA and general disenchantment gained in the media was such that the AFL was compelled to institute 2015 as the ‘Year of the Fan’.
Are you match day experienced? Pete Lazer introduces ‘Captain Carlton’ and his much maligned hovercraft.
Consequently efforts have been made to somehow recapture the past through initiatives such as occasional curtain-raisers, kick-to-kick on the ground, free kids entry and cheaper food. So far attendances in Melbourne have been stagnant and crowd atmosphere noticeably dour. The habit has been broken and for many a weekly ritual has become a sometimes treat.
“I see a playing group that’s quite jaded and that’s a concern to me. I just don’t think the majority are enjoying playing the game.”
Paul Marsh, AFL Players Association CEO
Whilst players have long understood their significance to the football economy, it took a long time before club and League administrators were prepared to do the same. And when they did, players continued to play because they enjoyed it. After all, they took up Aussie Rules with stars in their eyes, not the vision of a five bedroom mansion in South Yarra. By 2011 the average player wage more than tripled the Australian average. Given the game’s demands and the revenue their efforts generate, most would say ‘fair enough’.
“AFL has turned blind eye to illicit drugs (recreational as they like to call it) because they know it’s rife and adversely affects the brand.”
Strident AFL critic Grant Thomas
But with big money comes big obligations. Footballers being physically and mentally pushed to the brink in order to execute demanding game plans are now buckling to the pressure of what has become an onerous occupation. High profile footballers Joel Selwood and Jobe Watson reiterated a player survey which found a majority of players no longer regarded football as fun.
Not that players are afforded much sympathy as they succumb to temptations which spare time and money affords. Sadly, as players off-field exploits become bigger news than on-field action, hero worship for youngsters has become a concept fraught with disappointment and confusion.
“Call me a weirdo, but I think we have to protect the look of the game.”
The late Phillip Walsh (as Adelaide coach), 2015
To the game itself, fears of brain and spinal injury have changed the way football is played. More stoppages than ever before and the lowest scoring since the late 1960s has the AFL worried enough to be considering what else must be done, as Gillon McLachlan says, ‘to enshrine the beauty of our game’. Proposed on-field zones being trialled in the TAC Cup would be a fundamental change, though not as drastic as Grant Thomas’ suggestion to do away with coaches (who are copping most of the blame).
The coaches themselves might actually agree with Thomas; a recent AFL-wide survey overwhelmingly found the job can be highly detrimental to their mental and physical health. Coaches reported paranoia, sleeplessness, nausea, and, in an extreme case, a sense of not wanting to be seen in public due to a sense of work-related burden.
Hmmm. Cameras on the goal line would help. Oh well…
A competition beset by scandal after scandal, powered by ravenous old and new media streams, fans as guinea pigs to satisfy commercial interests feasting on the overcooked goose, on-field characters, emotion and freedom of expression suppressed… How did it get to this? Is anyone besides Hawthorn supporters still having fun?
With the AFL continuing to involve itself in a broad range of community initiatives and social engineering beyond running a football competition, perhaps its time the League stuck to its knitting. Bigger isn’t necessarily better and people are already overloaded by politics and current affairs. As this series of reflection has found, the League is at it best when it doesn’t take itself so, so seriously and when there’s freedom from overbearing interference – be it from the AFL, clubs or shrill ground announcements.
With a bit of luck the great hulking AFL ship can slowly be righted and in a few years a more positive spin can be written of the current era. The more conciliatory, less arrogant approach of the man now in charge is a step in the right direction.
The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)
Part 2: A war of attrition (1939-1948)
Part 3: Safe, at home and away (1949-1959)
Part 4: A popular routine (1960-1966)
Part 5: Rocking the suburbs (1967-1976)
Part 6: Castles made of sand (1977-1986)
Part 7: Growing pains and gains (1987-1999)
Part 8: Lost in transmission (2000-2010)