'The fixture next year will be drawn up squarely through the lens of attendances': Gillon McLachlan. Photo: Getty Images
The AFL has established a blueprint to win back Victorian fans, admitting that the MCG and Etihad Stadium no longer set the benchmark as match-day venues and that the game's heartland has suffered due to a highly experimental 2014 fixture and a messy ticketing system.
Less than two months into his term as the game's new boss, Gillon McLachlan has conceded the AFL has made it too difficult for fans to get to games, has not worked in true partnership with the MCG and Etihad Stadium and the recently relaunched stadiums in Adelaide and the Gold Coast were leading the way in providing for football supporters. McLachlan has called on all 10 Victorian clubs and Melbourne's two AFL venues to help develop a united push to lift Melbourne attendances.
Victorian crowds have fallen by almost 4000 a game on last season to a game average of 37,250, while attendances have risen marginally across Australia.
"The fixture next year will be drawn up squarely through the lens of attendances," McLachlan said.
Proposals for 2015 and beyond include:
■An annual 24-hour hotline offering fans the chance to buy tickets at bargain prices to every home and away game.
■The abolition of the two-bye season, all Sunday night games and most Sunday MCG twilight fixtures and a return to traditional time slots that could see a Good Friday game taken off the agenda until 2016.
■A revamping of the MCG scoreboard to reflect the passion of the home teams, in the belief that venue's internal broadcast has become pedestrian and outdated.
■The establishment of a central ticketing body based on operations such as Webjet.
■A push for Melbourne clubs to widen their focus beyond simply attracting big membership numbers, instead transforming those members into match-day fans.
■A more flexible approach to use of the retractable roof at Etihad Stadium, including opening it at short notice in good conditions.
■An already established working party of Melbourne clubs and stadiums to help create a match-day experience at MCG and Etihad games comparable with the recently rebuilt Adelaide Oval and the Gold Coast's Metricon.
■The promotion and advertising of games at the MCG and Etihad in a manner similar to interstate fixtures.
McLachlan stressed the campaign to increase Melbourne attendances was not a knee-jerk response to the falling crowds, insisting the fan-friendly strategy had been part of a longer-term agenda.
Some 15 months ago – while still Andrew Demetriou's deputy – McLachlan is understood to have delivered a paper to the commission detailing a strategy to improve the AFL experience for customers.
''We have an amazing game, we have amazing stadiums and we have amazing supporters,'' said McLachlan.
''How can we take down the barriers which seem to be complicating the match experience to improve that and bring all of the above together in a more simple way?''We're working very closely with the venues and the clubs to look at every aspect of the match day more broadly. That includes getting our fixture right and taking the barriers away from getting to the games, which involves a new approach to ticketing.''
However, several Melbourne clubs remained sceptical about the roles they could play in lifting attendances, claiming they were constrained by the MCG's control over the ground and its scoreboard. Two clubs told Fairfax Media they had already stretched their resources in the promotion and marketing of home games.
The AFL has identified four key factors for the fall in Victorian attendances this season. In short, it blames its own fixture, complex ticketing, poor performances by Richmond, Carlton and St Kilda and fan fatigue over the Essendon drug scandal and its messy fallout.
The 24-hour sale proposal has been pencilled in for late March, on the eve of next season, and would sell tickets online to every game – potentially even providing a small package for Anzac Day – at a cost of $15 for adults and $2 for children. McLachlan has also worked to improve the league's prickly relationship with Etihad Stadium boss Paul Sergeant. The pair met for two hours earlier this month.
There has also has been significant tension between the AFL Commission and the MCG over the stadium's control of that venue and its scoreboard.
''The fact is we've had relationships not partnerships with our two Melbourne stadiums,'' said McLachlan. ''We need to evolve that.''
Some Melbourne clubs believe the Adelaide Oval has shown up the MCG and Etihad this season, with the Crows' and Port Adelaide's home games complemented by light and laser shows radiating the home team's colours across the ground, live music and, in Port's case, a fan march to each home game accompanied by themed music. Switches in momentum during games and home team goals are reflected on the highly parochial scoreboards.
Having taken responsibility for an experimental fixture that has hurt a number of big clubs – notably Collingwood and Carlton – the league also accepts it erred in its approach to ticketing this season, pointing to an already complex and multi-layered system further hampered by the fact Etihad and the MCG sell their tickets through rival agencies.
''The fixture next year will be drawn up squarely through the lens of attendances,'' said McLachlan, who has admitted the AFL tested new time slots for its broadcast partners. But he rejected the suggestion the AFL had prioritised expansion into the Sydney and southern Queensland markets at the expense of its heartland.
McLachlan also scoffed at claims the most recent broadcast agreement and its focus on full live coverage of all games had hurt attendances, pointing to last Saturday's record Hawthorn-Sydney crowd of more than 72,000 that attracted a massive TV audience.
Next season's fixture will include the return to just one bye, probably staged over three consecutive weeks each boasting six games, and more consistent time slots that will take Sunday twilight games away from the MCG and stage them more often in Perth, Adelaide and at Etihad Stadium.
The Magpies' Melbourne crowds have fallen well below their high standards – down almost 6000 fans a game to an average 55,445. Last Sunday's twilight clash against Adelaide saw the Magpies attract about 42,000 after the AFL had conservatively predicted a 48,000 attendance.