Next year has been dubbed the AFL’s ''year of the fan'', and it appears that mantra will be observed even in spite of the best interests of players.
The league has reiterated that its 2015 fixture and contentious Etihad Stadium roof policy will prioritise the preferences of supporters - resulting in a later start to the season, which will allow just one bye mid-season, and the sun being allowed to shine on the playing surface at Etihad Stadium.
Speaking after a two-day meeting in Melbourne attended by the 18 club chief executives, AFL boss Gillon McLachlan said the 2015 season would begin on Thursday, April 2, with a return to the traditional season-opener between Richmond and Carlton at the MCG.
Part of the emphasis on supporter needs has been the shelving of a second rest during the season, an initiative that players successfully lobbied for in the 2014 season.
McLachlan hoped the players would accept the need for just one bye.
''Hopefully they’ll understand that with the cricket World Cup ... we want to start with all our venues available and that means we’ll be starting at Easter, and by definition that means we’ll be finishing later and hopefully they understand why there’ll only be one bye next year,'' he said.
The AFL Players' Association issued a statement on Thursday in which it accepted that circumstances prevented a second bye in 2015, but that the union hoped it would return the following season.
“The Players’ Association has held discussions with the AFL on the fixture for the 2015 season. We are conscious of the practical difficulties facing next year’s fixture given the Cricket World Cup, which has forced a later start to the season and the removal of the second bye," said AFLPA player relations manager Brett Murphy.
"The key concern from the players’ perspective is to ensure the return of the second bye in 2016.”
Round one will be punctuated by an Easter Monday clash between Geelong and Hawthorn at the MCG, but despite being approved by the AFL Commission, football will not be played on Good Friday.
''If you make that bold decision to go there [play on Good Friday] given the opposition from a significant portion of our football community, then you want to get it right, and our view is that 2015, starting the season at Easter, is not an appropriate time to start,'' McLachlan said.
The Etihad Stadium roof debate was reignited last weekend when the roof was open beneath blue skies for the match between Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions. Some players struggled to pick up the ball in the sunny conditions, while Channel Seven says its broadcast quality is affected because the action alternates between sun and shade.
''We will do whatever the fans want with the roof,'' McLachlan said. "At the start of the year, we surveyed our fans on this specific issue; I think it was early 60 per cent that said they would like the roof open when it was a nice day, so that is what we have been doing.
''It is not because we’ve got some perverse passion for opening the roof or anything else. It is because that was the considered feedback. If the fans were re-surveyed and the majority of fans want it closed, then we’ll close it.''
McLachlan maintained that players’ opinions were still given weight, but remained steadfast in his support of the open roof.
''Of course the players should have a say. They’re a key stakeholder. Their opinion carries a lot of weight,'' he said. "When it’s a specific bright day, and a player loses sight of the ball, then I’m sure he would like the roof closed in that instance.''
Murphy later responded, confirming that players had confirmed it could be difficult to see in sunny conditions when the roof was open. He indicated the AFLPA would be glad to survey its players if the AFL believed it would be worthwhile.
McLachlan said that the meeting with club chiefs had generally been positive, with clubs comfortable on the issues of equalisation and the football department salary cap, to be implemented next year.
He outlined that two or three clubs were likely to be forced to pay the luxury tax for exceeding the cap. But McLachlan clarified that one of the clubs likely to need to pay - Hawthorn - would only have to contribute $100,000 to the distribution pool, contrary to reports suggesting the Hawks would be slugged substantially more.
It was also confirmed that the match review panel had been scrutinised by football operations manager Mark Evans, who will likely put forward recommendations to the commission.
''I think things can always be improved,'' McLachlan said. "With cameras everywhere and scrutiny on every game, then quite rightly it’s picking up more incidents ... But I also don’t think anyone likes seeing a player miss game for minor offences.''
McLachlan declined to comment on last Sunday’s incident in which Brisbane Lions enforcer Daniel Merrett broke the nose of Demon Cameron Pedersen after arriving late to spoil the ball.
Lions coach Justin Leppitsch conceded on Thursday he had been expecting Merrett to be cited by the match review panel, and was surprised when the utility was not charged.