IN THE minute before the ball was bounced on Saturday, I realised our game had changed significantly. For the first time ever, I couldn't hear the eruption of crowd noise that precedes the first bounce. Instead, I heard a marketing trick - the final minute being counted down, second by second, by what sounded like clapping hands.
The VFL/AFL grand final has been generating its own unique form of excitement for more than 100 years. No one I know has ever said that going to a grand final is not sufficiently exciting for them, that they would like the AFL to pump it up with special effects to get them in the mood. (Like I never met a supporter - not even in the old days of black and white TV - who expressed a need or a desire to see the introduction of away jumpers.)
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If you ask people who have attended a grand final what most excited them about the event, they invariably say: ''The atmosphere.'' Integral to that atmosphere is the sound of the crowd. It's not a constant. It builds and settles and erupts and moves on. In past years, before the game, the two sets of supporters have echoed ghostly chants to one another that resonate through the stadium, then fade, then grow again.
In the minute or so preceding the first bounce, the noise accelerates and then, just before the first bounce, it drops away. The crowd collectively holds its breath. Well, that was lost this year. In a triumph of the artificially manufactured over the spontaneous and authentic, we got an effect that belonged in a computer game.
The AFL got off lightly after the Meat Loaf fiasco at last year's grand final. Not for the first time, people in senior positions within that organisation clearly thought it was OK to foist an over-the-hill American entertainer on a day that is a celebration of Australian culture. Not only was a preposterous sum of money paid to the singer, people were actually paid to come up with the idea of having him. That money could have gone to struggling football clubs around Australia.
Since hitting it big with record broadcast rights, the AFL has expanded in all sorts of odd ways like a corporation growing for the sake of growth. It has a ballooning media department. And it has a marketing department that clearly feels compelled to justify its existence by imposing ideas on our game lifted from American sport. In some American sports, every goal is met with a blast of recorded music. Is that where we're headed?
The first assumption of this sort of sports marketing is the neurotic belief that anything is preferable to silence. Silence is equated with boredom. At the grand final, we got the scores read to us in a cheery voice at each break together with banal little summaries of the game. How many people in a grand final crowd need to have the scores read to them? Or have the remarkable action they've just digested fed back to them in a bland way?
The assumption is that American sport is the future. It is a future. Those of us who value Australian football constantly assert the belief that it is a world-class game. If that is true, we don't need to mimic anyone. People point to the part played by marketing, particularly towards children, in getting Twenty20 cricket off the ground in this country. But that was a case of launching a radically new form of the game. Our football game, in its present form, has been woven into generations of lives for more than a century.
At three-quarter-time on Saturday, there was only one point in it. Three-quarter-time in a close grand final is a special moment with a tension all its own. Sure enough, the people ''producing'' the day stepped in, playing loud, pounding music. What if you don't like that music? What if you don't need it? What if it actually gets between you and the real thing that is otherwise called the grand final experience?
When I got home, I watched the replay. Dennis Cometti talked over the countdown in the minute before the first bounce. Those moments had more atmosphere on TV simply because he was alive to what was happening before him, not imagining it on a computer screen.