AFL is set to return to the MCG on Saturday afternoons in season 2015. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Saturday afternoon football at the MCG, the once-traditional punctuation mark of winters in Melbourne, will creep back into the AFL calendar next season.
League bosses formulating the 2015 calendar in a bid to attract better crowds in Melbourne are working to restore more Saturday matches at the game's traditional home as the MCG pledges to roll out its multi-million-dollar technology overhaul.
In a 2014 season beset by messy extended byes, the early unavailability of the MCG and irregular Thursday and Sunday night games, the MCG sat empty over more than two-thirds of the available Saturday afternoons. In 2013, only six Saturday afternoon games were fixtured there.
Not only will the stadium host more Saturday afternoon games but it will also host more blockbusters, expected to generally kick off at 1.45pm, in line with the AFL's broadcasting contracts. But next year the AFL has pledged to put its fans ahead of the broadcasters despite starting negotiations for a new media deal within the next six months.
This season, of the AFL's 25 available Saturday afternoons, eight were played at the MCG with just one at the traditional 2.10pm start – a Hawthorn-Collingwood game which attracted more than 74,000 fans. Big Saturday afternoon games have been phased out over the years due to television demands despite consistently attracting big crowds.
As AFL clubs put the finishing touches to their requests for 2015, which are due in next week, a Carlton-Richmond season-opener at the MCG is virtually locked in for Thursday, April 2, with a Good Friday fixture remaining uncertain. One bye is expected to be structured over three weeks of six games each.
The back-to-the-future attempt to bring quality Saturday afternoon games back to the MCG will come as good news for Melbourne's radio networks, whose extensive weekend AFL coverage has been hurt by the large number of relatively unappealing games scheduled in the once-key timeslots.
MCG boss Stephen Gough told Fairfax Media this week that his stadium had been heartened by league chief Gillon McLachlan's undertaking to revamp next year's fixture in favour of live crowds. That stadium's long-term deal with the AFL demands 10 of the best 12 home-and-away games each season and a contracted minimum annual attendance of 1.7 million, not including finals. Last year a total of 2.7 million fans attended AFL games at the MCG with 2.34 million of those during home-and-away rounds.
Geelong also will push for more more day games at its home ground. Club chief Brian Cook said the Cats' attendances had been hurt by the league's move to schedule six night games at Simonds this year and that the club would struggle to make a profit in 2014. Geelong is lobbying the AFL for an eighth home game at Kardinia Park.
The AFL is also understood to have stopped short of any radical overhaul of the Tasmanian schedule with Hawthorn's contract to host four games in Launceston until the end of 2016 and North to extend its agreement in Hobart for a two-to-three-game two-year deal. This is despite McLachlan's stated preference for a one-team model playing games in both Tasmanian cities.
Etihad Stadium remains the AFL's preferred night venue in Melbourne, with that ground still guaranteed an extra 10 remaining games over the next decade as part of its most recent agreement with the league. Etihad, which lost its chance to host a final last season when the AFL moved the Geelong-Fremantle clash to Geelong, remains hopeful of a week-one final fixture in September this season, particularly if home club North Melbourne wins the right to host a final.