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Power of the people forces Cats backflip


Geelong's decision to slug non-members to watch training sessions backfires.

One of the great attractions of Australian football has always been its accessibility to the average fan. Young or old, male or female, diehard or casual supporter, our code has historically opened its arms to anyone with an interest.

But little by little over the modern era, it's become harder for the football supporter to enjoy the sort of close relationship to a team they once took for granted.

The gradual chipping away of that bond has been something footy fans have mostly suffered with grumbling resignation, if not acceptance. But there's a limit to what can be conceded even in a sport as passionately supported as is the AFL. And this week, Geelong inadvertently found it.

In a world full of public relations spin, football clubs, too, have become more adept in rationalising. So the Cats' decision to slug non-members money simply to watch a couple of January training sessions was initially painted as a bonus for members who might fork out upwards of $600 a year for admission to, and a seat at, 11 home games.

A spokesman said the open training sessions were "something special to the members", and that the club was, in fact, doing non-members a service by allowing them in for a token price. The charge for non-members, $5 for adults and $2 for children, was described by chief executive Brian Cook as "the price of an icy pole", perhaps public relations mistake No.1 given five bucks will buy you at least a handful of "Orange Frostys".

But you couldn't escape the image of greed given this was a $50 million business that had, on the same day, announced a net profit of $1.2 million at its annual meeting.

And perception is a powerful tool. One that allowed Geelong councillor Jock Irvine to slam the decision as "an absolute disgrace", which penalised needy fans in Geelong who simply couldn't afford memberships. Other City of Greater Geelong executives weighed in, as did state opposition sport spokesman John Eren.

And by Thursday, Geelong, to its credit, had swallowed its pride and backed down. "Our members are saying positive things and other people are saying not so positive things," Cook explained. "We understand that we don't want to marginalise our membership base in any way whatsoever so we are going to withdraw that impost for non-members."

The Cats, like most other AFL clubs these days, do plenty of laudable community work. Collingwood, for example, is again running an annual Christmas lunch for the homeless and disadvantaged at its old Victoria Park home. Richmond's Punt Road headquarters houses the Korin Gamadji Institute, which focuses on leadership development, education and training and career pathways for indigenous youth.

All those types of initiatives are great PR for clubs. But the episode this week with the Cats was another reminder that clubs can't take their rank-and-file followers for granted, either. Because those supporters have already lost plenty.

The advent of reserved seating changed attending an AFL game from something that could be decided on a whim to something that had to be planned in advance.

That and the constant hunt by clubs for more revenue increased the premium on becoming a member from a mere symbolic show of support to a necessity. Once it also gave you a pretty good chance of being there on grand final day if your team made it.

Full professionalism in the game meant that regular as clockwork Tuesday and Thursday late-afternoon training sessions open to all became a thing of the past. And the striving for a constant competitive advantage led to those ubiquitous "closed" training sessions and the turning away of spectators lest they include "spies" from rival clubs.

Essendon, with devastating consequences, took the search for a competitive advantage way past the acceptable with its supplements program. And as it now strives desperately to repair its public image, it's been noticeable the lengths to which the club is going to win back the faith, firstly, of its own fans.

Coach Mark Thompson has repeatedly spoken of fewer closed sessions under his watch. And this week, as the Bombers opened up their last pre-Christmas session to fans, the club offered a live telecast of proceedings on its website to those who couldn't make it.

The immediate feedback was so overwhelmingly positive that further such ventures are likely. And by other clubs, too, conscious of keeping their followers on-side.

Passionate support for teams and clubs has always been a major plank of the success of our game. But even the most committed relationships have to have some give as well as take. And the response to Geelong's ill-fated training levy this week might prove for all football fans an important tipping point in a greater balancing of that ledger.

9 comments so far

  • I'm stunned and amazed to hear that Geelong Cats contemplated charging non-members a fee to attend training. I was a member for many years before I went overseas to live 5 years ago. Now, on my return I will not take out another membership because I am now working part time as well as wanting to attend with my son who certainly can't afford a membership and it is more important for me to be able to go with him.
    However I certainly admire the decision to reverse that decision! Well done, once again, Geelong Cats. GO CATS!!!

    Cats Fan in Melbourne now.
    Date and time
    December 21, 2013, 12:13AM
    • Easy solution- exclude all non-members. Then let the whingeing start

      Sixshootin' Daddy
      Date and time
      December 21, 2013, 6:04AM
      • even non members are rate payers-you know the ones who subsidize the club(!?) but suckers like me just subsidize the arrogant fat cats (no pun intended)

        Date and time
        December 21, 2013, 4:05PM
    • And since most Victorian AFL clubs have their facilities on PUBLIC land that they pay nowhere near commercial rent for, this sort of thing just add to the insult of the ongoing community subsidies to these multi-million dollar businesses.

      Amazing how they are all ready to accept the public purse charity when it suits them but still treat their supporters are an unending source of - usually - undeserved income, innit?

      It's time for AFL clubs to pay their way as the businesses that they truly are these days.

      Date and time
      December 21, 2013, 10:20AM
      • Allowing non members to view training sessions for free may just make them want to join. What a stupid and greedy act by the Cats.

        Date and time
        December 21, 2013, 10:35AM
        • i really don`t believe that they took any notice of the fans reaction-they only responded once the prominent people voiced their outrage.
          GFC has stopped caring about the loyal fans and couldn`t care less what they thought-they have become arrogant and aloof. ignoring our petition to keep Chappy is an example.
          they have no sense of romance or understanding of a player-supporter fealty.

          Date and time
          December 21, 2013, 1:12PM
          • @mikan
            I too would have liked Chapman to stay, I hope he goes ok at essendon...just not against the cats. The decision to let him go seems to me to be part of the ongoing youth policy of the club, before I call it a bad move I'll wait and see how the youngsters go.
            Not a good move to try and charge non members but I understand the logic. The right decision was made in the end.

            Nth QLD
            Date and time
            December 21, 2013, 1:52PM
            • I'm glad they reversed the decision too. They probably didn't need the money. It was just a bad look - made them look petty and unimaginative not a caring community organisation. So well done GFC. Now look at doing what North have done and getting rid of poker machines!

              the human gourd
              Date and time
              December 21, 2013, 2:16PM
              • couldn`t agree more-especially about the poker machines.unfortunately though-one of the power brokers at GFC is the king of the misery merchants.

                Date and time
                December 21, 2013, 4:00PM

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