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Sunday night footy: even the AFL stayed at home

There were plenty of vacant seats at the MCG on Sunday as the Pies played the Blues.

There were plenty of vacant seats at the MCG on Sunday as the Pies played the Blues. Photo: Getty Images

Jacques Merkus was pilloried when the outsider assumed control of a new Colonial Stadium and condescendingly warned football fans they had to learn to do things differently. Behave like theatregoers the football mob was told.

The public bridled at his arrogance and lack of understanding. Since then the AFL and stadia have continued to do as Merkus suggested and tell people what they could have, not ask what they would like.

On Monday the AFL saw the error of one of its ways: Sunday night football is dead.

“Sunday night matches have drawn strong viewer numbers on both the Fox Footy Channel and the Seven Network but crowd numbers have been strongly impacted, particularly in the games played in this timeslot in Melbourne in rounds one, three, 12 and last night,’’  CEO Gillon McLachlan said in a statement on Monday.

Sunday night’s Collingwood-Carlton made-for-TV match was the final indignity, not the reason for the abandonment of a bad idea.

Even the AFL stayed at home and watched the footy on TV. No AFL commissioner or executive member went to an official function at the game. They don’t go to every game, but the big games such as Carlton-Collingwood normally draw a crowd both in the stands and at the official functions, and the AFL attends. Perhaps they knew something  in advance.

‘‘We will always look at new initiatives – just as we have done in the past with Friday night and Saturday twilight football – but match-day attendance is a core ingredient of the success of our game and, in this instance, we acknowledge the very strong feedback from our fans and our clubs in relation to Sunday night football, particularly in Victoria,’’ McLachlan said.

This was a mea culpa but not an apology. It was a climb down from the arrogance that has bedevilled the AFL administration in recent years, but only a partial one.

It was figured there was no need to apologise for trying something and failing and in a philosophical sense they were right. But they were also – in a practical sense – wrong. They were wrong with the Sunday night schedule and they were wrong not to apologise for their blithe indifference to the fan.

The AFL had sampled football in new time slots in the smug assumption they were the Kevin Costners of football and people would come. And if they didn’t, well the bigger concern was TV money.

The AFL got what they were looking for but, in a far greater sense, got the last thing they needed.

They wanted a new attractive time slot for broadcasters and they got it. Sunday night’s audience was on a par with a Friday night game. When Collingwood and Carlton played on a Friday night in round seven the peak TV audience was lower than on Sunday night (913,000 people compared to 987,000 on Sunday night) but the average audience for the game was lower than the Friday game (687k to 729k) but the numbers were basically on par. Yet the crowd numbers were significantly lower.

The balance now needs to be with the spectator, not the viewer. The AFL has accepted that people quite like to go to the football – which despite the broadcast rights billions remains a better live sport than TV sport – and clubs prefer fans to viewers because fans become members TV viewers do not.

When the AFL previously sampled games in new time slots – Friday nights, public holidays – the eventual success of those times was built on the gusto with which the attending fan embraced the new fixture. They put a toe in the water first and found the water pleasingly accommodating.

There was little evidence of warmth for the Sunday night fixture, nor the Sunday twilight for that matter, among fans when the AFL initially sampled them and then decided to press ahead regardless.

Thus, the broad fixturing of Sunday night football this year was a decision as mystifyingly ill-conceived as the hiring of Meatloaf only – scarcely believable – more unsatisfying than event the Loaf.

It is churlish to expect too much, curmudgeonly to long for the simplicity of times past when football was played predominantly in the daylight and at times predictable to those who liked to go and fulfil their weekly rituals. So we acknowledge small victories, like the first recognition of the fan being heard. As Meatloaf might have sung, or whatever it is he does, about Sunday night footy: fans will do anything for love ... but they won’t do that.

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