The AFL hasn't been slow to give itself a pat on the back about the redevelopment of Adelaide Oval, and Saturday's “Showdown” between two bitter SA rivals will been seen as a triumph, a crowd of more than 50,000 filling a ground that has come up a treat.
Interestingly, though, while all that mutual back-slapping was going on in the city of churches, at the same time in the supposed heartland of the competition, a different and more disturbing story was unfolding.
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AFL fans are angry over new variable pricing for games and poor scheduling, senior AFL writer Rohan Connolly reports.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with just one game being played in Melbourne, only 19,640 could be bothered turning up to Etihad Stadium to watch St Kilda take on Greater Western Sydney.
A few hours later, on the other side of the CBD, 20,444 watched another local team do battle. Not an AFL team, though. This was soccer's A-League, with Melbourne Victory doing battle with Sydney FC at AAMI Park.
The mere suggestion only a decade ago that local soccer could outdraw any AFL game in this city would have been ludicrous. But there you have it. Along with the certainty that league bosses will swat this criticism away with a dismissive wave of the hand.
But there’s a message from the punters that is getting louder with each game that attracts below-the-odds numbers - that the AFL is severely on the nose with its supposed hardcore followers. And to borrow from Peter Finch in Network, it looks increasingly like they’re mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.
With the palpable anger still simmering away over the AFL’s handling of the Kurt Tippett salary-cap issue, the Melbourne tanking affair and the Essendon supplements scandal, not to mention departing chief executive Andrew Demetriou’s mega-bucks bonus, the league could not have picked a worse time to introduce perhaps its riskiest gambit yet,
The discontent about variable pricing, where fans without memberships will pay more to see bigger games, isn’t about to disappear any time soon, despite Demetriou’s insistence that the disappointing Melbourne crowds so far weren’t linked to it.
On Friday, Demetriou did concede the all-over-the-place scheduling of the opening round had impacted on the Richmond-Carlton MCG clash, which drew about 8000 less than the 70,000 the league had expected.
He then predicted: ''We’ll get a great crowd tonight at Essendon-Hawthorn. I’ve got no doubt about that.” So did they? With both sides coming off good opening wins, a stadium that holds 53,000 drew 44,163, less than all previous seven clashes between the two clubs played at Etihad, several of which were played when the home side’s season was already shot.
The malaise isn’t necessarily confined to Melbourne, either. Just 32,347 were at ANZ Stadium for Saturday night’s Swans-Collingwood clash, 6000 fewer than have attended any of the previous dozen Sydney-Collingwood games at the same ground. Will that jolt administrators from their apparent apathy?
But even had the crowds at either last Thursday or Friday night’s games had the “house full” signs hanging, football fans have every right to be angry. Time and again of late, the AFL has come off looking arrogant, dismissive and condescending, to clubs and fans alike.
And variable pricing to the latter group is a monumental slap in the face. It stinks. And goes against much of what our game has always been about. Namely ease of access for all, the committed and casual fan, and both the high and low income earner.
Hark back to Demetriou’s speech at the AFL season launch less than a month ago and it’s hard not to burst out laughing at the unintentional humour.
“We will never forget that our game is for our fans, and we will be ever alert to find the best ways to take our game to the fans in ways that are accessible, affordable, and remarkable,” he said then, apparently with a straight face.
Right, so slug further those who can’t afford the now-considerable price of a club membership and have to pick and choose the games they attend. Slug them even more if they have the ''misfortune'' to barrack for a successful, big team that plays in more blockbusters. And double the price of junior admission and raise adult and family tickets by 25 per cent while you’re at it. Way to go, guys.
Is it any wonder more fans might be forgetting about actually going to games and taking out a Pay TV subscription instead?
At least when they fork out for one of those they know they’ll have a good view. Comfort. And if their team happens to be scheduled on Thursday or Sunday night or some other unfriendly time for anyone who happens to go to work or school, they won’t face another ordeal getting home via a crowded car park or unreliable public transport.
Fans have become so disgruntled the recently formed AFL Fans’ Association is quickly building a considerable membership base. Given the way the game that supposedly treasures their support has been treating them of late, it’s not hard to see why.
And while I'm at it ...
It was late February when AFL football operations boss Mark Evans said he believed the league had “come a long way” with its score review system. The next step, he said, was the introduction of goal-line cameras. “We’re looking to trial that at least during parts of the year,” he said.
Let’s hope they are not waiting until September, given the handful of incidents witnessed over the weekend. The one which would most obviously have been solved, even by a “GoPro” stuck in a goalpost, was Ben Sinclair’s goal in Sydney on Saturday night. His shot may or may not have been touched on the line, but the four angles on show to the officials up in the stands may as well have been of the North Pole, such was the light they shed on the mystery.
The idea of score reviews was first raised by then AFL footy ops manager Adrian Anderson a few days after the 2009 grand final, 4½ years ago. For god’s sake, is that not long enough to have had the adequate technology trialled and already in place? Particularly as we have already seen it used by Channel 10 and even the ABC, covering SANFL football, more than five years ago. Then, it was just a bonus for viewers. Now, it is central to making an important rule change work smoothly.
But entering a third season with score reviews part of the rules of the game, we still don’t have the most basic equipment to facilitate them.
It is like asking a cricket umpire to adjudicate on a run out without a side-on view of the stumps and crease. That would be a laughable scenario. And in the fifth season since Geelong’s Tom Hawkins shaved the post in the close 2009 grand final but was still awarded a goal, so is this.
WAKE UP, JEFF
Yes, Jeff Garlett, we know you can play. And that like so many of your contemporaries, you enjoy practising those cheeky little checkside dribblers.
But we respectfully suggest you leave them on the training track. Because when your side is on a roll, there’s just 10 minutes left, and you have a chance to put your team within eight points, hitting the post from five metres out is not going to win you too many fans.
Players seem to have decided drop punts and actually kicking the ball in the air are too boring. Playing the percentages can be like that. But they also mean you are more likely to get the desired result.