Fans fall foul of the AFL money machine
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Fans fall foul of the AFL money machine

In 2001, when I was 18 and in year 12 at Galen Catholic College in Wangaratta, my beloved Bombers were drawn to play Richmond in a qualifying final at the MCG on a Friday night. Throughout the season my parents had taken my brother and me to as many as 10 games throughout the season from our home in Yarrawonga.

A Hawthorn-Richmond final would sell out on any day.

A Hawthorn-Richmond final would sell out on any day. Credit:AAP

Often, we travelled the seven-hour return journey in one day. On other occasions we would stay the night with family. It was a lot of fun, but make no mistake, it took an enormous amount of effort.

On the Friday of the final, I had an exam. I finished at exactly 3.35pm and we then took off on a four-hour journey, fighting Melbourne’s peak-hour traffic, to take our seats just in time for the first bounce.

That’s the type of effort country fans make for the teams they love. The AFL should remember that.

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Its decision to schedule the eagerly anticipated match between Richmond and Hawthorn – arguably the biggest game of the AFL’s first week of finals – didn’t go down well with everyone.

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Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett claimed the scheduling of the game just wasn’t fair. "It's almost impossible for any of our 10,000 members from Tasmania to come across, let alone our other 10 to 15,000 around the country," he said.

One wonders if the AFL really cares – particularly about its country members. After all, on Thursday night it will point to the near-capacity crowd figures and hefty television ratings and ask what all the fuss was about.

But the reality is that this is simply another example of the AFL’s transformation into a commercial product, where its fans are now consumers and customers and market forces determine the success of the product.

In other words, if it makes a truckload of money, it’s worth it, right?

But where does this leave the country and interstate fans? Many of them will be members who have travelled from the country to watch their team play several times this year.

Being a fan will have cost them more than just the price of their season ticket. It costs them petrol money, hundreds and thousands of kilometres clocked up on their cars, accommodation costs and a whole lot of time and effort.

The AFL and its clubs often refer to the fans as the "heart and soul" of the game. But when the most important, exciting, exhilarating matches of the year come around, it seems they are anything but a priority.

Sadly, in a commercial world, success is not measured in effort or "heart and soul". No, it’s measured in numbers - particularly those on the bottom line. And let’s be honest, you don’t have to be an economics scholar to figure out that available seats for the most sought-after final of the weekend between two big, powerful Victorian clubs are scarce relative to the number of footy fans out there.

So, the AFL will get its great big crowd and everyone else will watch on TV, which is, after all, where the money is made. Yet the AFL should be aware that while it will pack out the MCG on Thursday night, football in some regional and country areas is on its knees, with teams unable to field reserves or junior teams, forfeiting or getting flogged by hundreds of points each week.

Sam Duncan is a lecturer in sports media and marketing.

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