AFL out of touch with regional Australia
AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou speaks to the media. AAP Iamge/Julian Smith
If I was from Wangaratta, I’d be filthy at the AFL right now. The whole saga that surrounded the cancellation of Saturday’s NAB Cup match between Essendon and St Kilda stank of half-heartedness.
The city itself was keen – more than keen, actually. The game was sold out.
11,000 people had tickets. It was years in the making. Everyone was ready to go.
The town was all set up to embrace some top-flight footy. They rolled out the welcome mats for the big wigs. Excitement was in the air. One local club spent $40,000 on catering.
But then arrogant Bombers, who wanted to fly to Wangaratta when it would have been easier to take a bus, ruined everything with their big city brashness.
Wild weather meant their two chartered planes couldn’t land. The Saints were there, but Essendon didn’t show.
The AFL cared so little that they were making it all up as they went along. They were clearly underprepared – nobody was ready for this situation. An abandoned match. What do we do now?
First, they decided the match would be declared a draw, even though everybody knows that in junior footy the team that doesn’t rock up forfeits the game.
Then a coin toss was on the cards.
Which genius thought that would actually be a good idea? Thankfully someone came to their senses and St Kilda were rightly handed the four points, even if it’s only the pre-season stuff and nobody really cares anyway.
Still, it’s the principle of it, as Dennis Denuto would say. The fact that the AFL weren’t involved in the Dons’ travel plans just does to show how devil-may-care they are about the NAB Cup.
They shouldn’t have allowed them to fly on matchday – they don’t when it comes to the season proper.
But Wangaratta cared. They cared a lot – it’s not often that regional Australia gets to host professional sport.
What’s most disappointing about all of this is that it came at a time when the other codes are strengthening their ties to country areas.
Even the A-League, which seems to be cementing its reputation as a controversy magnet, has made inroads.
The concept of a regional round has merit, even if it wasn’t managed as well as it could have been this season.
Instead of waiting for the fans to come to the A-League, football instead went to the people. They held matches in Dunedin, Campbelltown, Bathurst, the Latrobe Valley and Launceston.
While the attendance figures didn’t set the world on fire, the fact that those cities were even considered did wonders for their PR.
If the round ball code can pull 3000 in Morwell to watch the burgeoning Melbourne Heart and a bunch of Kiwis, then it’s not that much of a stretch to suggest that the AFL could draw perhaps a five-figure crowd anywhere in regional Victoria.
Imagine what it would do for a town to hold a real match in their own backyard. Even those from the city could drive and make the day of it. And yet the AFL’s relationship with country fans just took a massive hit.
Rugby league leads the way with the annual City versus Country Origin match. The fans love it.
If the AFL ever opens its eyes to the world of representative matches, wouldn’t it be great to see a metropolitan versus country showpiece? It’s already a small part of the AFL system – Victoria has two state teams at junior level, after all, split along those lines.
But no. Aussie Rules is being half-hearted in their attempts to engage with folk outside of the main population areas.
It’s a shame, because there’s plenty of love for footy out there. The success of country leagues is proof – some of the best football outside the AFL is played out in the bush, where there’s plenty of coin on offer.
The people are dying for a taste. But the league won’t even help out when it comes to staging a NAB Cup game.
Surely the best way to remedy this would be resolving to rebuild the bridges that they burned. To do that, AFL House should seriously consider taking games for real points outside of the big markets.
And next time, get the teams in a week beforehand so they can spend time getting around the community.
Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard that is the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. He is a Port Adelaide fan by birth, as painful as that has been recently. He's now sports editor of The Area News in Griffith, NSW.