I’m writing part of this week’s rankings on a crowded train leaving Optus Stadium after witnessing a great game, so it’s been a good weekend in Western Australia for me.
I’m a traditionalist. There, I’ve said it.
In my previous article I wrote a letter of intent to the AFL to signal my immersion in the game of Australian Rules football. One of the facets that appeals so much is the history and tradition of the game. The AFL’s response, or so it feels, is to take tradition and sell it to the highest bidder.
This week has been littered with rumours that the grand final being moved from its afternoon spot to the twilight. In some ways it doesn’t seem to be too bad an idea. It’s only a couple of hours, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan has reasoned. However, it’s a slippery slope of commercialism to drive the game to hell in a Bunnings-sponsored handcart.
AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder has given his approval to the move. Talk of a ‘better spectacle’ and ‘really putting on a show’ seems to disassociate Goyder from the fan-base. The grand final is the spectacle. The finalists are there to put on the show. Half-time entertainment can be a wonderful addition to grand final day, but it should not be its raison d’être.
Fans of EPL will see worrying parallels to the UK and how FA Cup final day traditional had a 3pm kick-off. The erosion started with a tournament sponsor, and then it was moved to a 5pm kick-off. It was totally at the behest of TV and commercial opportunities. Even though fans could be left with several hours of travelling after the game, it was changed anyway. Channel Seven and Foxtel are rumoured to favour a move to a twilight grand final.
The backdrop to this commercially driven administration of the game is the fact that AFL announced a $50.4 million profit for 2018. Revenue was $668 million, up by $17 million, to due to broadcast deals. The AFL will point to $417.3 million in distributions to improve the game. However, $317 million went to AFL clubs, so that somewhat dilutes the distribution number.
Financial stability is at the forefront of the AFL’s strategy, and no-one wants to go back to when mergers were necessary in the 1980s and 1990s, but the financial results tell me that the game is succeeding as it is. I would argue the law of marginal returns for tinkering with start times, finals changes or any other ‘improvements’ suggested.
I didn’t watch the AFLX matches live but did record them to watch this week. Many fans were scathing of it, but I wasn’t so offended by most of what was on offer. However, I did watch it as a standalone game rather than an extension of Australian Rules in the same way that you watch the remake of The Italian Job in isolation and think it’s okay. It’s only when you compare it to the original that you think it’s an aberration and should be erased.
One element I found cringe-worthy was the ‘rock, paper, scissors’ game to decide the toss. Some marketing nitwit must have seen the BBL’s bat toss – another aberration, while on the subject – was used as a unique selling point and decided that they needed something similar. Perhaps grand final tosses of the future can be decided by a game of giant Jenga?
Another worrying aspect from this week’s news was that the NRL are considering expanding their finals to ten teams. Worried about the number of ‘dead games’ in August, the NRL are contemplating creating an extra two places in the finals so there is more to play for at the end of the season. It can only be a matter of time, if musings haven’t already been vocalised, that the AFL take a similar line of enquiry. They night as well having all 18 teams in the finals if that’s the case.
If teams are taking it easy because they aren’t in finals contention, it’s the club, not the game, at fault. You’d expect players to be playing for pride, their places in the team, the fans and many other factors. If teams are tanking or not playing at 100 per cent, deal with the clubs involved. In Nick Riewoldt’s book he talks about the post-game debrief and St Kilda players saying whether they were “Saints men” or not. If players aren’t giving 100 per cent all season, they aren’t ‘Aussie Rules men’.
There are many fans out there who are far more emotionally invested that me. I’m just setting out on the journey and I am finding it unnecessary. Like other sports, the key performance indicator for AFL is money. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the broadcasters and the administrators.
However, there is another stakeholder that needs a say: the fans. A quick look at the social media thread would show the AFL what fans think of a twilight grand final. But that won’t increase financial performance to meet the 2019 strategic objectives though, will it?