Tradition should be celebrated, but not when it prevents the growth and integrity of the game.
The 2021 AFL grand final in Perth, and Sunday’s NRL grand final in Brisbane, flashed an exciting opportunity on what the future of Aussie rules could have been.
The AFL is at one of the most important junctures in its history. Decisions made in the coming months will leave an indelible legacy on the size and health of the game. The top AFL executive brass need to realise the seriousness of the moment and take full advantage of it.
The increased accessibility of international sport, (such as the NFL, basketball and European soccer), facilitated through nascent streaming platforms (eg. Stan Sport, Kayo etc), is going to have an unprecedented effect on fan attention towards the AFL.
Aussie rules will further have to compete with other general entertainment platforms, like Netflix, in what can only be described as an increasingly contested viewership market.
For the AFL to thrive in this emerging, saturated environment, it needs to actively rebrand itself as ‘the Australian game’ and match its rhetoric with its actions. The AFL needs to engage thoroughly with every fan base in every state, capturing the attention of casual or otherwise unengaged supporters.
That’s why the $500 million deal it signed to keep the grand final at the MCG till 2057 is one of the most flagrant missteps in the game’s history.
Keeping the AFL’s largest spectacle confined to a single oval in a single city will significantly damage non-Victorian support of Aussie rules. Depriving cities of the possibility to host the grand final not only prevents an economic boost to the local region but also forgoes the opportunity to spark an interest amongst casual or new fans in that state.
Interstate teams playing against Victorian clubs have further cited the clear integrity issues of hosting the game at the MCG. It undermines the competitive meritocracy of the game by providing a consistent and unfair home advantage to Victorian sides.
There are two alternative frameworks to hosting the grand final in one location every year. Both models would require the AFL to annul its current agreement with the MCG.
The Superbowl model is based off rotating locations that the NFL hosts every year. In the NFL, host cities bid 3-5 years in advance for the right to hold the Superbowl at their stadium. For example, Superbowl 54 played in Miami in February 2020, was the result of a bid selected by the NFL in 2016.
The biggest advantage of this model is that the integrity of the game becomes unquestioned. Indeed, the game is almost always played on a neutral field where neither side is established (eg. West Coast and GWS would play in Brisbane). Another advantage would be that it grows the game by capturing the excitement of fans, creating a palpable buzz and economic boost within that state.
The largest disadvantage to the Superbowl model is that competing teams fans will still likely have to travel to watch the grand final.
“Home court advantage” model
The “home court advantage” model is borrowed from the NBA’s game seven advantage. In the NBA, two teams play a best of seven series, in which the first team to win four games advances through the playoffs.
The team which finishes higher on the ladder plays the deciding game 7 at their home city. In an AFL context, the grand final would be played at the home field of whichever highest ranked team remains. For example, if the Swans and Freo played in the grand final, with the Swans finishing first on the ladder, and Freo finishing fifth, then the grand final would be played at the SCG.
The advantages of this model are that at least one team will play in front of their home fans, saving interstate football families time and thousands of dollars in travelling costs. A further advantage is that since around half the AFL teams are based in Victoria, the MCG will still likely host the grand final every second year.
The biggest disadvantage to the home court model is that the grand final venue is decided two weeks before the game.
What do you think Roarers? What’s the best model?