There has been a lot of whinging about the AFL lately.
Some argue that there are too many teams weakening the depth of the playing lists, thus Tasmania should not get the 19th licence.
Others contend that the corporatism and greed of the AFL have ruined the game when compared to the simpler version that was the Victorian Football League.
More still lament the poor decisions and excessive umpiring as the reason fans are attending games in shockingly small numbers this season.
But each era of football will have its own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s worth discussing some of the issues concerning the AFL and its predecessor (the VFL) over the years.
However, as someone who now rarely goes to the football, preferring to watch AFL games on television given I live in Albury-Wodonga, this article includes insight from an AFL supporter named Susie, who actually goes to the games regularly rather than comments from a distance.
Susie has been going to the football since 1977 as a diehard Richmond supporter, first as a daughter with her mother and later as an adult and mother of two sons. She’s been a member since 1991.
Between the two of us, we offer both shared and mixed views.
First of all, we both love the AFL today, albeit I am less willing to part with my money beyond my Kayo subscription.
As of 2022, Susie pays around $440 for 17 home-and-away games that Richmond plays in Melbourne.
While crowds have recently dropped off, both of us do not believe that the decline is caused by current dissatisfaction with the actual AFL game.
Rather, we believe that people use the reality of lower 2022 crowds to support their individual criticisms of the AFL.
As of 2019, the average home-and-away crowd of 35,000 was on a par with the best-ever average apart from the high of 37,000 from 2007 to 2010, yet the same issues that fans whinge about today were also evident then.
One has only to recall the concern during 2017 about umpires supposedly favouring the Western Bulldogs with a demand for rule changes.
Some fans may have become more comfortable watching games at home through the COVID experience, which at times excluded crowds completely or limited numbers.
Once you get the television option, you have two great choices with regard to watching the great AFL game.
When I last went to a Richmond-Essendon game at the MCG, long before COVID, my mate and I both concluded that we both preferred now to watch games from the comfort of our lounges. Perhaps our older age has something to do with it.
My Richmond friend, on the other hand, points to a number of other factors that could be influencing crowd numbers, including older people not having access to new technology with the new ticketing system and high food prices.
In these tougher economic times, when the cost of living is increasing fast, it may well be that AFL crowds will not recover to 2019 levels for a while yet and that the AFL will have to make a much greater effort to listen to the fans rather than assuming that revenue can always increase in all facets of the game.
There is a number of aspects we miss from the past.
The best football days were when I was young going to the football with my mates, often kicking the ball between us all the way to and from the ground.
In addition, as a kid, listening and watching League Teams on Thursday night and World of Sport on Sunday were among my favourite shows, making me laugh as much as most other shows.
Today’s media coverage seems much more serious, with an extensive focus on highlighting the bad behaviour of players in this selfie era, when many aspects of personal behaviour are recorded on video.
Susie also misses the community functions that used to occur before Richmond games not that long ago, including a barbecue at Punt Road, although she still enjoys watching the seconds when they play there before the main game at the MCG.
We both note how attitudes have improved in terms of racism at the football. While Susie puts that down to fans being more cautious about what they say, which I partially agree with, I would argue that Australians are generally much more accepting of cultural differences today after generations of living with each other.
Susie, however, believes that crowd trouble is worse today because many matches are held at night or late afternoon, which gives fans more time to fuel their potential rage through alcohol. With a faster game these days perhaps leading to greater inconsistency in umpiring decisions, Susie notes how controversial decisions often fuel clashes between drunk supporters at the games she attends.
Noting that Richmond’s pubs are always packed before a game with quite a few fans drinking plenty, police also highlighted the pregame drinking before the May 2022 Dreamtime match between Richmond and Essendon which resulted in several brawls, 50 evictions and two officers being allegedly assaulted.
We are both happy that on-field player violence has largely been eliminated, although Susie refers to the excitement still generated by large-scale scuffles, as was the case last Thursday by the non-punching brawl between Richmond and Carlton at three-quarter time.
However, I have memories of both player and crowd violence during the 1970s, so perhaps only the scale of the violence has changed, with players and officials today much less inclined to get involved in this professional era where clubs are expected to act appropriately at all times.
In addition to the famous 1974 brawl between Richmond and Essendon players and officials, I witnessed another Richmond-Essendon match in 1975 when many Essendon supporters sought to break into the Richmond dressing rooms after Des Tuddenham had his leg broken.
I also witnessed slashed car tyres outside Victoria Park and Windy Hill on a number of occasions.
We both agree that spectators today have better facilities, with all having access to a seat, whereas the previous suburban grounds for most clubs had low seating capacity, with only a few rows of seats around the boundary fence for those dedicated enough to get their early.
While Susie is fanatical about Richmond and I am less so about Essendon, we both enjoy the AFL format, which allows us to watch a number of AFL games across the weekend.
However, Susie rightfully points out the silliness of the AFL during the past week expecting fans to turn up to the MCG on a cold Thursday night yet leaving the MCG vacant on Sunday, with the only AFL game played that day being Gold Coast versus Adelaide, hardly a match of much interest to the most important Melbourne fan base.
Where we share some dislike for the modern game is how the game has changed as a spectacle since the days flooding the backline became a feature.
The game used to be more open, more physical and more spectacular. There was more man-to-man play, and it had fewer boring bits, given the current AFL game is often consumed by boring short kicks to get out of defence as well as kicks backwards.
However, we both note the exciting aspects of the modern game, which still includes great marks and goals along with superfast breaks when a player and team explodes from defence or the midfield towards goal with opponents struggling to shut down the play.
Although we do not blame the umpires for inconsistent decisions, acknowledging the difficulty of policing such a complex game, we do have some concerns about some of the rules.
For example, why are defenders regularly penalised for the slightest touch on forwards while forwards seem to get away with fragrant interference?
Susie notes that Tom Hawkins’s 700th goal last Saturday for Geelong against West Coast was the result of another push in the back of his immediate opponent.
Finally, we celebrate the AFL expansion, made reasonably fair by a draft system and salary cap, although the nine Melbourne teams compete in a market while all other AFL cities have two teams at most.
While we both support the development of the AFL and the entry of a Tasmanian team, we do miss the simplicity of the VFL in the 1970s and early 1980s when the then 12 teams played each other twice and the luck with the draw from year to year was not a factor.
As for critics who suggest that the AFL is favoured by governments over other sports, I suggest that the popularity of the AFL has helped fuel many stadium upgrades, which have provided a greater opportunity for fans of other football codes in cities outsides NSW and Queensland in terms of hosting important rugby and soccer matches.
However, I don’t believe that Tasmania should be forced to guarantee an ultra-expensive new stadium when they already have a stadium that can hold a decent 20,000 crowd while the AFL allows the Western Bulldogs to play at the pretty ordinary Mars Stadium for a number of games with limited capacity.
Despite some small grievances with the modern game by both of us, we both love watching the AFL as much today as we ever did and do not agree with others who suggest that fans have many reasons to turn away from the great Australian game.