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How can the AFL arrest plummeting attendances?

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7th March, 2023
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For the best part of 150 years, the AFL has forever been at the pinnacle of Australian sporting popularity and dominance over rival codes. For that reason, it seems unfeasible that ‘Australia’s game’ will struggle to attract large interest.

All was going to plan before the pandemic struck and ultimately tested the sport and CEO Gillon McLachlan to the very core.

A combination of an increase in unemployment, inflation, and more recently a surge in interest rates has contributed to hundreds and thousands of Aussies being forced to rethink the way they manage their finances.

Last year was a huge relief for the AFL, as it was the first time since 2019 that stadiums could be filled at full capacity.

Would there be a willingness from supporters to finally get out of their homes and passionately cheer on their heroes up close? If last season’s turnout was anything to go by, the answer would be no.

Not taking the past two COVID-damaged seasons into account, 2022 experienced a 16 per cent drop off in average crowd attendance for the home-and-away campaign, averaging 30,871, compared to the 37,250 fans recorded in 2019. This would result in a shocking 26-year low for the competition.

The lockdowns that Victoria in particular experienced pushed families into feeling more comfortable watching games from home, as well as the unfortunate scenario of not having a choice but to cancel memberships due to financial stress. The cost of transport, food, and drink all come into play.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Who remembers the infamous live-on-air exchange between a fired-up Eddie McGuire and journalist Tony Jones on Channel Nine news?

In an understandable state of confusion, Tony was not receiving an answer to his simple question, “If a member comes to you and says they want their money back, will you give the money back?”

Eddie, the then-Collingwood president, clearly weaved his way out of providing a simple yes or no response.

However, throughout all of the unnecessary back-and-forth quarrels, he did make an important point, reaffirming that “a club that has no members is a memory.”

Now, with the pandemic quieting down in the meantime and economic strains starting to become less painful, the AFL did the right thing last year in freezing general admission tickets and making tickets more affordable for all.

Could more be done though to make it even more affordable such as discounts on memberships and even lower prices for tickets?

Despite the expected financial losses during the pandemic, the AFL still finds itself in a comfortable position.

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A record TV broadcast deal, profits from endless sports gambling advertisements, and sponsorship deals have the code in good stead moving forward. This is the same organisation that is pumping millions into Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants with no end product in terms of increasing crowd numbers.

Eddie, clubs will cope just fine with lower membership and ticket fees.

Despite Perth not feeling the full brunt of the harsh lockdowns and economic turmoil compared to other states, ticket prices at Optus Stadium were significantly higher than the MCG last year, with West Coast’s cheapest ticket costing $57 and Fremantle’s priced at $38.

Those prices need to be negotiated and lowered considering the stadium provides the second-largest capacity for the AFL.

There are more problems that the code must address, however.

It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that supporters are growing increasingly frustrated at the constant rule changes that are needless and just causing more confusion.

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I cannot recall a rule that generated so much uproar and anger than the dissent rule aiming to reduce players from arguing at all with the umpire.

The ‘stand’ rule change for the player on the mark has been another controversial change for the players and fans to adjust to.

How many times have you heard an AFL fan say something along the lines of, “the game isn’t as good as it was 20 years ago?” or speak about the lack of physicality and softness in today’s game? Comments like these partly explain why the AFL is trying too hard in fixing the game to satisfy all parties.

For a sport that many Australians persist on being such a ‘great sport,’ why are thousands of rule changes required? Leave the game alone, or run the risk of turning away even more supporters than anticipated.

Over time this country has come to learn of the massive potential that women’s sport possesses such as cricket and basketball, containing massive admiration amongst the public for the national sides.

The upcoming Women’s World Cup hosted down under in July and August will be the biggest sporting event in Australia since the 2000 Olympic Games. In that year, the AFL averaged 34,094 for the home-and-away season, the lowest total in the 21st century.

Make no mistake, many Aussies who don’t follow football are blindsided by the enormous impact the event will have on the country. The Matildas have for years now been the darlings of Australian sport and are idolised by so many young girls in particular.

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(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Previous numbers speak for themselves. The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France attracted a staggering 1.12 billion viewers throughout the tournament, with the final reaching over 260 million viewers.

Tickets are in red hot demand already, with the decision to move the Matildas’ opening game from a 45,000-seat venue to an 82,000 sell-out in Sydney demonstrating how much hype and interest there actually is.

Surely the AFL won’t be foolish enough to underestimate the sheer enormity of the event?

Australia’s opening three group stage matches will be held during weekdays, but the AFL still needs to ensure that they are clever around the scheduling and promoting marquee matches to keep crowd numbers high.

Another point worth adding is that the World Cup will be televised on Channel Seven, knocking back viewership ratings for the AFL which presents another unwanted headache.

Let’s face it, footy takes place every year and isn’t going anywhere, but hosting the Women’s World Cup is a one-in-a-lifetime event, inspiring some people to spend the money on World Cup tickets instead of an AFL ticket or membership as a result of opportunity cost imposed by the pandemic.

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To give McLachlan some credit, the AFL has decided to ditch the floating fixture for the first 15 rounds of this season. This decision will remove the uncertainty for supporters and give them a clear idea of when and where their club will be playing, instead of being given short notice.

Will that be enough to meet the required needs of the fans and avoid a further decrease in attendance numbers?

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