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Was there really a 'full house’ at the AFL grand final?

5th October, 2023
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5th October, 2023
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Amid the drama of one of the greatest grand finals in VFL/AFL history, one hardly-believable statistic stands out.

According to the MCG, there were 100,024 spectators who witnessed Collingwood’s triumph – precisely the same number as last year’s decider between Geelong and Sydney.

While at first glance the identical figures appear an impossible coincidence, it becomes more plausible with context. According to the MCG, 100,024 (consisting of approximately 95,000 seats and 5,000 standing room spaces) has been the official maximum capacity of the MCG since the stadium’s redevelopment for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

In other words, the past two grand finals have both seen a full house.

The grand final is always a sell-out, but inevitably – at least in the past – some ticketholders stay home. There were 14 grand finals played at the MCG between 2006 and 2021. While many of those games fell just shy of maximum capacity, none were full. According to the MCG, that changed in the past two years.

This means that in the past two AFL GFs, unlike all previous ones, every single person with a ticket scanned through the turnstiles, or, if they were unable to attend, found someone else to take their spot.

It’s certainly possible. The grand final has been an especially desirable ticket over the past two years. Last year’s game was the first in Victoria since the lockdowns, and this year’s contest included the biggest club in the land. Both were played in perfect conditions and in the days leading up to the games, thousands of tickets moved hands from those unable to attend (or keen to make a buck) to desperate fans who had missed out.

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Yet, some remain sceptical that everybody showed up.

Col Hutchinson was the AFL’s official historian and chief statistician for much of the 1990s and 2000s. “I would find it hard to believe that every purchased ticket is actually used on the day,” he told me last year.

For it to be true, not a single person could have fallen ill at the last minute and been unable to attend or find someone to take their seat. It would mean not a single corporate ticketholder elected to stay home.

Darcy Moore celebrates Collingwood' 2023 premiership win.

Darcy Moore celebrates Collingwood’s 2023 premiership win. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

It would also mean that the MCG’s attendance record is unique among large stadiums worldwide.

Since the redevelopment of London’s Wembley Stadium, the official capacity has been precisely 90,000 seats. According to the stadium, its record attendance for a soccer match in that period is 89,874 – 26 shy of capacity. Barcelona’s Camp Nou has a current seating capacity of 99,354, but at least 200 of those seats have always been empty, including for cup finals and ‘El Classico’ matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The story is the same across other major stadiums.

Having spoken to several people who attended this year’s granny, I am aware of two seats next to each other that were empty throughout, and one person who had a reserved seat but didn’t attend. It is possible (though unlikely) that some fans chose to stay in the dining facilities throughout the game, but it is hard to explain how the crowd reached capacity when at least one ticket went unused.

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The MCG’s declaration of ‘100% capacity’ in the past two grand finals becomes even less plausible when considering the situation in the Members’ Reserve.

Keen to maintain traditions, the MCC makes available approximately 8,500 GF tickets for unreserved seating and standing-room spaces. This means that MCC full members can walk up to Gate 2 and enter the ground by simply scanning in their membership card on the day. If the crowd had indeed reached capacity in the 2022 and 2023 grand finals, then so too would the Members’ Reserve. Any full member trying to access unreserved seating would have been unable to do so, and the MCC would have publicly announced a lockout.

Yet nothing of the sort occurred. The last MCC lockout was the 2007 preliminary final between Geelong and Collingwood – an event that caused chaos. According to the MCC Library Manager David Studham, the last MCC lockout for an AFL Grand Final was the 1997 clash between Adelaide and St Kilda. Other reporting suggests it may have been in 2000. Either way, there has never been an MCC lockout for an AFL grand final in the 21st century.

At 12.56pm on Saturday, the MCC tweeted: “All unreserved seating in the Members’ Reserve has now been filled. Only standing room remains for unreserved access.”

At 1.30pm, the MCC tweeted that standing-room access was still available. It did not tweet again.

At the end of Collingwood’s premiership ceremony, I spoke with an MCC steward who was manning the turnstiles. He confirmed that the Members’ Reserve had not reached capacity. He said that 60-70 more people could still have scanned in their memberships to access standing-room spaces before the MCC would have announced a lockout.

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In other words, contrary to the MCG’s announcement, it was not a full house.

Until the MCC abandons its practice of offering thousands of unreserved spaces on the day, even if they decide to offer limited tickets to restricted members in an effort to reach capacity, it is highly unlikely that the ground will ever be completely full.

Why then did the MCG tell us that the 2022 and 2023 AFL grand finals were both attended by 100,024 fans which they declared to be ‘100% capacity’?

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Did the MCG – and, perhaps by extension, the AFL – promote a crowd figure that was bigger than the actual number of attendees? Has the MCG incorrectly calculated the ground’s maximum capacity, with the true figure higher than 100,024? If so, do the numbers simply stop when they reach what is believed to be capacity?

In a statement, the MCC said:

“The Melbourne Cricket Club, manager of the MCG, can confirm the capacity of the venue was reached on AFL Grand Final Days in 2022 and 2023.

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“While a limited number of seats within the MCG’s seating bowl may appear vacant during an event, many patrons can be found enjoying the atmosphere in one of the venue’s many restaurants, dining facilities or bars.”

The MCC did not respond to questions about the statement from one of their stewards that there were 60-70 vacant standing-room spaces in the Members’ reserve. They did not address how the crowd reached capacity when the Members’ reserve was still accepting full members.

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Without any clarity, questions about the AFL’s crowd numbers will persist.

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