I was surely not the only one hoping that the AFL’s rumoured launch of a ‘Round Zero’ to kick off the 2024 season was just another example where the league leaks an idea early to weight the public’s response, then scraps it when it comes back as almost entirely negative.
But clearly the powers that be are determined to plough on with this bizarre false start to a new campaign, with apparently the only issue they found with the concept the name itself – hence it being dubbed ‘Opening Round’, a name no less stupid and confusing.
The first round of season 2024, therefore, will be a four-game event, spread across Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast – you can check out the full details here (not that it’ll take you long).
The actual fixtures are actually even dumber than they appear as well: this whole concept is a literal Pandora’s Box of poor decision-making that only becomes apparent the deeper you delve into it. And the name itself is just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s start with the ‘Opening Round’ concept as a whole: supposedly borne of a desire to take advantage of the NRL beginning their season in Vegas and leaving their traditional heartlands of Queensland and NSW unguarded, it’s actually not the worst idea… in concept.
The problem, as always with the league, is in its execution: by beginning this season with just four matches over a weekend, the gimmick becomes clear, and actually serves to cost the AFL its usual big start to the season – remember how quick they were to blow the trumpets when the first two games of season 2023 (Richmond vs Carlton and Geelong vs Collingwood) both had crowds in the high 80,000s?
Add to that the decision for the season opener to not be a split round where the other 10 teams all play the weekend after, and there’s also an issue with match fitness and competition integrity to consider – not that that’s ever been a roadblock with the AFL.
For example, Brisbane head into their proper ‘Round 1’ clash with Fremantle in Perth having had a week to shake off early-season rust against Carlton, going in with extra miles in the legs compared to the Dockers – it’s an obvious disadvantage for Freo. Melbourne have a similar edge for their clash with the Western Bulldogs on the following Sunday.
On the flipside, Richmond will go into their season opener against Carlton on the next Thursday night off a five-day break compared to the Blues’ six, while also having to play Gold Coast at Carrara in mid-afternoon. They’ll be doing well not to be sapped by the heat.
Adding to the silliness is that the league’s fixturing of the Suns and Giants this week actually fails in its intended premise: to give them clear air away from rugby league – and it’s surely those two who were the main focus of this ‘Opening Round’, given Sydney and Brisbane’s crowd figures have been excellent for years even competing directly with the NRL.
The Suns face the Tigers on Saturday afternoon, yet that very evening the Gold Coast Titans are on, with a start time close enough to the approximate finish of the AFL match to make it very difficult to race across town and attend both, if that was anyone’s plan up on the glitter strip.
Similarly for the Giants, the Saturday arvo preceeding their Saturday night date with Collingwood sees not just an NRL game in Sydney: but a match for Parramatta, the team whose supporter base overlaps with the Giants, playing at Commbank Stadium.
Like on the Gold Coast, it’s a venue far enough away from Giants Stadium to make it hardly worth the effort to attend both; if history is any guide, in both cases the overwhelming majority of the sports-loving public is going to choose their NRL teams every time.
If the NRL’s scheduling of those games was a deliberate ploy to protect itself from the AFL’s plan to hone in on their territory, then kudos.
Not that it was likely to work, anyway: the league’s progress in NSW and Queensland was always going to be a slow burn. It took Sydney until 1996, 11 years after inception, and a thrilling home preliminary final win to get crowds into the 20,000s, from which it never looked back.
A gimmicky opening round is going to do diddly squat.
The attendance numbers for those two games will be fascinating: the Giants will get a boost due to travelling Collingwood supporters, as will the Suns for the Tigers, but their opponents would surely be the only reason crowds for their games would exceed the 8,169 and 13,648 respectively they received in 2023 when their opponents were Adelaide and Sydney.
It’s far from the most significant problem, but it’s also a bit of a dick move to make the Magpies launch their premiership defence interstate, rather than giving them the opportunity to unfurl the flag in front of 90,000 supporters with a first-up MCG home game. But they’re at least far from the only reigning premier to have to cop this in recent times.
Then there’s the biggest issue of all: the AFL desperately trying to fix what isn’t, and has never been, broken.
Round 1 of 2023 had the third-highest total attendance in the game’s history, and second-best opening round ever – a fact the league weren’t shy about proclaiming.
I would have thought the league’s apparent philosophy of ‘build it and they would come’ would have been dashed back in 2014, when they attempted to make Sunday night footy a thing only to have Collingwood and Carlton get an MCG-low 40,000 in attendance for one game and scrap it almost instantly.
Diluting the start of the season like this is not only a move that robs 2024 of any opening momentum while irritating thousands of supporters nationwide: it also fails in its intent to give NSW and Queensland-based teams the clear, NRL-free air that was supposedly its intention in the first place.
As for the stupidity of having rounds not correspond with the number of games teams have played – so, for instance, at the end of ‘Round 1’ Collingwood will have played two games – well, that just speaks for itself.
So congratulations, AFL: from a long, sore history of poorly thought out ideas and hastily rushed gimmicks, ‘Opening Round’ is surely the dumbest of all.