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Opinion

The AFL didn't need to rob the NRL's house with Opening Round - it's more than big enough already

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Expert
11th March, 2024
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2537 Reads

Wasn’t it great to have the footy back this weekend, regardless of whether there were teams missing?

For the most part, there was good action, exciting game narratives and not a lot of dirty play that ties up most of the week with Tribunal discussion and nit-picking whether one week or two was fair.

The on-field action was the focus – and it certainly was entertaining.

However, the sideline noise and the big storm in a teacup around the token marketing campaign that was ‘Opening Round’ was a little distracting.

As footy fans, we don’t need to be sidetracked by promotional gimmicks; what it is called, where it is played, who is involved, and what potential media headlines should be.

When the product is good – and AFL has a damn good product – it sells itself.

One of the main drivers behind the Opening Round concept of only four games being played, all outside of Victoria, on the weekend was to compete with the NRL being out of the country in Las Vegas.

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Peter V’Landys’ Amercan gamble was a great spectacle that was heavily promoted – and those who attended the game had a great time in a party-like atmosphere.

BUT… that’s all it was.

The NRL will probably make a financial profit and be able to say they took the code to the United States – but what is the long-term impact? It is hard to say whether a rugby league venture will be more than a novelty to an American audience.

Speaking as someone who went along for the games, the majority of fans who attended were Aussies on holiday or ex-pats – and they were driving most of the excitement in the stands.

The event itself became like an NBA game – loud music, lighting shows and celebrities.

It became a ‘that was good, but now what’ after full time, complete with the feel of a modern-day US sporting fixture, where because the season is so long, the majority of fans turn up for a night out, or an experience – and it becomes entertainment rather than competition-focused.

Results and outcomes of games definitely matter more here in the AFL – in the way that Port Adelaide just can’t lose to the Crows without hearing about it until the next Showdown – and we cannot lose sight of that cutthroat nature. The game can’t afford to tip so much in favour of being entertaining that it loses its competitive integrity.

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If the AFL has plans to follow suit and take the game to the international market, it has to realise where it sits. Outside of Australia, it will be no more than a showpiece, quickly forgotten about when people head home to their normal lives – and back to their regular sporting codes.

So basically, the AFL didn’t need to try and ‘rob the NRL’s house’, to paraphrase GWS footy director Jimmy Bartel, with a specially designed Opening Round – the game is more than big enough already.

There is nothing quite like it in the world – from the on-field skill to the culturally rich barracking and even passion levels at bush footy – not to mention its standing as a monolith on the Australian sporting landscape.

General view of the SCG during a Swans game.

The SCG has attracted crowds of 40,000 plus even before Opening Round. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Media/Getty Images)

According to the AFL’s Annual Report in 2023, there were more than 500,000 registered participants in the game – right down to the community level. That may not sound like much in a country of 26 million people, but playing the numbers game of 22 in a side, that is still 22,727 teams across all levels.

Even more exciting for the game was the record number of 125,000 Auskick participants. This cannot be underestimated, and is where the real impact can be made in terms of attracting new people to the game.

Parents will know if you can get a footy into a kid’s hands while they are at a young age, it is likely to become a habit. First impressions count, – every Nick Riewoldt, Joel Selwood or Jonathan Brown had to start somewhere. The more in the talent pool, the more competitive and useful yearly drafts will become in levelling the competition.

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This all filters through to club memberships, which were up 6.2 per cent from 2022 to 1.26 million, with 15 clubs setting new records.

The season’s attendance was a new record of 8.1 million, which is also a massive achievement. People need to be at the game, not watching on their screens – and those numbers are heading in the right direction.

So there’s no need for the AFL to be baulking at shadows or basing their fixture off what other codes are doing, despite how much they roar, or how much glitter and streamers they add to their product. There will always be a strong market for growth for Aussie Rules football if it focuses on its strengths.

Put it this way: if you walked into a supermarket and saw a product on the shelf that that you disliked, no amount of marketing will make you buy it.

Unfortunately, that is the same with Aussie Rules – there will be some people who will never want to jump on board, no matter how hard it is sold to them. Plus, altering your own product to cater to these people will drive away some of the supporters you already have.

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A competitive sporting match, one that is strongly rooted in its grassroots structures and long-term sustainability, will always beat a ‘disposable’ one night of entertainment featuring all the bells and whistles that can be added.

Growth in the game needs to come from investment in a quality product, not cheesy added extras or marketing, Opening Round included.

I, and surely many of you, would rather see the AFL focus on domestic matters, such as trying to improve its technology and umpiring inconsistencies (a discussion for another day), or ensuring players are not lost to the game along the set pathways from junior footy to the big time – not necessarily to other codes, but to other careers that offer more security for young families.

Next year, Andrew Dillon, forget about an eight-team ‘Opening Round’.

If you want to give us fans more footy, then start the whole season earlier – it’s that simple.

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