It says something about the confusion surrounding the current state of AFL ticketing that a sudden decision to allow people into a blockbuster match for no extra charge could be met with howls of disapproval.
Whilst the recent plague of congested play was not apparent during the entertaining Easter Monday match between Hawthorn and Geelong, the pre-match radio talkback lines were as clogged as the Moorabbin centre square of the 1980s. Scores of listeners were in the queue and ready to vent.
How did it come to this? How could this decision – to allow more people into the ground without asking for money at the gate – cause such consternation?
The answer lies within a new variable ticketing program, an antiquated and unique club membership structure and an intoxicating brew of mistrust towards the sport’s governing body that would probably cost $25 were it sold in a plastic cup on game day.
A Tale of Two Venues (and their prices)
In February of this year, the AFL announced that all matches staged at the MCG and Etihad Stadium would be subject to a new, variable pricing structure. Each game would be placed in one of five categories, depending on the expected demand for tickets. Put simply, a seat at a match which is expected to fill the 100,000 capacity MCG would now cost more than the same seat at a match only expecting 20,000.
This principle also applies to the number of tickets available for each category. For a low demand game, there would be more tickets available at the lowest price point, whereas for a match like Easter Monday, where the turnstiles clicked to 80,222, there would be fewer cheap seats to shout from.
In isolation, this structure is not unreasonable. We’re all subject to the world of supply and demand. We know that a seat in the orchestra circle at Les Miserables costs more than the front row of a first timer at the Comedy Festival. And although we never like to think of our club’s fortunes as a joke, we’re acutely aware that we can’t always be waving our flags in victory.
The main cause of consternation arises from the allocation of a group of high-demand games as ‘reserved’ or ‘ticketed’ events. This requires all people attending the match to pre-book a ticket, even if they are already a club member.
“Will you give all you can give so that our banner may advance?”
20 years ago, an AFL club membership was a straightforward product. By paying a one-off fee at the start of the season, you were given a membership ticket which would be clipped upon entry to the ground at every home game. You would essentially be ‘bulk buying’ your tickets at a discounted rate for the season. On top of this, your fee also included a contribution to the club. The spine-tingling sound of a stainless-steel hole puncher violating your hard plastic ticket was the sound of both thriftiness and philanthropy.
As the AFL expanded and its clubs searched for extra funds to support the move to professionalism, the club membership became all the more important. The more memberships sold meant more money coming direct to the club. This money also came to the clubs earlier in the year, with memberships going on sale in November. As a sales pitch, clubs developed emotive campaigns to encourage fans to become members, not supporters.
Fast forward to today and there are now a number of membership packages on offer. A member can pay a higher price to have the same seat for every game. You can also be a ‘remote’ member and pay a small fee to be recognised as such, without ever going to a match. But the traditional membership remains. You can buy your games in bulk, at a discount, and then show up on the day and pick your own seat.
Well, that’s what fans were told in November last year when the 2014 membership packages were released. In February, the AFL announced the variable pricing structure and everything changed.
As a result, Hawthorn fans were required to book a seat at a minimum $8.50 fee for an Easter Monday game that they were originally told they would be able to access at no charge. Then, in another about-face, the AFL decided on the morning of the match to make more seats available (from the AFL members section) at no charge to club members.
So in November a Hawks fan could just walk in, from February they had to reserve a seat, and from 11am on game day they could just walk in again.
Needless to say, those Hawthorn fans who had already reserved a seat were livid that other supporters with the same membership entitlements could now be admitted for no charge.
One caller to 3AW on Easter Monday, John, a 17-game Hawthorn member, summed up the feeling of many fans.
“It’s too late now for me to come. I’m not going to get a membership at all next year. I’m a pensioner and I can’t afford to pay extra when I’ve already paid for 17 games,” he said.
John’s membership, as promoted on the Hawthorn FC website, costs $264 and is said to include gate entry, subject to capacity, to all Melbourne games. There is no mention of booking fees, aside from a link to the membership terms and conditions. If you click the link and read for long enough, you can find a mention of reserved seating, yet there is no mention of variable pricing. This lack of an update is odd, especially considering the page also contains the club Twitter feed, which provides daily updates on, amongst other things, the club’s membership tally.
For its part, the AFL has admitted they have communicated the new ticketing measures poorly. Last week, AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou told The Age’s Caroline Wilson that, “it is our responsibility to explain (variable ticketing) better to our fans. That’s our job and clearly there is still a lot of confusion.” Following the lead from his boss, Commercial Operations Manager Darren Birch commented specifically on the Easter Monday debacle, telling SEN that, “in hindsight we probably should have put a fee on (the available seats) to make it fair for those who had pre-purchased, but the intention was good.”
“Will you join in our crusade?”
Whilst paving the road to hell isn’t necessarily part of the AFL’s strategic plan, a negative feeling is brewing in some sections of the football fan base towards the game’s authority. Variable ticketing and club membership issues sit alongside TV-friendly fixturing and the rising price of food and drinks at games as issues that need to be addressed.
Seeking to tackle these issues with head office is the AFL Fans Association (AFLFA), who formed in December last year with the stated aim to represent fans within a working relationship with the AFL. They are hoping to eventually have a similar standing as England’s Football Supporters Federation (FSF), an amalgamation of two supporter groups formed in the 1980s, which represent their members on the English Footballing Association Council. Like the AFLFA, the FSF campaign for lower ticket prices and have previously worked to improve the safety of the fan experience in the wake of tragedies such as the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989.
Having made previous statements about possibly introducing ‘dynamic ticketing’ based on the US model of tickets being bought and sold in an exchange-like fashion (similar to US website Stub-Hub) the Easter Monday uprising was a reminder to the AFL that fans must be fully informed of the nuances of the products they are being urged to purchase every year. It is one thing to pull at the heart strings in November, but another to snatch at the purse strings in February.