Reclaim our Game – Interview with Gerry Eeman

The Australian rules sporting landscape has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. The early days of the Australian Football League and the leaving behind of the Victorian Football League holds little relevance or interest to fans in their twenties. Suburban grounds, muddy centre-squares, woollen jumpers, cigarette advertising and a marching band for grand final entertainment are quaint markers of the distant past. ‘A week is a long time in football’ – let alone, a decade or too. But the fans are increasingly restless – and of course, not just about the rules, but matters such as advertising and gambling.

 

The establishment of the  Australian Football League’s hegemony over the Australian rules landscape has seen the imperilment of the South Australian National Football League (founded 1877), West Australian Football League (1885), the Victorian Football Association (now League; 1877) and the Tasmanian Football League (founded 1879). As Timothy Boyle wrote in The Age recently, Country footy clubs merge or close. While the Australian Football League is awash with cash – splish splosh splashing all the between Western Sydney to the Gold Coast to Shanghai and back again – footy elsewhere survives on membership, local sponsorship and in some cases, problematic pokies revenue.

 

Games in the Australian Football League are an assault on the senses and overwhelmed with gambling advertisements of the Packer variety. Screens fill the venue so that fans won’t lose a moment of action should they need to leave the action during the game and top up on over-priced and mid-strength beer. ‘Game day experience’ is something that has become formalised and easily packaged. So, we see Richmond players coming out to a troupe of taiko drummers, not because there were some drummers in the Richmond cheer squad who decided to combine their two passions, but because, well, management wanted it. For some fans this is an irrelevant gimmick; for others, it is innovation. Club songs have been re-recorded, and in the Richmond case, sped up making it almost impossible for fans to sing along with as it echoes throughout the stadium. [Couldn’t someone up in management somewhere have thought about this first?]

 

The sheer weight of blogs, podcasts and websites indicate the strength and breadth of footy knowledge amongst the masses of footy fans who tune in week in and week out. But, perhaps their knowledge and passion is not being adequately recognised or mobilised. Perhaps they’re just treated as customers who turn up when their team is doing well, and tune out when their team is floundering. The AFL Fans Association seeks to represent the voices of fans of clubs in the AFL. I spoke with Gerry Eeman, the Association’s president, and Sydney fan, about some of the issues facing the game and those voiced by fans.

 

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Hello Gerry. Do you think members of clubs feel like they’re involved in the process of electing board members and having their voices represented at club level?

 

The way boards of clubs in the AFL protect their board members is not something unique to the AFL. It is common to all sorts of companies and corporations. So, if fans are feeling disempowered in the current system, it is reflective of organisational structures more generally.

 

What are some of the issues that fans are conveying to you recently, about their experiences of the game?

 

In my conversations and communications with fans of clubs in the AFL, the most common complaint relates to their feeling that they are treated just as consumers of a product, rather than being regarded as stakeholders. Being a stakeholder is different: it means having an ongoing interest in a cultural product – such as a sport – and being able to make a contribution to how it is shaped and developed.

 

The Australian Football League is quite an rare [professional] league, in that the clubs are largely member-owned. The AFL is meant to administer the game on the clubs’ behalf. But, for many fans it no longer feels like that. Fans feel that the League is running the competition with the clubs just falling into line. The clubs are working for the league, rather than the other way around.

 

This view, that fans are treated simply as consumers has been around for a while. I hear it from fans of all different clubs, so, it is a feeling that is quite pervasive amongst footy fans in general.

 

The AFL seems to profit a lot from gambling advertisements and its ‘official wagering partnerships’. Is this a problem for a lot of fans?

 

Yes. Another issue that fans across the board discuss with me is that of gambling. Again, this is from fans from all sorts of clubs. The ubiquity and pervasiveness of gambling advertisements is something that fans do not like. Over the past several years, gambling sponsorship has become the norm at all levels of the AFL media. It’s at the game, it’s on talkback radio, it’s on the tv footy shows, it’s in the Record. It’s online. There is no way of avoiding it. I have heard from parents that they are starting to hear their children talk about ‘odds’ as a way of talking about how one team is a favourite over others.

 

As for pokies (poker machines), yes, fans are concerned about these as well. I think most fans would prefer clubs to extricate themselves from being reliant on pokies. I think a lot of fans admire what North Melbourne has done on that front. It doesn’t have any revenue from pokies. They have made a principled decision on that.

 

I hear you. In following the guidelines of footy-based conversations, what are the Top 5 problems voiced to you by footy fans?

 

So, in general, what I’ve found is that there are four or five main concerns of the fans. These are as follows. First, it is the issue of price or affordability. Price is in part about the cost of a ticket, but it also relates to the price of food and drinks and stadiums. Secondly, it is the allocation of Grand Final tickets; where members of the participating clubs have very few tickets provided for them. Only some 34,000 of the tickets for the 2017 Grand Final were for Adelaide and Richmond members. Thirdly, is the problem which I’ve already touched on: the pervasiveness of gambling. Fourthly relates to on-field matters and to the matter of the rules and the state of the game as a spectacle. There is no consensus about what rules should be changed or interpreted differently, but of course this is something that many fans feel passionate about. The final point relates back to the question of affordability. Over time, the best seats in the main Melbourne stadiums of the MCG and Docklands are increasingly out of reach for many fans. Many fans get really annoyed when they’re watching a game and the best seats remain empty. This kind of gradation of seating allocation has happened over time and fans have been powerless to affect or counter these changes.

 

What changes need to take place to make the Australian Football League a more accommodating place for fan interests?

 

I think there is an alternative to the current ways in which the AFL interacts with, or takes notice of fans. It is always going to be a balancing act in terms of how they respond to comments, feedback and discussions about the game. The game, after all, is highly emotive and Australian rules is the most popular sport.

 

I think the AFL is in a position where they could more actively seek feedback from all club members regarding the state of the game and the direction it is heading in. This could be done through polling or through multiple choice surveys. Indeed, it is not about getting fans involved in every decision, but there are some decisions – for example, about the rules, allocation of resources, and the expansion of the game – which could be made in consultation with fans.

 

Could the Australian Football League be more interested in ‘satisfaction’, than simply ‘growth’?

 

I do think there is a disconnect between fans and the top level of the AFL bureaucracy. For example, if we looked at their Key Performance Indicators, I think they would be all to do with numbers and dollars and revenue growth. What I’m sure would be lacking is how much they value the satisfaction, and enjoyment that is felt by the fans when they go to a game. If ‘fan satisfaction’ was a key determinant of the annual bonuses for the senior managers at the AFL, I think they would suddenly start making a few decisions in a different way.

 

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Australian Rules football is woven into the fabric of Australian culture unlike any other sport: it is played in suburban parks, on city streets, and on red-dust fields. And, yes, also in stadiums before tens of thousands of people. The players and fans are as diverse as Australia’s demographics. Yet, the Australian Football League is run by a small cohort of the executive class and ex-footballers fluent in management-speak who are encumbered by an unwillingness to share a creative and collaborative process with the fans who remain the game’s truest stakeholders. And for those who reject the over-hyped, corporatised world of the Australian Football League, local football remains.

*The AFL Fans Association is having a meeting on 24th June at the Richmond Football Club to discuss various matters.

 

Comments

  1. Cheryl Critchley says:

    Nice article Andy and well said Gerry. Hopefully over time the AFL Fans Association can build its profile and become as important to footy as the players’ and coaches’ association. The 24 June forum is open to all fans – all you need to do is register by copying and pasting this link into your browser: bit.ly/AFLFA-Forum. It’s free and we’d love to see as many fans there as possible.

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