These here are crazy times

In an era where games often follow scripts more predictable than Two and a Half Men, and finals aspirations tend to expire well before the home straight, the last thing football needs is another reason for supporters to stay at home.

Yet those most heavily invested in their team’s fortunes couldn’t help but feel they (the League) ‘just aren’t that into us anymore’.

Home and away crowds have indeed been declining since 2008 when the high water average of 37,000 was reached.  This season attendances have slipped 7.8% on last year.   And in 2011 crowds fell 5.8% on 2010, despite AFL club memberships at the same time rising 5.9%.  Since 2008 numbers have dropped almost 5000 per match.

The Giants and Suns are easily proffered rationalizations.  However the ‘big four’ in Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton and Richmond, have harnessed their enormous armies like never before and Hawthorn and Geelong have become power clubs in their own right.  Record club membership figures might be inflated by minimalist categories, but the significant year to year growth can’t be denied.

Also consider football’s ubiquitous presence on MSM, Twitter, blogs, additional FTA channels, Dreamteam comps, Fox Footy and of course AFL Media.  And although no games fall between the cracks now, Seven’s middling coverage and Foxtel’s pricey alternative should have more members than ever inclined to make use of their pre-paid privileges.

But they’re not and I’d venture a prime reason is that Chief Operations Manager Gillon McLachlan has made a meal of the fixture.

Only three clubs have enjoyed decent gains on last year and another three are roughly on par.  Two thirds of the competition have suffered moderate to sizeable reductions in their average crowds.

I can appreciate the round peg/square hole vagaries of the current competition in terms of fixturing fairness.  And I accept the commercial and logistical permutations across nine games per weekend which requires a state of the art software program to navigate.  It’s much harder to correlate how the AFL was pressured to schedule all but nine afternoon games this year at either the tail end of lunchtime or the neither here nor there front end of dinner.

Because of an unapologetic subservience to TV ratings, the AFL is now at cross purposes with its clubs.  This desire to court the unconverted and theatre goers whilst playing hard to get with its core audience will potentially lead to mass break-ups.  There’s a growing number already headed for divorce it seems, or at least a trial separation from the game they love.

People like continuity and they resent being unnecessarily dicked around.  Perhaps the only winners in all this are stadium catering companies.

Until recently, family unfriendly times usually entailed semi-blockbuster games guaranteed to deliver acceptable numbers.  Even if a grudging 38,000 (St Kilda v Carlton this season on a Monday night) rather than a contented 46K+ put the passion for their club ahead of the hassle.   But when a standalone Queens Birthday clash starts at 3.30pm, requiring the 64K patrons give over both their afternoon and evening for their trouble, is there any chance of an explanation for us lemmings as to why?

I guess McLachlan did warn us three years ago the League was committed to this curious path.  Pity there was bugger all consideration or consultation with the spectators on whose passion and patronage the game is built.

As for the clubs, Etihad tenants bent over and inserted with dud stadium deals might have at least hoped for greater support to minimise the cheque regularly written to that charming football man of the people, Ian Collins.  The Bulldogs could have done without playing Port Adelaide on a Sunday at 4.40pm.  Only 16K attended a game promoted as a tribute to their greatest legend bar EJ Whitten.  You’d expect a few more of their 30K members to pay their respects.

Earlier in the year when the Dogs met North (33K members) as the away team, just 20K showed up between them.  Well, would a reasonable governing body expect any more at lunchtime (1.10pm) on Mothers’ Day?

In this context the AFL’s special assistance contributions would appear as pointless as giving a homeless drunk $10 to buy his daily goon bag.

It’s not just the strugglers whose crowds are taking a hit.  Only a fraction of the 70K Magpie devotees could be arsed with the recent Sunday twilight game against Gary Ablett, for a fair slice of the 36K at the match would have entered as general public, MCC or AFL members.

As for the three bye affected rounds just concluded, I can only speculate a virus must have infected Gillon, his computer, or both.  I really do wonder if there is a scintilla of empathy for the logistical hurdles facing common fans with jobs, families or physical or geographical impediments.

Perhaps the AFL aren’t as interested in crowds as they once were, but I reckon there has got to be rumblings greater than the Melbourne earthquake at Headquarters.  The league can spout all the ratings figures it wants, but bums on seats, or lack thereof, is the tangible measure of a sport’s health that garners widespread coverage.  Empty stands are a poor reflection, and soon enough perception becomes reality.

A harsher critic might say the AFL’s approach to the fixture is testimony to sheer arrogance.  Because it may shock League powerbrokers to learn there are basic happenings in people’s lives occurring at reasonably predictable times that often take precedence over football.  This effortless gem from an AFL spokesperson defending the West Coast v Carlton Thursday night game was instructive;

“It’s another prime-time broadcast opportunity for us, and coming off a bye it’s possible to do it, Carlton and West Coast are big-drawing clubs and you’ve got multiple states involved, which is good. From our point of view, a six-day break is acceptable, so it fits together.”

Like the concept of fairness, football goers have dropped off the League’s radar. The heir apparent’s blasé attitude was in evidence back in 2009 when after a terrible Melbourne crowd at an MCG twilight game, McLachlan offered this faux apology;

“I put my hand up and say when we fixture Melbourne at the MCG on a Sunday night and it’s terrible weather I accept that in the end it was poorly fixtured.  We try to avoid scheduling games at the MCG at night during winter. It was poor fixturing on our behalf, but the slot’s great.  It works very well and it has done for over two years now.”

Welcome to the twilight zone folks.

@JeffDowsing

 

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.

Comments

  1. Dave Nadel says:

    Absolutely spot on Jeff. The AFL fixturing and scheduling gets worse each year. You are right of course that the biggest problem is that games are scheduled for the benefit of Channel 7 and Foxtel rather than for the benfit of the barrackers going through the turnstiles. The second problem is trying to fit 18 teams into a 22 to 24 match season. To create any sort of fairness the AFL either needs to fixture 17 matches for the roster season, addd two more teams so they could fixture 19 games (but this is not possible for a decade) or divide the competitioninito two divisions. Various models have been canvassed in previous threads so I won’t discuss them in this post.

    Whatever decision is taken about structure, Games should not be fixtured for the convenience of Channel 7’s 6.00 news or Foxtel’s late afternoon programming.

  2. Nicely written. The afl is happy for crowds to go down. It makes clubs more dependent on centralized income distributions from the afl and gives the afl more power over the clubs. With 2 young kids these twilight times are a disaster. The problem for the afl is I am getting used to not going.

  3. Seeing the DNadel name in the comments list prompts me to raise an unrelated matter. What happened to the Floreat Piker who was supposed to write up last Saturday’s game? Does Nathan’s twitter ban extend to you blokes also? Pity. Or has the correspondent joined the long injury list at the Lexus Centre? I am sure Haiku Bob won’t let me down.

  4. He (she) must have piked, Pete.

  5. Dave Nadel says:

    You’re kidding aren’t you Phanto? Why would a Pie supporter pike on writing up a great (if narrow) victory in a great game?

    I think the problem may be that Steve Fahey is on leave. Steve is the member of the Floreat Pica Society who organises the reports and I am guessing that he is the person who then passes the report on to the Almanac. There is a report, I have read it and it is very good.

  6. Jeff Dowsing says:

    Thanks Mike – your last point is important. As the NBL found out, once you lose them and the habit is broken, you’ll struggle to get them back.

    For all the great work being done to get kids into the sport, it’s a shame that less and less of them will have parents prepared to take them to see their heroes in the flesh, to be inspired and to experience how much better actually ‘being there’ at the footy is.

  7. One of my great quick witted lines and you take it seriously Dave.

    You are a real worry at times.

  8. The best way I can see to increase crowds and give the draw fairness is this.

    Move North Melbourne, or another Victorian Club to Tasmania.

    Then you would have 9 Victorian clubs and 9 Interstate clubs.

    Create these into 2 conferences, National Conference & Victorian Conference

    Teams play everybody in their own conference twice (16 games)
    And everybody in the other conference once (9 Games)
    Creating a 25 game schedule and be rid of the NAB cup.

    This way you are guaranteed 2 games between the Victorian Clubs every year, and after living in Sydney for 8 years I can assure you Swans fans dont really care about the heritage of an opponent when they decide whether or not to turn up, they just go to good games, and I imagine this is the same in Brisbane, SA and WA as well. So losing home games against the big Victorian clubs will have an impact that is much lower than the gain for attendance that 2 games a year between Collingwood-Essendon, Geelong-Hawthorn, Carlton-Collingwood, Essendon-Richmond etc

    But the main advantage is at last a draw that is not horribly compromised as this years draw is.

  9. Ripsnorter says:

    Jeff,

    I definately agree that crowds have been falling for some time especialy compared to population growth at the same time. Television is the reason that this has happenned as it is a well known fact that most punters would like to go to the football on a Saturday afternoon and blockbusters in this timeslot are often very well patronised. The league will try to put all blockbusters into the Friday night, Saturday – day or night or public holidays as this when they get best exposure to good crowds and television audiences.

    The reason that football is the best value sport at some of the best stadiums in the world to take your family to is because the league makes so much money from Foxtel and Channel 7. Television stations are not going to give you all this money for nothing therefore want good games in prime time and staggered starts all weekend over the country so people stay tuned and get value for their subscription.

    The punter in the street gets fantastic benfits from this in terms of facilities and price ( particularly in Melbourne ) and this is all down to television..

    I do think however that that the AFL does give scant reagrd to North Melbourne, Melbourne and Footscray as they would like one or more of these teams to move, merge or fold in the coming years although they would never admit it. To them there are too many teams in Melbourne and the grand plan will be less in the coming years as they won’t really want a bigger league than they already have.

    I do feel for these supporters whose teams always seem to cop the Sunday twilights or earlies but I also really like watching the football on a Sunday evening and as people turn on at home and don’t turn up at the game then this is here to stay.

  10. Jeff

    Well written and agree. Understand as you do the commercial realities and the logistics required of televising all games, but a few points in favour of the prosecution that there’s madness afoot with the draw:

    1. Sunday 24 June, 2 games only, both in Melbourne, one starts at 3.15, the other 4.40pm. Explain.
    2. Round 12 and part 2 of the bye has a weekend of GWS home to Richmond, GC home to North, and the Hawks and Dogs hosting the Lions and Power. Across the spread from Thurs to Sunday of that round, no Melb based derbies, and who in their right mind at the start of the year saw any of those being worthwhile and watchable games.
    3. Lions travel to Melbourne Rds 12 and 13
    4. North play an expansion team twice in the first half of the season

    And the succession plan at AFL HQ has Gillon as designated next CEO? Gawd help us all.

    Sean

  11. Thoughtful piece Jeff (as always). I like Ripsnorter’s comments because he rightly points out that by international elite sport standards, AFL has excellent facilities and is comparatively affordable/accessible to the ordinary person. TV revenues are the lifeblood of that, so while I accept the gripes about fixturing times it is a case of “learning to live with the things you can’t afford to do without.”
    If I were starting with a clean sheet of paper there would be 8 Victorian teams and 8 in other states. So goodbye Kangas and Demons. A northern conference of the 4 NSW/Quld teams and 4 Vics; and a western conference of WA/SA plus 4 Vics. Play your own conference twice (home & away) is 14 games plus the other conference (8 teams) once (home & away in alternate years). 22 game season – fancy that. Conference final 4 to produce a Conference Champ, that meet each other in the GF.
    Similar structure to US sport with Conferences/Divisions and finals to get a national (or World Series) champ.
    Equalises the fixturing and the amount of travel to the greatest extent possible in a large comp over a 6 month season. Wouldn’t compromise TV much except one less game per round.
    My belief is that it would enhance the standard of the game, with fewer average players and poor teams.
    This year has been the most even and unpredictable season I can remember, so I can’t agree with Jeff’s intro about predictable scripts and finalists. Eagles lost to Brissie; Bombers to Demons; Cats to Dockers; and Magpies to Blues. So with the exception of the newbies, even the rubbish teams have had their day in the sun.
    Still I am not looking forward to going to Subi this Saturday, for the first time all year. Suns seem to have no spirit or presence. I am not interested in a GAblett master class and a drubbing. I would much prefer a great contest, even when we lose like last Saturday.
    Reduce the team numbers in Victoria to get a better standard and fairer national comp. Tough on those losing their heritage. But you can’t make omlettes without…….
    You know it makes sense.

  12. The Wrap says:

    Get used to not going to the footy fellas. This is the new reality. It’s not about being at the The Game anymore. It’s about being entertained by some very highly skilled aerobic athletes. Our Great Game’s been sold to the highest bidder. And that bidder was Kerry Stokes. Now the piper has to be paid. What do they say – when you supp with the Devil be sure to use a very long spoon.

    If you want real footy, there’s the Ammos and the VFL. You can tape the game and fast forward the adds. Or watch it on the radio, eh?

    But more disturbing should be the p18 story in today’s Sage Sportz. The AFL wants to slice five mill a year off the budget. I know where they can slice a couple of mill off the budget, and rest assured, it will be good for football.

  13. Peter, I do agree that revenue from TV rights ultimately helps keep general admission prices low, although GA at the MCG & Etihad here equates to standing or a seat up in the Gods section, which is off putting to people with vertigo, accessibility issues or less than 20/20 vision. I also note finals tickets again have risen enormously in relation to CPI, beyond the reach of most families’ consideration.

    As for the improved facilities people enjoy, most of of them have been funded largely by state governments. Going forward, I don’t know what of the $1b TV rights is going to public facilities – the Southern Stand redevelopment for example is $30m funded by Vic govt and $25m by the MCC. The $1b is being consumed mostly by the AFL’s various programs, the clubs to keep them afloat, and to meet the AFLPA’s wage demands.

    In any case, what point are super duper facilities if no one is accessing them?

    Yes the competition is closer this year Peter, it certainly couldn’t be any more uncompetitve than last season! But the point is, if you barrack for a team lower than 10th right now, you’re pretty much out of the reckoning. If by some miracle you made finals the reality is you’re making up the numbers. So in that scenario, it would take a the die-est of diehards to be bothered actually going to a game in winter at an unpractical Sunday evening timeslot.

    Perhaps being in Perth and following the Eagles (i.e. near to full houses most games) understandably has you somewhat immune to what is going on here. Time will tell Peter, but my strong hunch is the AFL, underneath the slick marketing, media saturation and impressive TV ratings, is headed for a slippery slope and could well fall off the cliff financially. If it doesn’t defy predictions of underwhelming TV rights next turn then it’s dead in the water because it’s burning the fans who drive most of the AFL’s revenue streams.

  14. Phantom says:

    Is that why the MCC’S spooks took the fifty dollar notes from the Melbiourne supporter’s jacket on Sunday Jeff? To pay for the southern stand development.

  15. Phantom says:

    Hot off the press.

    The Wynyard footy club president asked these two questions at the end of his once yearly editorial in the NTFL (Tasmania) Program for this week.

    “Firstly, if we were to wake up tomorrow and the AFL had vanished for ever, would local and regional footy survive? (I don’t think we would miss the money they provide grass roots football for a start).

    And secondly, if all local and regional footy throughout Australia was to immediately disappear for ever would the AFL survive?”

  16. Woking well Phantom. And that Wynyard FC pres sounds like a wise man. I foresee great opportunities for local football, the game will survive whatever the AFL does. Football may even go full circle, back to the tried and tested basics.

  17. Mark Doyle says:

    Another whinge article from a conservative parochial Melbourne person, who does not like the national AFL competition. This AFL season has been terrific with 12 or 13 clubs being competitive.
    This article relies on a superficial observation of statistics. Crowds have been reducing in recent years because of the following reasons:
    1. more games are played at venues in Darwin, Gold Coast, Canberra, Launceston and Hobart which can only cater for approximately 20,000 spectators;
    2. there is very little standing room at all venues and most spectators are seated;
    3. poor performing clubs such as Melbourne, North Melbourne, Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide with low numbers of supporters;
    4. all nine games are shown live on TV;
    5. temporary reduced capacity at the Geelong and Sydney venues because of ground renovations; and
    6. the new clubs in Gold Coast and West Sydney are in development and will not be competitive for a few years.
    There is also no co-relation between membership numbers and spectator attendance at games. The primary reason for selling memberships by clubs is receipt of future revenue.
    There is also no point in whinging about the draw. The only time when there has been a fair draw was in the 1970’s and early 1980’s when there were 12 clubs playing each other twice for a 22 game season. In the 1950’s and 1960’s we had 12 clubs playing a 18 game season. Since the numbers of clubs increased to 14 in the mid-1980’s and is now 18, we have compromised draw and the AFL needs to fixture popular rivalry games in all states to maximise attendance and TV ratings.
    I am always bemused at suggestions for American style competitions of either clubs playing each other once or mickey mouse conference systems
    I also like the AFL initative of scheduling games at 4.30pm on Saturday and Sunday because it allows people to do other things during the day such as playing golf, gardening, going to the art gallery and enjoying a yum cha lunch on Sunday in Little Bourke street, Melbourne.

  18. Ah yes mark yum cha. The afl wants families involved, 4.40’is the worst time possible. You are faced with having to feed them and then get them home for baths etc. It’s too hard so people with young kids stay away. If my kids have a choice between afl and their fave cartoon the afl loses.

    The afl needs to remove at least one Melbourne club I know Jeff feels the same so if thats parochial knock yourself out. The afl cutting spending is a sure sign that one club is about to get relocated to tassie.

  19. Ah Mark, back from killing Bambi are we?

    Might surprise you to know I do not hate the national competition, have not said that once. Expressing my concerns about the viability and impact of the two expansion clubs is not the same thing. I’d hate to see Port fold as any of the Melbourne clubs. Ultimately, as Mike says, the number of Melbourne clubs is not sustainable it seems, and one or two will probably end up somewhere like Tassie / Canberra full time.

    The point of the article was not to whinge about the equity of the draw either, it was about the road blocks being put in front of a good proportion of the football going public to actually attend games. And once you lose that higher level of engagement, you will potentially lose a lot of kids and others to other sports.

    Some of your reasoning as to the reduction in crowd numbers is rather amusing too. No standing room? The old suburban grounds went by the wayside many years ago – it’s not a matter of reduced capacity being the problem when the seats are quarter full anyway!

    And I also pose the question, if the highest drawing clubs were languishing, what then would the crowd figures look like? As mentioned, that these clubs are doing well mitigates most of the other reasons for the decline in attendances.

    Anyway, keep drinking that kool aid Mark, it’s always an interesting debate.

  20. Dave Nadel says:

    Jeff, don’t worry about Mark’s criticism. The standard response from any worshipper of the holy dollar who puts the interests of media monpolies above those of traditional fans is to accuse critics of the heresy of opposing the National League.

    Like you I have never opposed the concept of the national league. However when I criticised the VFL/AFL approach, particularly under Ross Oakley in the two chapters I wrote in the 1998 book More Than a Game (edited by Hess and Stewart) I was accused by several critics of opposing the National League and wanting to leave football in the 1960s. In fact I supported the concept of National Football but accused the VFL of ad hoc decision making and putting the interests of fans and clubs last. I would have thought that the attempted merger of Fitzroy and Footscray alone would have proved that, even if the 1996 mismanagement of Fitzroy’s bankruptcy had not happened. But of course any criticisms that I made were, in the eyes of the AFL apologists, “Another whinge from a conservative parochial Melbourne person, who does not like the national AFL competition”

    You are not even original, Mark.

  21. Mark,
    Clearly everyone other than yourself is an imbecile. I suggest you change your medication.
    For anyone who actually enjoys going to the football, the twilight games (especially on Sunday) are a no-go (yum cha lunches notwithstanding).
    Do you actually go to the football? Who (if anyone) do you support?? Give us a bit of background old boy!

  22. pamela sherpa says:

    Mark’s comments always amuse me- I quite like reading his perspective on things- always a bit different and interesting.

    Jeff, interesting article. It made me think about what I don’t like about scheduling and going to games. For starters -night games in winter are just too cold for me . Night games also restrict country people from doing a day trip which used to be a very popular family outing.The other turn off is drunken abusive fans. Price of games I find very reasonable . Food and drink prices don’t worry me because I don’t go to the footy to eat and drink. I do that beforehand and just go to watch the game. People who whinge about the price for families draw little sympathy from me. Kids cost money full stop.

    Interesting times though with expansion. I think it’s fabulous that you can go to any state or territory in Australia and see a game in the national competition.

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