Women’s Footy: Be Careful What You Wish For.
When I was a kid, our home was surrounded by empty paddocks. There were a few neighbours too; their houses were camouflaged among the bedraggled gum trees that vastly outnumbered the population of people. In summer, we would leave home early, probably bare of feet, and we would take our scooters with us and go on adventures. We might scoot around for a while, up and down the un-made roads, then we would dump our scooters near a tree and throw stones and sticks into the small dam that captured the water and the bottom of the paddocks. The dam’s water was inky black and mysterious and it stimulated the imagination of our childish minds. One day a neighbourhood kid, urged on by the relentless chanting of those who were with her, built up enough gumption to plunge into the dam. She survived the experience, but reckoned she felt something brush against her leg in the water. We determined that it was the resident serpent that dwelt within.
After playing near the dam we would venture deeply into the paddocks to the bigger trees that grew along its rear boundary, and we would climb up these trees and some of us would fall out of them and break a wrist. This was calamitous. It required a retrieval of a scooter so someone could rush home and get Mum, then Mum would organise a hospital visit, and the kid with the broken wrist would eventually return home, triumphant in a plaster cast up to his or her elbow.
We thought these paddocks were huge. When we trekked into them it was as if we were a thousand miles from home. But we were close; perhaps 300 or 400 metres away. Everything was close; the school, the shops, our friends, the paddocks, the dam. We knew everyone who lived there, we knew every street, every dog (even the ones to avoid), every car, and every kid, even the ones we fought with.
And footy was the same. We went to the footy and we sat on the fence and we saw and touched and almost smelt the sweat on the brows of our favourite players. And when the final siren sounded we rushed onto the ground so we could slap our favourite player on the shoulder. That was a special thrill because he had the same number on his back as I did. And we would charge around the same grass that our heroes had just done battle on; kicking the ball up high to take imaginary species over imaginary defenders. The players were close, the grounds were close (perhaps a train ride away), our club felt close. We were part of it all.
Then football got “successful”. It got “successful” when the rapacious media machine, that was just beginning to come to life in the early 70s, decided that footy was a pretty good product to sell. But in order to protect their product, (so that it would be even more valuable) those in charge of footy had to remove it from the people. They had studied well. They applied the first law of economics; to increase demand, restrict supply. I’m not talking about the supply of games here. No, there are more meaningless games than ever. I’m talking about the accessibility of players and the game to the paying fan. Fences went up higher, the people could no longer get on the hallowed turf, the players “made themselves available”, clubs became the new churches and conducted mysterious ceremonies and fitness programs within. The only way to know a new player these days is to read his banal 100 word profile on a club’s web page, that might ask in-depth questions about his favourite food and all-time best movie. Riveting.
But we get to see the players on the weekend (or it might be a Thursday night or even on Good Friday if we are really lucky). Yes, we get to see them through binoculars from the tenth level of the Great Southern Stand, at row X and seat 59, because the game is so popular now, and unless we are prepared to pay extra to see our heroes up close (ie, within about 40 metres) then we are despatched to row X and seat 59. And we should be grateful.
And the kids? They can come in for free sometimes, especially on a school night (aren’t we good), but if Mum and Dad are not willing to see the value in paying extra for a seat within the same suburb as the game, then the kids sit in row X and seat 59 too. But they get to see their favourite player. They get to see him through Dad’s binoculars, or they might catch a glimpse of him, a tiny dot on a vast, green, successful arena, as he kicks a goal. Was that him? Not sure. Isn’t it great that footy is so well loved? But the kid will probably get bored at looking at tiny dots on a vast, green, successful arena, and start playing with his iPad. But, whether that kid likes it or not, he or she is now part of the machine’s statistics that prove that the game is popular, because he or she was at the game trying to see his hero.
I watched some of the women’s footy on the weekend. The people came because they could get close. The footy is right there, just over the suburban fence. You can actually touch them! The players celebrated their victory by embracing fans and talking to family members over that very same fence. The fans got to run onto the ground afterwards. We, the people, feel like we can get to know these new footy heroes. We’ll recognise their faces, we’ll understand their idiosyncrasies, and we’ll be a part of it all.
But, already, those in charge of the game are warning us of its “success”. Already they are making moves to protect their asset. Don’t believe for one minute that shifting games to bigger stadiums is about helping the people; the spectators, the ones who pay to get in. No, this is about removing you. You will be a pawn in the game of economic theory. The players will be further away. We will lose them in the noise of self-interested media hype. They will become dots in vast, open, vacuous spaces. More people will get into the ground and they will see a game. But it will be like eating a virtual doughnut; all style and no substance. The spectators will be spiritually unsated. And, before too long, the kids will be turning on their iPads before half time and the players will be “making themselves available”, and the AFL will conduct press conferences and pander to their captive audience of spoon fed journos. And we should be grateful.