AFL Fans Association kicked goals despite itself

Back in August 2013 I posed the question to Sunday Age Sport readers as to why, given the groundswell of fan disenchantment with the AFL, there was no organisation to represent the interests of football’s greatest and arguably most important collective.

Whilst an AFL Fans Association had been conceived as Facebook and Twitter accounts, it was yet to be truly born.  And now strangely, almost 12 months since the AFLFA was formerly established last December, and despite having won the game (going by the AFL’s new fan-friendly initiatives) the Association is in a critical condition.

President Brian Clarke has quit and the webpage and Twitter account stripped of content a month before the first election had been scheduled.  Unfortunately the AFLFA is now in need of the magic spray, not even invited by the AFL to their upcoming fan experience summit.

Ironically, the League’s off season action on variable pricing, fixturing, curtain raisers and kick-to-kick may have killed the AFLFA with kindness. Who has the fire in the belly to hold the League to account now, should their fan-love be setting supporters up for a sucker punch down the line – as some cynics have suggested?

As with the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, which rode the zeitgeist this Spring Racing Carnival, the AFLFA did not need to be a huge lobby group to be hugely successful at being heard.  Even now, at a modest 5000 Facebook followers, the page is well shy of the 20k end of year target. Nevermind, once mainstream media caught wind that fans were mobilising and there was a semi-organised mouthpiece, it was all systems go.

Having been invited to a few early meetings on the back of my aforementioned rant, I eventually joined the Association’s board which was struggling for numbers, dollars and a sense of where to begin.  Like a duck sitting calmly on the surface the AFLFA was paddling like an Olympian to stay afloat.  There was no time to think, or properly strategise.  It just had to do.  Although the group knew variable pricing would cause a shit storm once the season began, the tsunami arrived early and there was no option but to surf the wave of discontent.

To that end freelance journalist cum media officer Cheryl Critchley was the AFLFA’s gold medallist, pumping out concise press releases at all hours, at a moment’s notice.  Despite reservations, Vice President Joffa Corfe had the requisite profile and handled himself well, cognisant of the need to build rather than ruin relations with the AFL.  And President Brian Clarke was an erudite, credible media performer (despite a run-in with ‘yesterday’s man’ Andrew Demetriou, who alleged Clarke ‘caused havoc everywhere he’s gone’).

Whilst I’m quite the armchair expert myself, some of the criticism and expectations of the AFLFA were perplexing.  Essentially the Association was half a dozen volunteers with full-time jobs and busy lives taking on the biggest professional sporting league in the nation, one resourced to the nines financially and staff-wise, not to mention with its own media company equally adept at playing attack or defence.  All we had going for us was Mabo and the vibe.

In fact we weren’t so much playing David versus Goliath as we were David’s kid sister. There was no point threatening shirtfronts – or fan boycotts – but nor could the Association afford to play patter cake either.

Whilst the AFLFA prioritised key issues – and steered clear of others such as the Essendon saga – in order to build a critical mass, it was obliged to engage on some level with its cohort on whatever sank their boat.  The Association was very effective at getting its message across on the big ticket items in a constructive rather than combative manner.  Obtaining a sit-down with AFL CEO elect Gillon McLachlan and commercial operations manager Darren Birch was in itself an unexpected outcome and a victory for fan power.  Headquarters had recognised the Association’s partially realised potential.

Unfortunately, after the Association’s somewhat successful ACCC complaint was lodged against variable pricing, momentum stalled.  Cheryl Critchley and Joffa quit in the aftermath of a blow-up between Clarke and another short-lived board member Mark Davis (brother of Fairfax journalist Michael Davis).  By this stage the AFLFA was hamstrung by internal politics, a lack of regular meetings and planning whilst being bogged in the minutiae of organising petitions, caps and stickers.

Personally, all this meant the AFLFA was no longer a pleasant distraction from my own soul destroying workplace of the time. When the president and secretary’s nearby catch-up with new potential board members organically morphed into an official Association meeting (to which I was not invited), it was an opportune time to walk away.  That my repeated resignations weren’t acknowledged was instructive.

Still, bringing fans of different allegiances and personalities together was never going to be easy.  This week, following Clarke’s resignation, Joffa was quoted as saying ‘some of us were in it for the wrong reasons, and some of us were in it for the right reasons’.  Clarke’s vision of a professional, income generating AFLFA that would sustain paid staff was not unreasonable.  However, a unilateral approach did not bode well for the Association’s ongoing viability.

Hopefully the AFLFA will soldier on to ‘keep the bastards honest’.  Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd and it’s the colour and atmosphere the fans bring to the game that is its lifeblood.   Always has been, always will be.


A sad site…


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.


  1. Enjoyed your piece JD. Criticising the AFLPA is like being against Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
    Apparently they are not real and someone else pays for the presents – who knew??
    I have no problem with the AFLPA’s general objectives, but I could never work out how it would get a coherent logical agenda.
    For example the AE and I pay $630 for our Eagles memberships/seats next year. Basically $60 per game EACH. I have done the maths and WA (and I suspect SA) fans will take variable pricing + booking fees + Victorian club membership fees in a heartbeat if they were available in our states.
    In the words of Harold MacMillan, Victorian fans “have never had it so good”. But accustomed to being pampered and propped up by talent and dollars from other states, they claim the divine right of kings.
    10 teams in one city means there are never enough dollars or fans to go around, so several are congenitally crap. Melbourne ticket prices are cheap by the national benchmark because there are two large stadiums that the crap clubs can only half fill at best. Supply and demand.
    I have no problems with a self appointed People’s Front for the Liberation of hereditary Victorian timeslots, but when I’m staring into the hot setting sun for the first half of Perth ‘night’ games to suit Eastern States TV time differences – please.
    Suck it up princesses.
    Whingeing Victorian footy fans are a colonial power upset at the decline of Empire. We all make compromises for a vibrant national comp – Victorian fans much less than most.
    Where you stand on all these issues depends on where you sit.
    Does the NFL have a viable fans lobby that embraces Pittsburgh and San Diego? No – because their interests are too disparate. San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks fans? LA Dodgers and Boston Red Sox? Tell ’em they’re dreamin’.
    Thanks Jeff.

  2. Hi Peter, thanks for your interesting point of view.

    The AFLFA had a lot in its plate in its infancy but it was in the process of trying to get representation in the other states as well. But the changes that were driving away so many fans, mostly in Melbourne, where 50% of the clubs reside, naturally saw the AFLFA emerge over here.

    There actually was a consensus across club supporters in Melbourne on the main issues the AFLFA was trying to push. The AFL’s recent Year of the Fan initiatives support that contention. It’s worth noting there is a huge fans association linked to English football (which is as parochial as you’ll get).

    I guess supply & demand would drive up prices for WCE & Freo. Though your membership is well under some levels of membership for the bigger clubs in Vic. And as you say, there are congenitally crap teams in Melbourne so having to pay in the order of $40-60 to avoid sitting in the back few rows of the top deck in a half full stadium hasn’t gone down well. Then there’s the issue of double dipping where those who’d paid for memberships to get access to games were subsequently being hit again with insane ticketing fees and additional admission charges to ‘A’ games. I could go on and on about other things like curtain raisers (they still have them in WA?).

    So far as the decline of the Empire goes, well, I don’t think too many in Victoria have worried comparing themselves to the ‘interstaters’ since they were winning flags regularly. In fact many club supporters would rather an Eagles or Port win than one of their home town rivals.

    As much as ‘progress’ will allow, here we just want the live experience returned to something vaguely familiar and affordable. Apologies.

  3. As one who has lived (and therefore regularly gone to the footy) in each of Perth, Sydney & Melbourne, I can endorse everything Peter has said. Melbourne is by far the best and cheapest place to go to the footy, and that includes in 2014.

    The $630 commitment ($60 per game) that Peter quotes is not the most expensive way to go the footy in Perth – it’s the only way. There are no general admission memberships, and there haven’t been for 20 years – plus there’s 15,000 people on the waiting list to get in. What he quotes is the basic entry-level access to the footy, if you’re lucky (or patient) enough to get the chance.

    Hence, I also find it odd (or maybe I should say “typical”) that a so-called national body focuses on looking after the most privileged fans, ignoring those that have been consistently screwed for a couple of decades.

    But (sigh) anyway, on a slightly different note, I have a question: can someone explain what the whole brouhaha about variable pricing is about?

    I recently moved to Washington, and if I want to go to a Redskins game, it will cost me more to watch them play the Dallas Cowboys than the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ditto at the ice hockey, it will cost me more to watch the Capitals play the Toronto Maple Leafs or the New York Rangers than (say) the Florida Panthers.

    To me, not only is that acceptable, it’s actually perfectly logical. I just don’t see what the big deal is.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    The variable pricing brouhaha occurs within a game – if the AFL gets its grading wrong, you get the ridiculous sight of empty level 1 seats at Etihad, whilst you are forced to still book a seat on the top tier. This is overlayed by a booking fee, even if you are a member.

    A personal example. I had a Crows Melbourne GA membership, my daughter didn’t. Not normally a problem if they are playing, say, Footscray, but against Essendon, it was graded in such a way that the only way we could sit together was for me to book and pay full price as a non-member. Yes, the answer might be to make sure she also has a membership, but we still would have had to book seats and pay extra for the privilege.

    Yes I know that I’d need to be a member if I lived in Adelaide, and I was.

    The match drew 30,948.

    We all get that you maybe can’t walk up on Anzac Day and expect a spot, but if you are going to differentially price based on supply and demand, you had better get your classifications right in the first place. Is there anything wrong with first come, first served for less than capacity fixtures?

  5. Hi Brad,

    It seems the problem you have in Perth is not having a 100,000 capacity stadium, or even a 70,000 capacity stadium which would ease the squeeze and perhaps bring down the price to an acceptable level.

    As Swish said, the angst with variable pricing owed much to the lack of communication and then the ham fisted execution. Fans in Melbourne had been frogs in a slow boiling pot but all of a sudden the dial was turned up markedly in one hit.

    Perhaps Peter & yourself should embrace the concept of the AFLFA – you never know, it might exert pressure to improve your lot too.

  6. Cheryl Critchley says

    Hi Jeff thanks for helping to explain the AFLFA’s early days. If interstate fans want to get involved in the AFLFA they are more than welcome. As a voluntary group the AFLFA simply did not have the resources to stretch that far this year and unless volunteers come on board from other states, it will be extremely difficult for us to stay on top of local issues around the country. As you say, fans in Melbourne had been taken for granted for many years and many reached tipping point this year. If interstate fans feel the same way, the AFLFA would love to hear from them and get an idea about what it should be pushing in those states. We simply don’t have the resources yet to be on top of the details of every stadium around Australia yet. But if someone from another state wants to help us we could. If you’d like to get involved you can email me at [email protected].

  7. Let us not be too fooled into thinking all the AFL fan changes were due to the AFLFA influence. Some things in life truly are a coincidence. The changes had far more to do with the new AFL CEO Gillon coming in, the AFLFA just popped up just as Gillon arrived and was about to put his stamp on things.

    I watched the emergence and decline of the AFLFA with interest. I’m in the UK and had friends deal with Brian Clarke a few years ago now. Similar story. Took a no brainer idea, set up the basics, talked the talk, shat everyone off, his way or the highway but as soon as democracy or the real hard work was needed, ended up him on the highway and it all fell apart and the original people picked up the pieces. Googling the various names one can see that Mr Clarke and Mr Nanfra (still at AFLFA) are long time associates so maybe Mr Clarke is still calling the shots, or at least still has a man on the inside?

    My advice Cheryl and Jeff, let it go and let it start afresh more organically one day in the future without the baggage and scars it already has. This was not organic this was a calculated move by someone with the AFL on his hit list for years and the AFLFA will always be remembered as created as a vehicle for that.

  8. I don’t disagree with some points you make Geri and thanks for sharing some interesting background there.

    Shouldn’t take away from those who were there for the right reasons and yes, whilst the AFLFA did get caught up in the perfect storm, don’t underestimate the role it had in making the key issues such an ongoing story. Ultimately the crowd numbers compelled the AFL to do something but I believe the AFLFA and in turn the media influenced that outcome to some extent.

    Notwithstanding the initiator, the time had arrived for such a body anyway and I believe it will resurrect itself in the near future.

  9. Maybe the AFLFA achieved something, maybe it didn’t; but I question an organisation of this kind which purports to be a representative of the fans and had maybe fewer than 3000 members (however ‘member’ was defined).

    So if on one hand, it achieved something, on the other it was simply an empty vessel for the newspapers to cite when looking for a supposed ‘fan perspective’.

    Was/is it well-intentioned? I don’t doubt the good intentions of people involved, but as a valid representative of the ‘fans’, hmm, no. I’d suggest it is impossible for it to be a valid representative of anyone but those whose views coincided with the leadership enough for the leadership to jump into action. Even then, was there as much or greater democracy in the organisation in comparison to an AFL club?

    As a self-declared representative of me or other fans, I treat the ‘AFLFA’ with skepticism.

  10. It’s a fair point you raise RDM and one that has been cited by others.

    If there’s a better or more representative way in which to formulate an AFLFA then I’m sure those involved would be interested to hear it. I think you also make a good point about whether clubs are necessarily all that democratic. Given that, and the AFL’s disengagement with regular fans over recent years, then it’s no wonder a fans association emerged.

    I’d contend at this point the AFLFA’s objectives of making the football more affordable and accessible to the average fan is unlikely to have too many objections. It should also be noted that whilst the AFLFA was very active in this regard by presenting information to the media, the Facebook page was geared around getting feedback.

  11. Cheryl Critchley says

    The AFLFA committee met last night and has a new president, Gerry Eeman, who is a lawyer and Swans member. Brian has left and has no involvement of any kind. The group is determined to continue bigger and stronger in 2015. Those on the revamped committee are genuinely there to build it and make it as representative as possible. Anyone who doesn’t believe it achieved anything last year should have a look at the debate the AFLFA generated, including dozens of media articles putting the spotlight on issues such as variable pricing. Until the AFLFA raised variable pricing the footy media had hardly touched it. As for those who are sceptical about what this group can achieve, why not get on board and help? The more dedicated volunteers the AFLFA attracts, the stronger and more representative it can be.

  12. The game is bigger than an individual, as even Andrew Demetriou recognised when his fine rhetoric said the AFL were the custodians of the game, not the owners. If Australian Football is bigger than the AFL or an individual so is the AFL Fans Association bigger than an individual.
    Footy has always had passionate missionaries, some overseas where Brian Clarke has set up various schemes, and for a time had Sport England involved in footy. I don’t know if this has continued. However, the achievement of any builder is judged by the legacy. In Bryan’s history (and I first met Brian after he had just had a loud argument with then AFL international co-ordinator Ross Smith at the 2002 International Cup at Oakleigh) there are interesting moments and changing scenes.
    And, as a Tasmanian and a Geelong Cats support AFL member, can I say that the game is, as always, bigger than the old VFL, and bigger than pricing at different grounds in Victoria and interstate.
    It is the future of footy which matters, which is why my book ends in 2058. Viva footy. Viva the AFL Fans association.

  13. RDM (Rob Macdonald) says

    Hi Jeff and Cheryl,
    Jeff – I don’t doubt the well-intentioned interests of the AFLFA, but your point is so broad that three blokes sitting in a pub or three women having a coffee would be as equally representative of the views of ‘the fan’. The AFLFA was/is a special interest group reflecting the interests of the founders and office holders. and I would counter that any perceived power is as much a creation of the media (seeking an ‘entity’ to quote) as it is of the AFLFA being a representative voice.

    Good luck to anyone with good intentions and good ideas. A plural democracy with competing ideas is surely good for a sport as it is for a nation; but for mine, the AFLFA should not claim or be represented anyone other than its own members and internal agenda setters.

    The ticket buying public was pretty clear in making unhappy noise about prices being jacked up, so I wonder if the AFLFA, rather than driving that agenda was simply standing at the shore commanding the tide to come in on that issue?

    Australian football has a democratic structure – it starts with membership of an AFL club, the election of a club board which then appoints a person who is one of 18 to elect the AFL Commissioners to be those who are empowered to be the custodians of the sport.

    I’d like to see stronger voting rights for all AFL club members and a stronger turnout in AFL club board elections as a representative voice. That fewer than 10 per cent of Essendon members voted in the recent election is an indication of a problematic apathy that needs to be solved before worrying about joining a fans association of any kind.

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