Era, era on the wall; 2011 –

PART 9 – Whatever it takes

“Right now everyone’s angry and they’re angry for 100 different reasons.”
Collingwood President Eddie McGuire, August 2015

Since Jock McHale was a boy players played because they enjoyed it and watchers watched because they loved it.  Footy was a diversion, an emotional outlet, a way of feeling connected to a tribe and like-minded people.  For some it even gave their life purpose.

Its popularity, like so many sports, gave rise to an undeniable monetary value.

For a long time most fans were oblivious to the value, or its direct correlation with their level of investment.  All they wanted was a weekly football match at a reasonable price and convenience.  Even though the League’s quest for new audiences and new money meant football lurched further towards the entertainment industry, pared back to basics, it was still football. Given the value for money, a degree of corporate intrusion and compromise was reasonably seen as inevitable.

“Now tell me that AFL doesn’t manipulate the game to its own end. They treat the game as a theatre production not a fierce competition.”
Grant Thomas on one of his pet AFL peeves

At some stage in the 21st Century the AFL ceased to administer a football competition.  It became a facilitator of content arranged to fulfil a lucrative television contract.

By 2011, the weight of numbers following the game meant the content possessed massive value; $1.25 billion over 5 years for TV and $23.2 million for radio broadcast rights.  It was the deal of the century and the ten AFL executives pocketed bonuses averaging almost $700,000 each.  In 2013 CEO Andrew Demetriou received an extra $2 million on top of his $1.8 million salary.

Marvin and Andy dropped the ball in 2011

The AFL won plaudits for their professionalism.  Geelong president Colin Carter, gave credit to “the amazing decision they made 25 years ago to have an independent commission, which got all of the big conflicts of interest out of the management of the game.  The impact of that has been profound, because it enables them to pursue a whole bunch of strategies which would not have been possible.”

So, no more conflicts of interest, with the AFL starting its own media company and entering their own team in a competition it administers…  And besides Collingwood winning a flag, football was in a great place, yeah?

For sure an independent commission saw the game survive and thrive but, as David ch-ch-changes Bowie posed in his 2013 comeback single, ‘where are we now?’


So this went on, and on, and on…

Since 2011 the game has been an ongoing exercise in crisis management.  In a perverse way the media giants are getting more than they had bargained for, despite a strong argument to say the game is at its lowest ebb since WW2 (at least back then the League had Hitler to blame).

Record (Collingwood boosted) crowds over 2010-11 actually served to exacerbate what has been a mighty fall from grace.

“The league got too clever by half with its scheduling and ticketing, presuming the supporters would, once again, obediently fall into line.”
Rohan Connolly, The Age, 2015

Year on year crowds dropped 5%, then 10%, and have been in a holding pattern since.  Gains in Adelaide and Perth offset a sorry state in Melbourne where half the clubs reside.  The catalogue of woe over the past five years (not all of the AFL’s making) has drawn unprecedented negative coverage to the point where the actual footy has become a sidelight.


Football’s most infamous front gate

* Essendon supplement saga
* St Kilda schoolgirl sex controversy
* Ben Cousins’ public drug battle
* Illicit drug culture and three strikes policy
* Melbourne tanking investigation
* Adam Goodes racism imbroglio
* Stephen Milne rape charge
* Game blighted by congestion
* Seeded/inequitable draw
* Substitute rule
* Variable pricing and fixturing backlash
* Finals price hikes, Grand Final packages and club member ticket access
* Significant gambling problems (yet betting agencies heavily promoted)
* Clubs relying on pokies revenue to survive
* Widening gap between clubs, ongoing bail-outs
* Suns and Giants draft concessions, disinterested markethuge financial drain
* Match Review Panel inconsistency
* Chris Judd’s Visy deal
* Soccer fast overtaking the hearts and minds of our youth

Master and apprentice. How’s their form?

Mind you, whilst football as far back as the 1920’s adopted a business model to varying degrees of capability and success, external pressures of competition, globalisation, technology, media, population and societal changes have had a massive impact.  Such has been the unprecedented tumult and unrest, it’s little wonder sentiment was so low as to spawn a dedicated fans association.  The traction the AFLFA and general disenchantment gained in the media was such that the AFL was compelled to institute 2015 as the ‘Year of the Fan’.


A big round of indifference greets Captain Carlton and 21st Century match day experience

Consequently efforts have been made to somehow recapture the past through initiatives such as occasional curtain-raisers, kick-to-kick on the ground, free kids entry and cheaper food.  So far attendances in Melbourne have been stagnant and crowd atmosphere noticeably dour.  The habit has been broken and for many a weekly ritual has become a sometimes treat.

“I see a playing group that’s quite jaded and that’s a concern to me.  I just don’t think the majority are enjoying playing the game.”
Paul Marsh, AFL Players Association CEO

Getting high to reach the AFL summit

Whilst players have long understood their significance to the football economy, it took a long time before club and League administrators were prepared to do the same. And when they did, players continued to play because they enjoyed it.  After all, they took up Aussie Rules with stars in their eyes, not the vision of a five bedroom mansion in South Yarra.  By 2011 the average player wage more than tripled the Australian average. Given the game’s demands and the revenue their efforts generate, most would say ‘fair enough’.

“AFL has turned blind eye to illicit drugs (recreational as they like to call it) because they know it’s rife and adversely affects the brand.”
Strident AFL critic Grant Thomas

Killing the contest? You bet.

But with big money comes big obligations. Footballers being physically and mentally pushed to the brink in order to execute demanding game plans are now buckling to the pressure of what has become an onerous occupation.  High profile footballers Joel Selwood and Jobe Watson reiterated a player survey which found a majority of players no longer regarded football as fun.

Not that players are afforded much sympathy as they succumb to temptations which spare time and money affords.  Sadly, as players off-field exploits become bigger news than on-field action, hero worship for youngsters has become a concept fraught with disappointment and confusion.

“Call me a weirdo, but I think we have to protect the look of the game.”
The late Phillip Walsh (as Adelaide coach), 2015

To the game itself, fears of brain and spinal injury have changed the way football is played.  More stoppages than ever before and the lowest scoring since the late 1960s has the AFL worried enough to be considering what else must be done, as Gillon McLachlan says, ‘to enshrine the beauty of our game’. Proposed on-field zones being trialled in the TAC Cup would be a fundamental change, though not as drastic as Grant Thomas’ suggestion to do away with coaches (who are copping most of the blame).

The coaches themselves might actually agree with Thomas; a recent AFL-wide survey overwhelmingly found the job can be highly detrimental to their mental and physical health. Coaches reported paranoia, sleeplessness, nausea, and, in an extreme case, a sense of not wanting to be seen in public due to a sense of work-related burden.


Hmmm. Cameras on the goal line would help.  Oh well…

The Hawthorn Power Rangers celebrate another win

A competition beset by scandal after scandal, powered by ravenous old and new media streams, fans as guinea pigs to satisfy commercial interests feasting on the overcooked goose, on-field characters, emotion and freedom of expression suppressed…  How did it get to this?  Is anyone besides Hawthorn supporters still having fun?

With the AFL continuing to involve itself in a broad range of community initiatives and social engineering beyond running a football competition, perhaps its time the League stuck to its knitting.  Bigger isn’t necessarily better and people are already overloaded by politics and current affairs.  As this series of reflection has found, the League thrives when it doesn’t take itself so, so seriously and when there’s freedom from overbearing interference – be it from Headquarters, clubs or shrill ground announcements.

With a bit of luck the great hulking AFL ship can slowly be righted and, in a few years, a more positive spin can be written of the current era.  The more conciliatory, less arrogant approach of the man now in charge is a step in the right direction.

Video links
2011 Geelong v Collingwood Grand Final
2012 Sydney v Hawthorn Grand Final
2013 Hawthorn v Fremantle Grand Final
2014 Hawthorn v Sydney Grand Final
2015 Hawthorn v West Coast Grand Final


3 balls

The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)
Part 2: A war of attrition (1939-1948)
Part 3: Safe, at home and away (1949-1959)
Part 4: A popular routine (1960-1966)
Part 5: Rocking the suburbs (1967-1976)
Part 6: Castles made of sand (1977-1986)
Part 7: Growing pains and gains (1987-1999)
Part 8: Lost in transmission (2000-2010)

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. Some great observations Jeff as usual. Thanks for reopening the scar of the Captain Carlton debacle that I was unfortunate enough to attend. I find it deliciously ironic that WA and SA grows while VIC crumbles. After years of pillaging the best from interstate most Melbourne clubs stagnate. The AFL has lost its’ way and is now reaping what it has sown, that being disenchanted fans who want their game back. The game day experience. Can we at least platy TAC games before senior games se we can at least know some of the 100 or so kids that went into the cattle auction and get excited about our club recruiting them. The screaming ground announcers, the epileptic inducing signage. Get rid of it. It’s a mistake to think the the Gen Now types need constant distraction. They have their phones for that. The rest of us just want to talk. There is also a potential serious side effect for Victoria itself. Each season tens of thousand of interstate and rural footy fans descend on Melbourne for there yearly footy fix ( leaving aside the money gouge which is the GF .The summation of how the AFL has got it so wrong). Each of those fans spends anywhere between $500 to $1000 plus . What if they decide the experince wasn’t worth it anymore. Business and government coffers would take a significant hit as the AFL slowly kills the golden goose. I’m weighing up whether or not we come down this year. It’s not just the money. It’s a long way to go to watch crap football (see Capt Carlton reference) when I’ve got Fox at home and can flick to another game that might be a better spectacle. The AFL wins because of TV rights and slaps their backs and pockets accordingly but the clubs pubs, hotels, airlines lose through decreased attendance, not to mention the local bookies who rely of these weekend visitors during the dim months of winter racing. The first sign that administration/bureaucracy has failed is it continues to increase in number until it is totally removed from those it serves.

    Anyhow, I’ve really enjoyed the series of articles you have put together. Thanks for your hard work Jeff

  2. Thanks Tony and for adding your country perspective. As long as the country keeps producing players and people are watching on TV that’s all that matters it seems.

    Couldn’t agree more re TAC Cup as curtain raisers. It ticks so many boxes with regards fans and young players starting their journey to a possible AFL career. The overblown, overhyped and over complicated draft to me is nothing but strange names and numbers and perhaps a 30 second highlighights package.

    On the positive side with more AFL clubs in the VFL we are at least re-establishing that suburban feel. It’s really gained momentum this year with Footscray and Richmond playing at Western & Punt Rd Ovals in addition to Collingwood and Essendon at their old stomping grounds. Since the removal of zones, the U19s, reserves and home grounds I reckon the Melbourne clubs have struggled to generate the same passion they once did and the game is poorer for it.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I saw a very forlorn Blue Betty parked on Brighton Road near Elsternwick Junction just yesterday. Probably waiting for the fella who saw it on Gumtree to turn up.

    Sherrin should sue Carlton for damaging their reputation.

    Well done on this series Jeff. Thanks

  4. Dennis Gedling says

    It has been great to read this while they have gone through the classic games on fox footy up until this point and shows the general decline of some things in the sport. The commentary for one.

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Terrific ending JD. You’d thing someone would have given the AFL George Costanza’s book on Risk Management before this conga line of shitstorms soiled the game in this era. Looking forward to your views in 2020. Great series.

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