The Disneyfication of the AFL

The Disneyfication of the AFL

by Dr Andy Fuller, University of Melbourne


The game of Australian Rules football is a grassroots and mass sport. It’s played by millions of girls and boys, women and men in casual and informal ways: on streets, in backyards and on muddy suburban ovals.


It’s a means for imaginary pleasures: we dream of being stars, while in reality, we can’t kick with our non-preferred feet. For some of us, when we realise the limitations of our own playing ability, we channel our passion into being ardent supporters of our beloved clubs.



Marvel is the latest of several corporate sponsors for the stadium in Melbourne. Picture: Supplied


Team jumpers and handknitted scarves are passed down from one generation to the next. For many fans, going to the footy with their children is a part of maintaining a tradition.


But the corporatisation of Australian Rules football at the professional level is increasingly interfering with the everyday fans’ enjoyment, and ownership, of the game.


This corporatisation is writ large through the AFL’s recent alliance with Disney, which is being hailed as a whole “new era of entertainment” in Australia. Meanwhile, the AFL remain in a lock-step partnership with the gambling industry and are heavy-handed toward anyone who is perceived to infringe upon their copyright.


Even the simple act of buying tickets for games is becoming more expensive and opaque – fans are even unable to clearly compare prices.


The end result of the game’s corporatisation and now ‘Disneyfication’ is increasing sameness in the sporting experience and the creation of a more streamlined, slick and consumer-driven experience.


The Australian Football League is an anomaly – rather than the norm – in the landscape of Australian Rules football, but it monopolises attention through its wealth, celebrity glamour and the skills of many of its star players. The success of the AFL is founded on the decline of the SANFL, WAFL, TFL and VFA.


The AFL, to the annoyance of many, has consistently sought to establish ‘AFL’ as a synonym for Australian Rules footy. Even legends of the game such as Leigh Matthews use the phrase, ‘play AFL’ and the term is now accepted in New South Wales.


Such is the price of ‘expansion’.


Footy exists on a broad spectrum of cultural practices within the Australian sporting landscape. The Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) has around eight divisions for men, and seven divisions for women.


It’s in this league that Fitzroy Football Club lives proudly on and is watched by loyal fans from the beautiful grandstand of Melbourne’s Brunswick St Oval. In amateur footy, the division between ‘fan’ and ‘volunteer’ is negligible.


In the VFLW, women’s footy is played throughout winter – well beyond that brief burst of summer attention given it by the AFL. In the VFL (M), the re-emergent Frankston Football Club is back and, along with great stalwart clubs like Williamstown, Port Melbourne, bucking the trend of affiliations with big-brother AFL clubs.


The AFL is increasingly distancing itself from the grassroots fans who have formed the foundations of the current elite version of the game. Instead, the AFL is cosying up to and forming profitable but problematic alliances with large and multinational companies: Disney being the latest and largest.


Despite the long list of professional players who have had gambling addictions, the AFL still regards it as good practice to adorn their ‘product’ with logos of gambling companies. Geelong, to their credit, have recently opted against having gambling advertisements at their stadium.


The AFL’s executives and the players enjoy their high incomes in part because of the boom in gambling sponsorship and lucrative TV rights. Children aged eight, now, would never have seen an AFL match without gambling advertisements. The ubiquitous gambling logos are normal for a new generation of fans.


They’re on your phone, your TV, your footy record, and on your social media feed too.


Some sports fans prefer the World Game of (Association) football – that Australians call soccer – and regard footy as a parochial obsession of the folk who have never ventured beyond the borders of Oz.


The (Disney owned) Marvel-isation of footy is seen not only in the frolics of the new cut down version of the game – AFLX, but also in the Thor-inspired “worst footy strip of all time” worn by the Western Bulldogs in their Round One game against the Sydney Swans. It should be no surprise that Bulldogs vice-president Kylie Watson-Wheeler is managing director of The Walt Disney Company Australia and New Zealand.


It seems tradition washes away swiftly.


Meanwhile, the AFL plays a dictatorial hand whenever anyone, like a regular fan, innovates and reproduces an image related to a player in the AFL.


The game, its images, its iconography is part of our shared history, mythology and memories. It’s an outcome of shared and collective passions. We use this passion to express ourselves, shape our identities and, of course, to have fun with family, friends and strangers – people we’d meet nowhere else.


But, the AFL relegates the interests of fans to the margins. We see that in the continual ticketing fiascos, the ceaseless gambling advertisements and the Disneyfication of once proud, supporter-driven clubs.


The intensifying promotion of Marvel products within the Australian Football League may provide fans with a moment of pause to re-consider their own connection to the game.


In the AFL, fans are only valued as consumers rather than as contributors to footy culture.


Fans have their own agency to choose sports and clubs which best reflect their communities, families and everyday shared experiences. They may just decide to go elsewhere rather than spend their hard-earned cash on the AFL, Disney and any number of gambling companies.


First published in Pursuit, 8th April 2019


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  1. Rabid Dog says

    Excellent article. Too many truths for the comfort of the AFL. Also, it’s great to see a Victorian state the same blights affecting AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL that I too am worried about.

  2. E.regnans says

    Thank you, A Fuller.
    May your words be widely read and widely considered.

  3. Dave Brown says

    As the other state leagues fell into line in the ’80s and ’90s, control of the national game was handed to the rebadged VFL. Great for the league (as it continues to hit record numbers of everything), not so great for footy.

  4. Great article Andy – many truths there. You’ve hit the HEAD ON THE NAIL I fear this mid season draft will further help to destroy the standard of SANFL matches.

  5. Shane John Backx says

    Never a truer word spoken.

  6. Brilliant Andy. Instantly brought B.Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” to mind-

    And everyone of them words rang true
    And glowed like burnin’ coal
    Pourin’ off of every page
    Like it was written in my soul.


  7. How well spoken Andy.

    Footy, like everything thing else is now reduced to a commodity, with the exchange value being the primary. Not surprising, not pleasant. Consumers si the word for those paying to ‘enjoy’ the commodity.

    I’ve been to two games this century,though enjoy watching it on TV.

    What did Adorno say about standardisation ? Every game can look the same in the stadiums,with the ‘entertainment’ added on to the footy entertainment. That’s why it was great going to Williamstown last Saturday, as they played Port Melbourne under lights. It felt like the essence of the game, not a contrived entertainment package.


  8. Brilliant critique – I agree with every word – particularly the moneying up to the predatory gambling corporations. But I wonder what I or any of us can realistically do about it?
    Rockefeller and the other robber barons of 19th century America realised that you didn’t have to own the oil – you had own the means of distribution. Similarly Google and Facebook in the 21st century as we have moved into the Information Economy.
    The AFL controls the distribution of elite football in Australia and that control brings in the wealth that buys the compliance of clubs, players and traditional media commentators.
    On an optimistic note I went to see an Icelandic movie Woman At War yesterday. A gentle, improbable and witty fable about one woman waging a secret war against environmental degradation by corporations and government. As much about manipulation of debate and covert surveillance by the powerful as about environmental destruction. An engaging, provocative story where I didn’t always agree with the protagonist (what was funding her comfortable lifestyle?) but made me think about our Individual responsibility for action rather than passive acceptance. Do yourself a favour.
    Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Well said Andy.

    I’m really pissed off by the Trojan Horse at the Bulldogs. They’ve sold us all out, for what?

    But what you have said is mirrored in society at large. Footy used to be a refuge from the working week, now it is inextricably linked with commerce and, at the highest level, always will be (and probably always has been).

    It used to be about Hutton’s Hams or Pelaco shirts, now it’s about relationships with Queensland ex-coppers or the investment vehicles of Rhodes Scholars.

    Populo ludus populi indeed

  10. Thanks Andy, a great read and like the others who have commented before, I’m very much in agreement with your sentiments. Funny so many Almanackers would feel the same hey?

  11. Stainless says


    I don’t disagree with the sentiments but I reckon we Almanackers all too readily engage in groupthink when it comes to this subject. As you say:

    “Fans have their own agency to choose sports and clubs which best reflect their communities, families and everyday shared experiences. They may just decide to go elsewhere rather than spend their hard-earned cash on the AFL, Disney and any number of gambling companies.”

    Trouble is, we’re not. The AFL is as successful as it ever has been and most of us who whinge about the directions it’s taking are still as devoted to it as ever.

    Your lament is arguably more a reflection on ourselves than the League.

  12. Hi All,
    Apologies for my slow response to comments.
    Rabid Dog: I guess a lot (most, many) of the problems with footy can be blamed on the VFL-AFL. But Victorian clubs seem to be struggling too. Perhaps all clubs outside of the AFL are struggling.
    E.Regnans: Much appreciated :) I look forward to your next words.
    Dave Brown: Yes – the League prospers while footy withers at the margins. Two of my most enjoyable games over the last two years have been watching Darebin Falcons in Northcote last year, and watching the Roosters at Prospect Oval in 2017.
    Fisho: I kept away from footy news during the off-season so I missed this latest development. I share your fears.
    Shane John Brackx: I must have written it on a cranky day :) Those Bulldogs jumpers set me off I think.
    Mickey Randall: Thanks :) After seeing all these comments I thought of Patti Smith’s song, ‘People have the power’. It’s a simple statement, and I want to believe it.
    Glen: thank you for your anecdote and reference. I guess footy is being standardised into a consumer product so that it is packaged up like any other Disney product. My favourite ground at the moment is Kevin Bartlett Reserve just on the border between Richmond and Burnley, home to the other ‘Richmond’, the Division 3, Snakes.
    Peter_B: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the story about the movie. I like your articulation of ‘controlling the distribution of elite football’. Yes, we all have the agency to reject the kind of footy we are dished up. But changing our life-long habits and passions is very difficult and involves some sadness.
    Swish: Thank you. I’m finding footy an intrusion on the working week. I can’t enjoy a Richmond game on Thursdays because I’m trying to think about work matters and my Richmond-imagination gets scrambled. Perhaps the AFL will one day sell memberships based on time and day the game is played on: I’d buy a Seasons Tickets to Saturday Afternoons at 2pm.
    Jarrod_L: Yes – the Almanack is probably the best site which states a clear preference for treating all kinds of footy equally – whether it be the professional or amateur; the womens or mens. The AFL is creating a bizarre degree of separation with footy as a community sport. I don’t get it.
    Stainless: Much appreciated. Yes: I think fans have been far too passively accepting of the changes to professional football. I’m probably more willing to regard the AFL as having colonizing and hegemonic tendencies than to regard it as being ‘successful’. And as much as I dislike the hype associated with this local game, I cannot deny the joy I feel in moments such as Daniel Rioli’s goal against West Coast in Round 4 of the 2017 season. Those moments, regardless of the end result (win or lose, premiership or spoon) last forever.

  13. Paul Harradine says

    I live in the United States and until now didn’t realize that big American Corporations had shoved their ugly head into our national game.God only knows the major sporting events no in the the good old USA is riddled with giant American companies making the game you think you are watching more like an infomercial for whatever be giant corporation owns the be tights to the televidlsion rights to hraoadcast that particular sport my It takes an eternity to watch the last 3 minutes of any NBL game, xx 4 hours be to watch four 15 *minute quarters of NFL football, y you find yourself coming back to an NFL game watching the players looking around like sheep for a green light that says they can continue with the game.Ad s former SANFL be player and now is the time to protest the Fidneufacation of our great game.They have already tinkered with the tiles to make it more palatable to parents to convince them that the game has become more like basketball and therefore safer for their sons and now increasingly their daughters to play the game.
    Please if you care and care passionately about the greatest game on Earth xx put up your hand Now or it may be still too late, be because tomorrow may see the game slide over that inevatable abyss and find out that the yanke have already taken it from us I or a what amounts to peanuts b for these Corporations.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this and please think about be what I am warning.
    Paul Harradine

  14. Andy basically agree with every letter let alone every word.The afl truly disgust me with there lack of care and well being of the game,OVERALL.Stainless I think more and more fans gradually are making there choice
    for mine the lack of support for the state leagues is seeing people choose re there local suburban club or state league club it’s less and less doing both

  15. Harry well said to

  16. Jill Tahtra says

    Spot on mate. It was so great going to the footy with the “clan” in the 50`s and 60`s to all the ovals and seeing great footy. We had great crowds at the SANFL and in so many cases our players could walk around or work without being pestered in the streets. It was fun, a bit like country footy but a bit better as far as crowds went. I agree the glorified VFL has ruined everything, rules and all.

    Another fantastic comment mate keep em coming

  17. Bill Drodge says

    Good work Andy.

    I reckon there’s a place for the razzamataz of the US into the AFL, and good-luck to them with their “product” But I’d rather go and watch a game of football.

    What disappoints me, is the far reaching influence “AFL” has over Aussie Rules, where they want every level below them to fall under their banner, game style and rules.

    Pretty short sighted I reckon thou.

    Surely having a point of difference would make the AFL product more appealing, to a wider audience, for years to come.

    But these days it seems to be the same game style right down Div 7 Amateur League; where it’s just as much of a scramble and rolling scrum as the “elite” AFL

  18. Hi Paul, Rulebook, Jill and Bill:
    Paul: it is odd that the AFL only considers American sports as reference points. There are other sporting cultures that we can use as points of comparison. Or, we could simply make footy better drawing on our own practices. And, it has become ‘better’ in some respects thanks to a greater emphasis on women’s footy – but, even that step is far too minimal (in my book).
    Rulebook: Would be great to organise a ‘Non-League Day’ as is done in the UK as a means to support grassroots footy. I wonder if there is a mini-revival of VFL clubs these days. Would be interested in investigating this further.
    Jill: Sounds fantastic. I basically agree with you. But I’m trying at times to be more cautious. I’m not sure if the AFL (Glorified VFL) has ruined everything. I think it has merely compromised many, many things, and yes, ruined a lot of things. Thank you for reading :)
    Bill: I’m just wondering about the VAFA or the SANFL – aren’t they run independently from the AFL? (I guess I’m totally naive about this matter.) I don’t mind watching scrummy or mistake riddled footy: and indeed, that kind of footy is the norm. For me what’s important is a mixture between the integrity of the competition (of which the AFL is lacking) and the social context of the sport (of which the AFL is also problematic) and who is playing, where and at what level.

  19. Hi Andy. I’ve just re-read your article and it’s FULLER good points. Some very good comments from other readers too. I must admit I often enjoy watching past SANFL games on You Tube – certainly better viewing than the rubbish the Crows are dishing up now. Andy, there is certainly differences in the SANFL rules to that of the glorified VFL eg 50 metres rule and last player kicking the ball out of bounds.

    Anyway, keep sharing your thoughts with us.

  20. A well-constructed piece, thanks Andy.
    I am not as connected, nor as fanatical, as I once was – for a number of reasons.

    However, I am awestruck at the job the AFL has done in taking complete ownership of the game.

  21. G’day Andy, i’ve just tacked on a few articles of mine. It does not talk about the specifics of the AFL, but it looks at the commodification of sport, nay, all aspects of our society. It may / may not be of interest.


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