In May, when it was announced as expected that Gillon McLachlan would take over from Andrew Demetriou as AFL CEO, we examined what he needed to do to regain for the AFL the respect of the game’s fans.
The release of the AFL fixture for 2015 yesterday showed he’s already gone at least some of the way to achieving that: While there are winners and losers teamwise in the draw, the classic scheduling of weekend football has made something of a return.
There are more games on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, start times have been pushed 20 minutes back to be more family-friendly, and the Sunday and Monday night experiments are thankfully dead in the water. It seems that, far from being an empty PR slogan, 2015 could well become “the year of the fan” as the emphasis returns to getting people watching games at the ground rather than on TV.
But while the fixture is a victory for football, and for McLachlan’s credentials as the people’s champion, there’s still plenty to do before AFL can legitimately be called a game for supporters. Here’s a revised checklist for Gill and co.
Ticketing: Under the AFL’s new “variable ticketing system”, people have to pay considerably more to get seats at high crowd drawing games than they did last year. For example, away members may needed to pay up to $30 to upgrade to a top deck seat at the MCG in season 2014, and the argument that there are more good seats at low-drawing games to make up for this didn’t really stand to reason.
McLachlan has said he will address the cost of going to the footy, but that probably won’t mean scrapping the new system as much as communicating better how it works to fans.
Whatever “addressing” involves, this is the issue McLachlan really needs to get right to earn his credibility as the supporters’ friend, because this is the issue the supporters will hold him to the most: crowd numbers plummeted in 2014, and expected blockbusters featuring Collingwood, Carlton, Richmond and Essendon in the first four rounds this year barely fetched 60,000 people.
Women’s participation: The AFL’s progress when it comes to including women in the game languishes well behind its efforts with race, culture, and even homophobia.
Women make up an estimated one third of club members and 43% of the AFL’s viewing audience. There are over 100,000 female footy players, 30,000 in Auskick and around 1500 accredited coaches according to the Geelong Advertiser’s Elise Potter.
But for their contribution, women only get superficial representation at league level. Only two women currently sit on the AFL Commission: Sam Mostyn and Dorothy Hisgrove. Only Hisgrove has an executive position as general manager of people, customer and community.
The gender imbalance in senior positions is just as obvious looking at most club boards, the only exception being Peta Searle, who was appointed the first ever female coach at an AFL club in June.
McLachlan has promised to lead a more diverse AFL and set an example by promoting more women to senior positions, but he needs to act on this sooner rather than later to avoid this becoming an ‘election’ promise.
The new CEO will need to listen to the voices of existing female members on the commission to make sure any action taken towards gender equalisation is meaningful, and doesn’t just become a token move like the annual Women’s round or the “AFL Woman of the Year” award (which ironically was given to Searle in late September).
Commercialisation: Next year’s fixture might demonstrate how the TV paymasters don’t wield ultimate power over the AFL hierarchy (though the $1.25 billion broadcast rights deal continues), but there are still huge amounts of money pumping through the game in other areas. One of the main criticisms of Demetriou’s final years in power was his running of the AFL as a business rather than a social enterprise, ignoring obligations to the fans in the process.
We’ve already gone over ticket prices, but once at the ground fans are just as likely to grab at their hip pocket in pain, Cyril Rioli-style. Whether you’re at the MCG or Etihad, a bucket of chips will set you back around $7, and up to $12 if you’d like two small pieces of fish thrown in.
Meanwhile, arbitrary advertising deals prevent fans from throwing banners over the fence and covering the messages, while bombarding them with gambling advertising over loudspeakers and on the scoreboards, severely detracting from the experience of going to the game.
“AFL capitalism” is the lasting impression Demetriou’s regime will leave on the game, the factor that most alienates fans and the one McLachlan will have the most difficulty reigning in.
Grand Final Entertainment: Bit of a minefield, as we know. But if Gill can get right what Andrew never could next year, it will suitably impress the fan community and he’ll have another success under his belt to follow the fixture. My advice? Keep it simple: Get the local acts and go easy on the theatrics and pyrotechnics. Good Luck.