Vested interests pushing changes AFL fans don't want

There is a renewed push from the usual suspects to switch the AFL grand final to a night game at the MCG despite a thumbs down from footy fans. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
There is a renewed push from the usual suspects to switch the AFL grand final to a night game at the MCG despite a thumbs down from footy fans. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

You hear a lot of platitudes from the AFL and often the football media about just how important supporters are to the fabric of the game. Too bad it often rings hollow.

Footy fans don't really ask a lot in exchange for paying increasingly exorbitant premiums just to make sure they can get into and get a seat at a game.

Obviously, they haven't had that chance this extraordinary year. And yet a vast majority will willingly forgo that money to ensure the clubs they support stand a better chance of surviving the dreadful financial ramifications of COVID-19.

Generally speaking, fans in return simply want the opportunity to watch their team play in accessible timeslots at accessible venues. They also want a consistency when it comes to decision-making on and off the field. And to at least feel like they're being taken into account.

Most of all, they hate feeling like they're having a swifty pulled on them. And that's how it feels all too often these days.

The football public is smarter than either the game's administrators or much of the media seem to think. And when this season first began under some radically altered conditions, there was understandable trepidation that those changes would become permanent, accompanied by convenient rationalisations as to why.

Those fears seem even more justified now. And the ongoing discussion (though the dialogue seems to be going in one direction only) about shortening the length of AFL games is a perfect example.

When the AFL originally announced the changed playing conditions for round one, pulling quarters back from 20 minutes plus time-on to 16-and-a-half minutes plus time-on, it was on the basis the health crisis was going to force a lot of games to be packed into a far shorter schedule, with far less recovery time in between.

As it has transpired, with the next four rounds' fixtures released, the program looks much the same as usual.

But not only has there been no discussion about reverting back to standard lengths, there's instead a steady stream of self-serving propaganda about how the shorter game should now be the standard.

Where's it coming from? Not the supporters. Not now, indeed not ever have I heard even one fan complain games were too long. It doesn't appear to be coming from players or coaches, either.

Where it is originating is from those in the public eye with connections to the TV broadcasters.

It was, after all, official broadcaster, the Seven Network, which first aired the suggestion that lopsided games were costing them audience numbers after half-time, and that the 20-minute interval should be reduced. And now comes another means of achieving the same ends.

That, though, is just one example. Over the past week, we've again seen the prospect of a night grand final in this extraordinary season floated in several mainstream media outlets (not coincidentally, you suspect).

The accompanying commentary went to some pains to suggest that such an event would be just a trial for the concept, almost as if not to scare the "natives", who time and again (not to mention AFL players) have overwhelmingly given a night grand final the thumbs down.

But having spent the best part of two decades pushing annually for a night or twilight premiership decider, does anyone seriously think the networks aren't going to frame whatever sort of ratings they get (and as if they'd be any lower than usual) as compelling evidence that the grand final at night was now here to stay?

It then took fully five minutes after the AFL announced it would release this year's draw in four-round blocks for yet more media types working for the TV networks to suggest this was the way fixturing should be permanently, of course overlooking the needs of those prepared to follow their teams interstate to purchase affordable fares well in advance.

It's the lack of transparency in pushing such agendas as much as the self-interest which really galls.

And perhaps the various barrows being pushed, stories concocted and positions within a bloated industry being justified have been laid even barer by the lack of any real action on the football front these past couple of months.

That was perhaps summed up in one "virtual round-table" discussion last week about sport in the aftermath of COVID-19, a talk involving administrators and media figures.

Collingwood president and media commentator Eddie McGuire (and it was never made clear exactly which hat he was wearing during the discussion) weighed into that with an enthusiastic agenda for more radical change, justified by the following "pearler".

"One of the mantras in Australia is, 'If it's not broken, don't fix it'. Whereas, in other places you say, 'If it's not broken, break it and fix it and make it better'," McGuire said.

Umm, righto Ed. Now I'm not sure exactly which other places do say that, but I for one am pretty glad I'm not living there.

That is the very definition of meddling for meddling's sake. And in this case, with a product we're routinely told is more popular than ever.

Of all footy fans' concerns, I'm very confident length of games, a desire for a night grand final or for a floating fixture scarcely rate a mention.

They're the lot of vested interests. And imposing that will on an entire football public by stealth, particularly right now, is in my view a pretty tacky effort. How about showing you really do care about the fans, guys, and binning the propaganda for a while?

This story Shorter games short-change the fans first appeared on The Canberra Times.