Give the game back to the fans

August 18, 2014

Last week I went to the footy on Friday night.  It turned into quite an expensive outing. I suppose I was lucky enough to avoid forking out $30 a ticket since a couple of generous Carlton supporters (I know right?) gave me their membership for the night.

So I arrived at Etihad Stadium and paid $30 for parking – not a great start. For dinner, I paid $14 for a meal deal at Red Rooster. By three quarter time it was time  for a hot chocolate and a donut – for which I forked out $11. In total, I paid $55 for a night at the footy, and this was despite the free entry. At least Geelong won the game…

Yet clearly, the interests of the fans have been put second to the corporate world, and new Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan needs to switch the tables and return the game to the fans.

Currently, there is disquiet among the footy public and commentators about the state of the game and McGlachlan will have a plethora of pressing issues that need addressing. If he wishes to leave a strong legacy, his starting point for every issue should be in the interests of the fans. It’s encouraging that he has already indicated that this will be his approach – so the early signs are good.

So as a fan of footy for many years, Gillon, here is my wish list for an action plan that will make our great game stronger:

1. Reduce ticket prices

How much longer will the AFL defend its new ticketing system? Soaking the supporters of the popular (and generally more successful) clubs is a step in the wrong direction. The AFL might seek to justify hiking prices for ‘marquee games’ under the premise of supply and demand, yet this argument fails to stand up given that the AFL arbitrarily decides which games will be coded as marquee and which ones will not, before the fans even purchase a ticket. Further, the argument that the new ticketing system will encourage fans to attend less popular games makes little logical sense. Fans don’t attend certain games for a myriad of reasons, but here are the common three: expectations of poor quality, lowly placed teams on the ladder, and clubs with poor supporter bases.

2. Reduce the price of food and drink at the footy

I’ve already had my whinge about the amount I paid for food on Friday night. Sure, you can always pack your own beforehand, but sometimes you want to enjoy the whole footy experience, and this might involve a hot pie and chips, complemented by a FULL strength beer. Unfortunately, you need to break the bank to enjoy such luxuries, and generally the food is of a lower quality too. While the general laws of economics necessitates that prices might be slightly higher when there’s a captive audience, the current levels are a rort and fans are being slugged.

3. Yes, it’s time for full strength beer – none of this mid-strength rubbish!

Seriously, mid strength beer? Whatever happened to the days when you could go to the footy with your mates, knock back a few beers, and support your team loudly and proudly? Sure, there’s a few idiots who might take drinking too far, but why should the rest of the fans suffer because of the actions of a minority? It’s no wonder people increasingly prefer to go see the local football on a Saturday afternoon.

4. More Saturday afternoon footy

Monday nights, Thursday nights – forget it! There might be a few people out there who don’t mind the Thursdays, but not me. Footy is best on weekends – when you can enjoy the game and not worry about the clock because you have work the next day.

5. Abolish the Rules of the Game Committee

The overwhelming consensus among fans is to leave the game alone. Football is good because it is not technical – but for how long we can make this claim is another matter. Any committee is going to feel compelled to justify its existence, and this means the game is currently subject to an unfortunate number of new ‘experimental’ rules during each pre-season, with some getting the green light during the regular season. Of course, the progressives argue that new rules help to combat unhealthy trends in our game, to which one can simply point out that football is organic. For more than 100 years the game evolved naturally with little tinkering of the rules from men with in suits with big salaries. It’s simple – leave the game alone and let it evolve naturally.

6. Reform or abolish the Match Review Panel

The current system is broken. The inconsistences are vast and player, coach and fan confusion is at its peak. The problem with the MRP is that it uses a flawed points system to assess whether a player should be suspended. What is an attempt to regulate decision making has turned into anything but.

Each incident where a player is cited is unique dependent on a range of variables. A blanket points system inevitably bypasses this reality and reduces the discretion of panel members to ticking boxes. It also discounts the underestimated factor that should be front and centre to all tribunal decision making – common sense.

7. Make room for the bump

Jack Viney’s two match suspension earlier this year was rightly condemned by most of the footy public, and thankfully wiser heads prevailed and the suspension was overturned. Yet if the AFL don’t address the issue of the bump, they may as well make it official and announce that it is dead altogether. As stated above, there should be room to move on tribunal decisions where a bump is involved – where a bit of common sense is used to assess the severity of the incident rather than the ‘contact to the head’ rule. The nature of the bump means that head contact will more likely than not occur since a player is knocked from their balance and this often will result in a jerk to the head – sometimes connecting with the player initiating the bump. It is a sad state of affairs when fair players are being branded thugs via suspensions when they are simply playing the game with the vigor expected at the top level.

8. More freedom of speech for players and coaches

For many years it has been taboo for coaches, players and club officials to comment on any issue involving umpires, tribunal hearings or administrative decision making. This ‘big brother knows best’ mentality is not good for accountability. What improves any sporting code is a healthy and robust debate about a myriad of issues that affect it – not silencing its key stakeholders with the specter of financial retribution if they speak out of line.

9. The Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne, and Melbourne

I’ll save the most contentious point until last. But seriously, how much longer can these clubs continue on their current path until something bucks the trend? Our national competition currently comprises of ten Victorian clubs with the other eight dispersed across the country. Combined, the Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne and Melbourne hold approximately 80,000 members. That’s only 10,000 more than Collingwood. To be fair, these numbers are an improvement – and it is true that North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs have made some progress in recent years – so this is a start. Yet I would argue that the long term futures of these three clubs is something that the AFL cannot shy away from. There is no simple answer, but as the national competition continues to expand and profitability becomes an increasing issue, the AFL will need to consider strategies to keep these clubs sustainable long term – and lopsided contracts with corporate entities like Etihad Stadium are not helping.

Over to you, Gillon – make your chapter a good one – something the fans will thank you for.

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