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AFL fans show their loyalty - now they need to be rewarded

Football

Everyone is doing it tough in Australian football – but no-one has had it as tough as the fans. Michelangelo Rucci reports AFL clubs – the league itself – will need to reward loyal members in 2021.

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Does “Joffa”, the AFL’s most famous fan, wear his infamous “Game Over” gold jacket at home when he wants to declare his beloved Collingwood has a match on ice?

For two decades Jeff “Joffa” Corfe, a long-time leader of the Collingwood Football Club, has been a staple of AFL television coverage, in the same way the cameras and microphones are expected at the winner’s circle for the boisterous rendition of the club song.

This year, colourful fans like “Joffa” are missing* – along with hundreds of thousands of others locked out of AFL matches since late March when the COVID-19 pandemic led to restrictions on public assembly. In Victoria, the game’s heartland, the turnstiles have developed rust – and fans are locked within the Victorian borders while their teams settle in hubs in Perth, the Barossa Valley and Queensland.

At Adelaide Oval, the grass on the northern hill has not felt the kick of a frustrated football supporter all year, nor been drenched in spilled beer from the old scoreboard bar. The Showdown between derby rivals Port Adelaide and the Crows was limited to 2000 members of the competing clubs and the Oval’s membership; in “normal times” the 53,500 tickets could have been sold twice over.

No-one among the so-called “stakeholders” in the game has done it tougher than the fan. But the majority of club members – even after being denied their well-worn seats at the MCG or Adelaide Oval or Perth Stadium – have left their hard-earned money with their clubs.

It is big money too.

Adelaide Football Club chief executive Andrew Fagan measures the full dollar value of the Crows’ membership tickets at $20 million – a third of the club’s total annual revenue.

Across the 18-club national AFL competition that last year sold a record 1,057,572 memberships, only one per cent of those purchased before the March shutdown have been refunded.

“The AFL and the clubs have learned their fans are the most loyal people in the game,” says AFL Fans Association president Gerry Eeman. “They have been given a reminder on just how lucky they are to have them.

“Even with people losing their jobs with the downturn of the economy, all but one per cent of members have passed up refunds on their memberships. That is quite astonishing. It shows how much they love their clubs.”

Geelong premiership coach Chris Scott describes this loyalty to the clubs as “amazing”.

“Members right across the AFL have stood by our clubs: that has been phenomenal in these times,” Scott said. “If they had not stuck fast, we’d all be in dire trouble.”

“Hopefully,” adds Eeman, “the league and clubs reflect on this when they make decisions on how football looks when we get back to full capacity after COVID. That loyalty needs to cut both ways.”

The AFL traditionally announces its audit of club membership figures in early August. It is expected to wait until September in this “unprecedented” season. Last year, both Port Adelaide and the Crows recorded falls in membership – to 51,951 and 64,437 respectively.

This year, the final counts will take on a new significance. They will tell of loyalty and the generous nature of fans towards their cash-strapped clubs. But what do they want in return in 2021 and beyond?

In the fall-out from COVID, Eeman’s lobby group expects more impetus for its long-running campaign to get more AFL grand final tickets for the members of the competing teams. Last year, 34,000 of the 100,000 seats at the MCG were allocated to the members of Richmond and Greater Western Sydney – leaving almost 100,000 members at home or scrambling for tickets from expensive tour packages or those unloaded by disinterested corporates.

“We can’t start 2021 with the feeling the fans are to be taken for granted again,” said Eeman. “There needs to be sensitivity to ticket prices – an end of dynamic pricing (that in Melbourne allows clubs to increase ticket prices when they notice demand is rising).

“But the carve-up of grand final tickets could become a real wound that festers with fans if the AFL does not act.

“So many grand final tickets – too many – are going to people who do not support the teams in the grand final.”

The onus is on the clubs is to take that on board. They cannot treat their members as consumers.

Port Adelaide this season could have expected record membership – breaking the 2018 high of 54,386, as audited by the AFL – on the back of the club’s 150th anniversary celebrations and the on-field form that has put Ken Hinkley’s team at the top of the ladder since the season-opener in mid-March.

Instead, at the shutdown moment after round one, Port Adelaide was as many as 7000 short of expectation – and with nothing to sell while the AFL searched for a return-to-play date.

In the next fortnight, those who were expected to take up membership in April – when Port Adelaide was to have hosted top-billing games, including a Showdown, at Adelaide Oval – will have the club reach out to them in the first test of how the fans feel about opening their wallets for Season 2021.

It will be a telling moment in Australian football.

Port Adelaide executive general manager Matthew Richardson worked the membership division at Alberton during the club’s darkest hours in 2011-2012 (with the tarps at Football Park) through to the revival on entry to Adelaide Oval in 2014. He did not need the COVID pandemic as a reminder about where the fans fit in the crowded football landscape.

“(AFL) clubs had 12 weeks to peel everything back and ask what is most important in our game,” Richardson said. “As the game has grown, there has been this fight for priorities, for determining who or what is important. Well, it is very clear who is most important at a football club – our members.

“They are truly invested in their football clubs. It is not a commercial transaction when they buy their memberships – it is an emotional one. They deeply care for their clubs.”

Richardson also is without doubt on what the Port Adelaide members expect in return: a winning football team, preferably dressed in the black-and-white bar design that was their club’s distinctive symbol in the SANFL.

“That jumper defines the connection between our club and our fans,” Richardson said. “For Richmond that connection is the ‘yellow and black’; for Essendon it’s the red sash; Carlton has the CFC crest – and for Port Adelaide, it is the prison bars and the passion our members have for that jumper.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it is wherever we can bring our fans closer to the club, we should absolutely do it. This can only make our clubs and the game stronger.”

Eeman adds: “The onus is on the clubs is to take that on board. They cannot treat their members as consumers. Selling a membership should not be a business transaction.”

Hard-core Crows fans keep the faith despite huge disruption and not a single win by their club. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Eeman is a Melbourne-based Sydney supporter who moved to Canberra shortly before the latest lockdown in Victoria where no AFL game will be played for the rest of the season – not even the grand final for the first time since 1897. He describes Australian football as the “great escape”.

“We all used to look forward to the end of the week when we could get away from our everyday problems by escaping to the footy,” Eeman said. “The game is a social glue. There are friendships made at the footy that become extensions of our family. There are family traditions that are built around going to the footy together.

“In lockdown, the game has become even more important to the fan.”

Richardson pays credit to Port Adelaide’s marketing and media division for filling the void during 12-week shutdown when there was no football to offer on weekends.

“That is where our 150th anniversary delivered a blessing – not as we had thought, but with a library of old and current stories to unpack while there was no game to play,” Richardson said. “Our task during the shutdown was to have our passionate fans feel connected with their club. We had to communicate openly amid all the confusion and quick changes to give the members an insight to what was happening at their club.”

For much of the past 30 years there has been a powerplay and conflict at AFL House between meeting the demands of television executives – in particular with unpopular timeslots at Sunday lunchtime and Sunday twilight – and the needs of the fans. The COVID pandemic has reaffirmed that the fans are not to be taken for granted, not by the AFL, the 18 clubs – or the television executives who had their primetime shows become tame without the cheering and jeering of the supporters such as “Joffa” on the terraces.

“They (the fans) have proven to be the strength of the game during its toughest moment,” Eeman said. “It is interesting that the clubs today are all sending out questionnaires to their members, all based on a template you can assume has been provided by the AFL. They are already thinking about what membership could look like in 2021 – what will keep the members happy and balance the books (to start clearing away heavy debt from this year).”

The AFL Fans Association Facebook page recently asked its members how they have answered the clubs’ calls to pledge membership money to the 2020 or 2021 campaigns – and how the clubs have treated them since. The reactions range from total support and total satisfaction with their clubs to dismay at how some clubs have failed to interact with their fans, even after keeping the full membership money in the clubs’ strained treasuries.

One North Melbourne member wrote: “I was rather underwhelmed when I got an email about the scarf/cap/beanie you get for being a member. They offered to post as long as I paid postage. Seriously? $350 for a membership and that’s the thanks??”

Richmond appears to have done the same with one member posting: “Tigers still have nearly 100k members and I was also happy to keep mine… As well as pay postage for my scarf.”

And there is this warning from one member who did not disclose her allegiances: “I’m hoping next year’s membership package stays the same (in cost) because it’d be a bit of a slap in the face to support them all year for the love of the team and then have the price hike for same or less (in membership rights).”

Richardson says the lasting message from the COVID crisis – not just in the AFL but all sport – is to honour the fans.

“We are nothing without fans,” Richardson said. “This is ringing true for everyone, everywhere in sport. We are compelled to sharpen our focus with the fans.

“Take something away – and you realise how much you miss it. We’ve played in locked-up venues with no crowd. We played before 10,000 at Adelaide Oval on Saturday and their passion was unbelievable – so was their part in making that the best game of the season.

“Those fans made themselves heard – and we are listening. We’ll always be listening.

“We know how important football is to the fans in these tough times. And as clubs, we know how important members and fans are to us to get beyond these tough times.”

The players certainly will never again undervalue the fans.

“Bloody bizarre,” Collingwood defender Brayden Maynard says of his experience in empty stadiums this season after five years of blockbuster games with lock-out crowds, particularly at the MCG.

“I love the fans hurling abuse over the fence; I love that kind of stuff,” adds Maynard.

And “Joffa”? “You’d imagine,” says Maynard, “he’s still wearing the jacket at home …”

*Home for Joffa is now a remote village in Fiji. And when football returns to Melbourne there will be a new leader of the Collingwood cheer squad waiting to continue the tradition of Joffa’s famous gold jacket.

Michelangelo Rucci’s column is published each Friday in InDaily.

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