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Couch warmers: stay-at-home fans challenge AFL

Football

Lockdowns, crowd caps and disrupted schedules have pushed more AFL fans into a TV-watching comfort zone. Getting them back into stadiums could be an issue, writes Michelangelo Rucci.

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One of the inane moments of a day out at the footy in Adelaide in the BC (Before COVID) era at either Football Park or Adelaide Oval was the three quarter-time watch for the “official attendance” figure.

By 2019, the last football season before COVID protocols changed the game, this head count guaranteed eyeballs on the video screens at Adelaide Oval. It allowed the AFL clubs to sell sponsorship for the highly anticipated moment. Such was the curiosity for a number that it seemed more important than the toss of the coin for choice of ends at the start of a match.

Port Adelaide fans – who have been judged (or tainted) by their non-attendance during the tarps era at Football Park, generally groaned, arguing the Adelaide Oval Stadium Management Authority was short changing their club. Crows fans, who more often than not came close to filling the 53,500 seats at the Oval, applauded.

It was a game within a game.

Nowhere else in Australian football have crowd figures generated such attention, not just on scoreboards but also on talkback radio and in the game’s reporting. The numbers became status symbols.

Then came the worldwide pandemic in Season 2020 with empty stadiums or restricted capacity that has repeatedly changed from five or 10 or 25 or 50 percent, depending on a chief health officer’s ruling. And now AFL attendance figures are telling a deeper story on how the COVID pandemic will test the game when life returns to “normal”.

When seasoned AFL commentator Caroline Wilson threw up the red flag on Channel Nine’s Footy Classified show last week; “People are not turning up the football,” she said – her fellow panellists, in particularly former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire, were dismissive.

“We’re amid a pandemic,” McGuire responded after a graphic detailed the deflated crowd figures from round 15 with an awkward comparison to pre-COVID numbers.

“That does not mean alarm bells should not be ringing,” added Wilson. “Will they (the fans) ever come back in the numbers they did (before COVID)?”

“Of course,” answered McGuire. “We have to get through the pandemic.”

But McGuire did concede on a point that is alarming the AFL, its 18 national league clubs and the stadium operators. He noted: “The offering on television is sensational.”

Adelaide Oval was closed to spectators for the Crows-Sydney game in round one of the 2020 season, before the season was postponed. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Cheryl Critchley is the new president of the AFL Fans’ Association. She is a lifelong Richmond fan who was chosen by the AFL premiership club to represent the members – the largest membership base in the game with the first count of more than 100,000 – at the unfurling of the 2019 and 2020 premiership flags at the MCG during the season opener on March 18.

Critchley would not miss a home game in Melbourne. But many of her recently spoiled Richmond counterparts are staying at home, including her husband who last week passed up the Tigers’ clash with Gold Coast at the Docklands on Thursday night.

“He has become accustomed to watching the games at home,” said Critchley of the habit developed last year when lockdowns in Victoria cleared the AFL from its oldest cradle in Melbourne and Geelong.

“With the money we did not spend in going to finals (in Adelaide and Brisbane) last year, he bought a 75-inch television screen. He is quite comfortable at home watching the games on the big telly.”

Only 9327 supporters went to Marvel Stadium, a 21-year-old venue derided by Richmond coach Damien Hardwick. “I hate coming here,” he said in May.

Critchley was among the 14,787 fans who marched to Richmond’s home at the MCG a fortnight ago when capacity at the 100,000-seat colosseum was restricted to 25 per cent capacity. In the BC era, the same match-up at the same venue in 2018 drew 48,850.

Surprised by the modest turnout, Critchley took to her social media account on Twitter to ask why. She was bombarded with answers that do not read well for the AFL.

 They are getting annoyed and disillusioned – the talk of a night grand final and the rolling fixture does not help.

“It should be easy to get to AFL games, but it isn’t,” Critchley told InDaily. “Last year, many fans bought memberships and did not claim a refund after they had paid to get nothing with the lockdowns.

“Many now are finding they are still getting nothing, not even the free upgrades they were promised. It is difficult to download their tickets or get away from a $20-30 fee to upgrade their seats that were supposed to be free of any charge. They give up in frustration. The clubs are doing their best, but there are glitches in the ticketing system.

“Those who can get tickets are then concerned about how safe it is to be on public transport. They don’t feel safe going to games. There are health concerns.

“The rolling fixture,” adds Critchley of the AFL’s COVID-enforced method of delaying announcements on match timeslots that were settled in late October in the BC era, “hurts fans in regional areas. Night games can mean a 1am return home – or spending money to sleep at a hotel in the city. And people are doing it tough with their incomes cut during the pandemic – they can’t afford a night out at the footy as they did before COVID.

“There also is the QR codes. We (the fans’ association) support the QR codes because they are important to getting full capacity back to venues. The stadium operators need that data to keep crowd capacity rising.

“That Tweet came back with a whole heap of factors that are stopping people from going to the footy.

“They are getting annoyed and disillusioned – the talk of a night grand final and the rolling fixture does not help.”

The AFL Fans’ Association has moved from simply representing the old school of football diehards who would don their duffle coats and beanies to go to any game, any time, anywhere.

“We don’t see fans travelling so much interstate now,” noted Critchley. Closed borders – or the fear of being trapped behind a locked border – has made more and more fans reluctant to build a weekend trip around a football game.

“We now (as an association) also represent those fans at home who love Thursday Night Football because it gives them something to watch on television. But there has to be a balance. The game has record television revenue, and that is underwritten by the fans providing the eyeballs that count with ratings and for advertisers.

“Those television fans need to be looked after, too. But you need atmosphere with those telecasts – and that requires big crowds at the games.”

 The fans will need to be seriously looked after. The AFL will need to recognise the importance of the fans. They saw last year how terrible the game is without fans. The players certainly don’t like it.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan wants no game played behind locked gates. But twice this year the crowds have been turned away or locked out of the 60,000-seat Perth Stadium by lockdowns called hours before West Coast matches.

West Coast chief executive Trevor Nisbett has counted the cost of an empty arena while hosting Fremantle for a Western Derby in May and the Western Bulldogs last month at $6 million. Fremantle at the weekend was stripped of a big-earning match at home against the major drawcard of Carlton in Perth while both Western Australian AFL clubs were relocated to Melbourne.

In Adelaide, neither Port Adelaide nor the Crows has been forced by SA Health to play AFL games to an empty Adelaide Oval this year – and only once (the Adelaide-Sydney season-opener last year) were all fans locked out.

Port Adelaide has hosted nine AFL matches at Adelaide Oval this season for an average count of 32,098. This figure was 33,950 in the last pre-COVID season of 2019.

Port Adelaide chief executive Matthew Richardson expects his club to meet budget at Adelaide Oval this season.

“Our modelling of our business plan for the season was really conservative, starting with the expectation of 50 per cent capacity for the first half of the year growing to 75 per cent,” Richardson said. “The reality is we have been very fortunate in South Australia and the numbers have been better than that.

“But there is always the risk of a game not happening – and that does not hurt just the AFL clubs here. There is a football economy that stretches to the SANFL and community footy and even the stadium management itself from AFL games at Adelaide Oval.”

The Crows had their seventh home game of the year on Saturday when it lost to Brisbane in a match that was almost shifted to Ballarat. After the entire Adelaide playing squad spent two days in Melbourne last week – as a safety measure while SA Health counted new COVID cases in South Australia –  the Crows returned to Adelaide Oval with ticket sales called at 25,000. The attendance was: 16,178.

Adelaide’s average attendance this season is 27,923. It was 44,514 in 2019.

So will the fans return in a post-COVID era?

“The fans will need to be seriously looked after,” said Crithley.

“The AFL will need to recognise the importance of the fans. They saw last year how terrible the game is without fans. The players certainly don’t like it.”

Tara MacLeod saved the Port Adelaide Football Club from the tarps image developed at Football Park – where the club blocked off thousands of seats with plastic awnings – by creating the much-lauded and admired “game-day experience” that successfully took disgruntled fans away from big-screen televisions in lounge rooms and pubs to fill Adelaide Oval in 2014.

Now working for the Adelaide Film Festival, MacLeod has the resume that would tempt AFL House to tap into her expertise on how to fill the terraces when all AFL venues are back to full capacity.

So creative is MacLeod – as noted with her pre-game creation with the Never Tear Us Apart anthem at Port Adelaide home matches – that in-tune football analysts suggest the AFL and Adelaide Oval SMA should be seeking her on a retainer today.

When asked how she would deal with fans’ concerns with safety at Adelaide Oval, MacLeod replies: “If people are saying they feel safer with my family staying at home, then promote how safe it is at Adelaide Oval. Produce a video with (Port Adelaide captain) Tom Jonas cleaning the seats at the Oval … reassure the fans why Adelaide Oval holds that gold rating on COVID protocols.

“Deliver the message with a vision of Adelaide Oval being sparkling clean.”

MacLeod agrees with Critchley – and Wilson and McGuire – that the AFL’s greatest post-COVID challenge will be “getting fans out of their couches and back to the grounds”.

“To do that,” says MacLeod drawing on her 10 years of experiences with the demanding Port Adelaide fans, “you need to get back to basics, completely back to basics.

“What do the fans want? How does going to the footy make them feel?

“Footy is tribal. Each tribe has its own way.

“At Port Adelaide we dealt with every ‘touch point’ along the journey from the couch at home to a seat at Adelaide Oval. We asked, ‘What does the journey look like?’ We factored in how to engage with the fans on public transport, the march as a tribe from Rundle Mall to the oval, the pre- and post-game gathering in a game-day village at the tennis courts and the anthem.

“We asked about ‘our tribe’ and ‘our rituals’ as Port Adelaide fans. We knew there was so much they could get at home in front of the television. So we had to give them more at Adelaide Oval with amazing prizes that money could not buy and experiences – such as Perfect Pair (the dating game played out during matches) – that you don’t get on the couch at home.

“We thought we needed to keep to a very simple theme: What do people want to come together and feel part of something special? We were lucky we had a shiny new stadium to offer them at Adelaide Oval, too.”

MacLeod and her events team at Port Adelaide spent more than a year knowing their “tribe”.

“Each club is different,” MacLeod said. “So each answer is going to be different.”

The AFL today has reason to look at those crowd figures – just as Crows and Port Adelaide fans do with their three quarter-time ritual – with greater attention.

The numbers of fans in front of televisions is quite understandably growing. Reversing the trend will be testing.

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