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The AFL Grand Final and the case for sharing it around

Football

It took two COVID-hit AFL seasons to finally force the biggest game of all from Melbourne’s grasp, and debate on where and when to hold the Grand Final remains as lively as ever, writes Michelangelo Rucci.

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For more than a century there were two certainties in Australian sport – the Melbourne Cup ran on the first Tuesday in November at Flemington, and the VFL-AFL Grand Final was played on the last Saturday in September at the MCG.

In April 2018, while non-Victorian clubs debated the fairness of deciding the AFL premiership on a ground that is home to six Victorian rivals, the Victorian Government thought it should ensure the famed stadium remained the stage for the AFL main event until at least 2057.

So it put on the AFL Commission table a $500 million deal, locking in the big game to the 100,000-seat venue that was already contracted to host it until 2037.

The state government was aware of the growing challenge from interstate, with billions being invested in sporting infrastructure and big events –  local and international football classics, Test cricket, Commonwealth and Olympic Games – being aggressively pursued.

The AFL grand final should run as an Olympiad – once every four years it should move its way around the country.

The deal sparked immediate outrage among non-Victorian AFL clubs – in particular Sydney and later at Adelaide with then coach Don Pyke – as they questioned the focus of the AFL Commission and the league executive. A national agenda for a national game, or more proof that the AFL’s Victorian roots run too deep to truly change course?

But $500 million – dedicated to an exclusively Victorian program that includes upgrading the MCG, the league’s indoor stadium at the Melbourne Docklands and football venues from the Carlton Football Club’s home at Princes Park to grassroots clubs in Victorian regional areas – is too hard to turn down regardless of where the league is based.

Only a worldwide pandemic, that at one stage last year had the New South Wales State government seeking to grab the AFL grand final, the Melbourne Cup and Australian Open tennis championships for Sydney, has denied Melbourne its rights to Australian football’s biggest match of the season for two consecutive years.

The long-term contract keeping the AFL grand final at the MCG is now extended to 2059, to make up for these two lost years as a result being forced away to safe havens at the Gabba in Brisbane and Perth Stadium during COVID lockdowns and border closures.

But the debate on when – and where – the AFL grand final is played is swinging back to those advocating a national theme.

The case for moving it out of the MCG to other major venues across Australia is gaining more and more significant voices, from Australian Football Hall of Fame legends Malcolm Blight and Leigh Matthews to media commentators Dennis Cometti and Gerard Whateley.

The concept of a non-Victorian venue hosting the AFL grand final every four or five years is stronger after the weekend’s Melbourne-Western Bulldogs play-off before 61,115 fans at Perth Stadium on Saturday than it was with the Richmond-Geelong clash at the Gabba last October.

Whateley was outspoken against Sydney hosting last year’s AFL grand final at the 2000 Olympic Games stadium at Homebush. But he describes the weekend’s event at Perth as “perfectly executed” and a grand final that “opens the possibilities for the future”.

“In Adelaide, you should be thinking, ‘We get a go at this in four years’,” Whateley said. “The AFL grand final should run as an Olympiad – once every four years it should move its way around the country. This year has reinforced that thought for me.

“Every 16 or 20 years it should land in your city. The contracts preclude that, but there is more money to be made moving (the AFL grand final) around the nation.”

Hall of Fame broadcaster Dennis Cometti at the weekend completed his 50-year run of calling VFL-AFL grand finals with an unexpected finale in his home city of Perth.

The MCG is known as the home of football,” says Cometti.”But every now and again I’d like to see the grand final move down the road. Not all the time, but now and again like salt and pepper in the mix. The whole thing went off well over here … Adelaide should get the same chance with Adelaide Oval too.

“Perth Stadium was the star for this (year’s) grand final. The way the game was presented made me proud to be a West Australian. It has given (the debate on multiple grand final venues) impetus.

The concept of assigning the AFL grand final to a non-Victorian city every five years certainly has more appeal than the suggestion for a best-of-three grand final series posed in 2018 by then Sydney chief executive Andrew Ireland – and reportedly endorsed soon after by Pyke while he was Adelaide’s senior coach.

Both Sydney, in 2016 to the Western Bulldogs, and Adelaide, in 2017 to Richmond, lost AFL grand finals while facing lower-seeded Victorian rivals that had benefitted from greater access to the MCG before the premiership play-off. In 2017, third-ranked Richmond played 14 games on the MCG (its home ground), including four in row with the grand final. By contrast, minor premier Adelaide had just four games at the MCG that season – and none in the seven weeks before the grand final.

Since the MCG first hosted a VFL grand final in 1902, the event has been taken away from the cricket ground just seven times – by war needs at the venue from 1942-1945; with the rebuild of the MCG stands in 1991 when the grand final was played at the now decommissioned VFL-AFL Park at Waverley in Melbourne suburbia; and to venues outside of Victoria for the first time during the past two seasons by COVID protocols.

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, who signed the $500 million deal with the AFL in April 2018, can argue “a contract is a contract”. But the same line was uttered during the 1990s and early 2000s when one of the two preliminary finals each season was locked to the MCG as part of the 1992 AFL-Melbourne Cricket Club deal that financed the build of the new Great Southern Stand.

The MCG last hosted an AFL Grand Final in 2019, a daytime match between Richmond and Greater Western Sydney. Photo: AAP/Michael Dodge

This contract challenged the integrity of the AFL top-eight finals system that is designed to reward higher-ranking teams with finals in their home states.

The issue of “fairness” was emphasised in 2004 when Brisbane, despite ranking higher than Geelong, was forced to play its “home” preliminary final at the MCG after Port Adelaide had hosted St Kilda at Football Park at West Lakes.

South Australian Wayne Jackson, in one of his last acts as AFL chief executive, renegotiated the MCG contract to ensure any non-Victorian club earning a home preliminary final would host the match at its home venue.

There also is the commercial argument that the MCG has 100,000 seats (of which as many as 26,000 are allocated to Melbourne Cricket Club members and only 17,000 were assigned to the members of competing clubs Richmond and Greater Western Sydney in 2019).

But Perth Stadium – with 40,000 fewer seats but highly-valued corporate entertainment suites – delivered the same financial return to the cash-conscious AFL as an MCG-hosted grand final, with league chief executive Gillon McLachlan recognising the “corporate” power of the $1.6 billion venue that opened in 2018.

As a spectacle it could not have been better – and if we want international appeal for our indigenous game, it is scenes like we had in Perth that will help take the game overseas

A league that has lost as much as $6 million a week while being locked out of Sydney and forced to play in empty stadiums in Melbourne during the latter parts of the home-and-away season gained $40 million from a full house at Perth Stadium for the AFL grand final in which Melbourne ended its 57-year premiership drought.

“If there is a strong financial case (for the AFL grand final being played outside Melbourne),” says former Hawthorn player and director Jason Dunstall, “the powers that be at the AFL are always happy to listen.”

The biggest match on the Australian football calendar will return to the MCG next season. This is said with greater certainty than it was a year ago as a result of the COVID vaccine rollout.

But in question is when the AFL grand final will be played. On the agenda are – the so-called “traditional” daytime timeslot with a 2.30pm start in Melbourne; the increasingly attractive twilight hour at 5pm that has the first half played in daylight and the half-time entertainment against a night sky; or a night-time event with a 7pm start?

The AFL Fans Association poll at the weekend highlights the day timeslot remains the most popular (75 per cent) among supporters – and twilight has not surged in appeal after the Perth example (20 per cent). In 2018, the same poll had a 67 per cent preference for a day timeslot and 24 per cent approval for twilight.

A night timeslot has just five per cent approval in this year’s survey among the fans.

Hawthorn goalkicking great Jason Dunstall, who won four VFL-AFL premierships in grand finals played in the traditional 2.30pm timeslot, argues the images from the twilight setting in Perth are the key to promoting Australian football internationally.

“As a spectacle it could not have been better – and if we want international appeal for our indigenous game, it is scenes like we had in Perth that will help take the game overseas,” Dunstall said. “Twilight looks the best; it allows you to put on that sort of show and make people overseas say, ‘Wow, this is pretty big’.”

But AFL Fans Association president Cheryl Critchley responds it is wishes of home-based fans that need to be considered first.

“For many,” said Critchley, “it’s about the day’s rituals. The morning build-up on television and radio, the grand final breakfast, the barbecues, the pre-match, the game, the presentations … and time (during the evening) to celebrate. No need for fireworks.”

Before the COVID pandemic changed the landscape, AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder repeatedly endorsed the grand final becoming a twilight event. The critical moment that influenced many AFL leaders was the successful presentation of the 2019 twilight preliminary final between Greater Western Sydney and Collingwood that began at the MCG at 4.35pm Melbourne time.

To many this twilight slot for the AFL grand final seems inevitable – particularly with the gains to be made from television partners, most notably Channel Seven boss Kerry Stokes.
In 2015, while negotiating a record $2.5 billion television deal with the AFL, Stokes offered – as part of his so-called “suggestions” to the AFL – to pay extra for a twilight grand final. He noted: “Twilight games happen to get more ratings than day games do. And if one wants to be the most-watched grand final in Australia, it would seem sensible it might be at twilight. (But) the AFL control the schedule and we accept that.”

The expectation is the AFL Commission, aware of the sensitivities in the Melbourne market, will appease the fans with a day grand final on the last Saturday in September next year.

“I don’t think anything should be taken for granted,” said AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan. “I know how many people want it during the day at the MCG.

“I think you play it on its merits given the venue, the state, the circumstance.”

McLachlan left Perth this week describing twilight as “a pretty good slot” for the AFL grand final.

“To have the first half in the day, second half in the night, I like where it was – and for (Perth Stadium) it went perfectly; it was pretty spectacular.

“But the MCG is different. We will process it and have a look.”

Australian football’s challenging 2021 season closes this weekend with two major State league grand finals, both played as day games. On Saturday, at Perth Stadium, defending WA Football League champion South Fremantle will play Subiaco. On Sunday, at Adelaide Oval, defending SANFL premier Woodville-West Torrens will play minor premier Glenelg.

And on Monday, the off-season opens with trade talks among the 18 AFL national league clubs. One season quickly blurs into the next. What needs to be resolved at the AFL Commission table in the next few months is (COVID permitting) where the grand final should be played – and at what time.

The debate has certainly changed in the past 11 months. As Whateley says, the “possibilities for the future” are open, just three short years after the Victorian government thought its $500 million had ended the debate for decades.

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