AFL must listen to the supporters

Folk who don’t pay to get into AFL games are telling us that prices are fine – just catching up with those overseas – and we need US-style gimmicks to match the atmosphere created by non-Victorian clubs.

SEN’s Dr Turf thinks ticket prices are ''reasonable'' and it's only food and drink prices where AFL patrons are ''gouged horribly''. His host, Andy Maher, agrees, saying fans have been ''spoilt''.

A growing number of fans disagree strongly.

Already this season we have seen ludicrous surcharges for printing one’s own tickets at one’s own expense. Then the annual shock – we should expect it by now – of food and beverage prices: $7.20 for mid-strength beer. There have been outright prices rises, for concession and junior tickets. The league replied to queries about this by saying it had the support of its clubs. To gauge the mood of other supporters about prices, just open the talkback lines or comments on articles. You will hear and read complaints from club members, forced to pay again to be assured of a seat, and pay heavily. The spectre of ''flexible'' pricing also looms. It is based on the US model, where the seats at less popular games at mostly sold-out venues are offered at a discount. But here, the suspicion is that it will make people going to well-populated games pay more.

Also on SEN, it was argued that ''we’ve got to think of some different things to get the fans crazy''. We need to have fans at ''fever pitch'' at the start of games.

Why? What is so broken that artificial means are necessary to make fans loud? Footy crowds are an organic beast, consumed by the ebb and flow of the game. Their unpredictability is their glory. They don’t need to be manipulated, by loudspeaker exhortations or contrived chanting. Fans are paying attention to the action, or looking forward to it. Crowds make plenty of noise at the right moments, of their own choosing. We are excited enough barracking for our teams. If the game is riveting enough, they will be at fever-pitch.

The model for most such suggestions, US sport, is a great, completely different spectacle. The NFL has the money, and the critical mass of mainly one-team cities, for the razzamatazz. And many of their other major sports are indoor affairs, where theatrical pyrotechnics can have more of an impact. Even there, canny sports administrators do not apply a hackneyed one-size-fits-all approach to different groups. Canadian ice hockey venues, for instance, supply more analysis and replays for their hockey-savvy crowds. In California, there are more non-ice hockey bells and whistles in breaks in play.

It’s all about respecting the market, and listening to what it wants. That's the example we should take from the northern hemisphere, not fireworks and player-by-player introductions.

Every loud, garish gimmick borrowed from US sports has been met with as much indifference or hostility as approval by footy fans here. Roarmeter anyone? How about having a dog woof after a Bulldogs goal? Anyone for intrusive, blaring ads and crap pop music throughout breaks in play, rendering conversation difficult?

Does anyone ever stop to consider that all people want of a game day is a reasonable level of comfort and security and the ability to see FOOTY? Has any policymaker remembered that diehard fans in Melbourne want to go EVERY WEEK to see their team? Ticket prices are so high in North America that such supporters cannot possibly afford to attend every game. Is that what we want? This is meant to be our game, everyone’s game, after all. And those going are those watching on TV, the great provider of the modern game.

Yes, it’s great that our two Melbourne stadiums are clean and safe. But apart from ensuring higher minimum standards of hygiene, what else is better about going to the footy now than a generation ago?

The increased complexity of ticketing and the necessity of membership means you can’t go on a whim with mates, especially if they don’t barrack for your team. This has eroded the tradition of barracking among rivals, Melbourne's greatest and most unique trait as a sporting city.

The eradication of home grounds has greatly reduced the pleasure of the weekly home-and-away odyssey. It’s the same two stadiums every week now, instead of the exciting voyages of discovery in uncovering the idiosyncrasies of each club’s patch, and how it influences proceedings. The level-three homogenisation of Etihad Stadium renders it like a cartoon with the same background scenery for shot after shot.

There was a time when kids could have a kick on the ground after the final siren.

The eradication of curtain-raisers dramatically reduces the value for money and enjoyment of diehard fans, who used to arrive early to grab a glimpse of a future star or returning veteran.

The lies about moving blockbuster games from Colonial/Telstra/Etihad Stadium.

The hopelessly compromised draw.

The hysterically cynical price of food and drink.

The co-opting of pre-match banners, now often reduced to yet another advertising and branding vehicle for clubs.

Anyone for Sunday night footy?

In case you think I am a lone grumpy crank, here are the eloquent words of Jeff Dowsing last August:

''Pandering to theatregoers and corporates and comparing yourself to American sports has a price. Sadly, the egalitarian nature of attending the footy died with the once-maligned Waverley Park and its bawdy suburban cousins. Sure, general admission remains remarkably inexpensive, but for those who cannot afford premium seating or wish to book weeks in advance, the choice between the couch comforts of home or vertigo perched in the gods is made even easier by family unfriendly scheduling.''

Dowsing suggested a group be formed from among AFL members to lobby for fans’ rights. Already, a fledgling AFL Fans Association exists. It is little more than a Facebook page so far, but it exists for a reason.

If the AFL's average fans are constantly lumped with more complexity, cost and disregard, they may develop a voice as pestering as their UK counterparts, the Football Supporters' Federation.

Here are some of the issues that group, 220,000-strong, has campaigned on: TV-influenced fixturing, inhospitable seating and kick-off times. Sound familiar?

The game is in good shape. It is important that players are paid well, that stadiums are clean and safe. But what seem tiny costs and annoyances to the rich and powerful can be onerous imposts for many baked-on supporters.

Everyone is important to Australian football, on and off the field. That is its egalitarian ethos. ''Everyone'' includes TV networks, corporate sponsors, toffs in superboxes, media commentators, MCC members, AFL and club officials and well-paid players.

And the fans.

The story AFL must listen to the supporters first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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