The AFL’s Monday night experiment last night was, depending on who you ask; a roaring success or a failure. While the match was not exactly a spectacle due to the dominance of St Kilda over an injury depleted Collingwood of greater relevance to the AFL would have been the gate attendance and television ratings achieved by broadcaster, Channel Seven.
It is forgotten that the AFL has previously experimented with Monday night football, more than a decade ago, in 1997 (in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide over the course of the season). The experiment failed dismally, with terrible attendances and lukewarm television ratings forcing the AFL to re-think the concept of out-of-weekend matches.
Monday Night Football has been an institution in the United States since 1970, when ABC executive Roone Arledge devised the concept of a showcase Monday night match, usually, between well-supported teams. (Arledge was later ranked third on a Sports Illustrated List of individuals who have had the greatest impact on sport, behind only Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan).
While a runaway success in the United States — much like reinventing a team on the Gold Coast, it appears that the Andrew Demetriou-led AFL executive have very short memories. While the AFL would no doubt deem last night’s attendance of 46,000 at the Docklands Stadium in Melbourne a good result, the reality is not so rosy. St Kilda and Collingwood are generally, relatively high drawing clubs — in 1992, a match between the two drew more than 80,000 spectators. In 1996, almost 72,000 attended the same fixture at the MCG while 68,000 attended in 1997. Even at the smaller Docklands ground, almost 49,000 fans saw the teams play off in 2006.
Others may claim that the purpose of Monday night football is to maximise the potential value of broadcasting rights and increase overall revenue for the competition. However, the ratings of the match contradict that notion. While 530,000 viewers viewed the match in Melbourne, the delayed telecast in the lucrative Sydney and Brisbane markets drew a pitiful total audience of 23,000.
While Monday Night football has been a huge commercial success for the NFL and its broadcast partner ABC (and more recently, ESPN), it is important to note the demographic differences between the US and Australian markets. NFL teams are relatively evenly spread across the US (with the notable exception of Los Angeles). By contrast, the vast majority of AFL spectators, members and viewers reside in Victoria (as well as South Australia and Western Australia).
The NFL has traditionally been a fully national competition which allows broadcasts to garner widespread viewers. By contrast, the AFL (and previously VFL) has been more of a spectator sport, focused primarily in Victoria and the Southern states (until the mid-1980s, most matches were not broadcast). With the exception of finals matches involving the Sydney Swans, television ratings north of the Murray have been poor, such that the AFL has to coax broadcasters into showing games into the otherwise lucrative Sydney market.
The Monday Night experiment is the latest in a long-line of AFL initiatives which have notionally been in the interests of “the game”, but have been detrimental to long-time VFL/AFL supporters, particularly in Victoria. The maligned Sunday twilight matches and now Monday night games are horrendous for young families and an inconvenience to workers and students.
Similarly, the Victorian ground rationalisation of the 1990s and 2000s significantly increased the cost to spectators and has now led to clubs like North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs effectively paying to play matches on Etihad Stadium. In a rather vicious cycle, the potential inclusion of the new non-Victorian clubs further worsens the financial situation for those already struggling existing teams, who are forced to play more money-losing matches.
The majority of AFL fans simply want to watch their team play a local rival on a Saturday afternoon in front of a full house of roaring fans. It appears that the AFL Commission and bumbling executive are hell bent on not giving their members what they actually want.