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Jul 1, 2014

Footy fail: the AFL has lost its way

The AFL is dedicated to making a profit and pleasing broadcasters, with footy club members taken for granted. It's a pity the AFL is not run more like US sports teams.


The decision by the AFL to schedule the blockbuster Collingwood v Carlton match on a bitterly cold Sunday night proved what has long been suspected — the AFL is among the worst-managed organisations in the country and has long lost sight of the people it is meant to be representing.

While Collingwood president Eddie McGuire’s demand for compensation as a result of the poorly scheduled match is somewhat fanciful, the principle holds true: time and again, the well-paid executives at the AFL (led by the recently departed Andrew Demetriou) have been willing to jettison the wishes of regular fans in favour the so-called corporate dollar or magical broadcasting rights.

The fact that the ultimate “shareholders” of the game are club members has long escaped AFL House — if anything, regular members appear to be an annoyance that needs swatting away.

The AFL, under the guidance of Demetriou (and before him, Wayne Jackson), has had its priorities wrong. Instead of using sponsorship and broadcast monies to improve fans’ enjoyment of the game, they are used to increase the AFL’s profit (which appears to largely benefit the AFL executive, who receive fat bonuses — Demetriou’s salary, at $3.8 million, was the highest sporting salary in the land). It’s almost impossible for most club members to get a seat on level 2 of Etihad or the MCG (they sit largely vacant for most matches). If you want a grand final ticket, expect to pay more than $1000.

AFL fans are speaking with their feet. Last weekend, the Collingwood v Carlton match attracted a pitiful 40,936 supporters — the worst crowd since 1921 between the two teams. That’s forced the AFL to concede it will no longer schedule Sunday night games. On Saturday, St Kilda and Richmond faced off at Etihad Stadium in front of 28,487 people — the crowd boosted by the AFL offering “two-for-one” entry. In 1998, the two teams played before 71,488 people at Waverley (before the league thought it wise to sell the ground to property developers just before a property boom).

“Overall, MCG attendances have slumped by more than 14% since 2012, while crowds at Etihad have fallen even more precipitously.”

Fans still flock to Friday night, Saturday and Sunday afternoon games. But to appease broadcasters (it’s unclear whether the broadcast agreement specifically required this), the AFL continues to schedule games at family-unfriendly times like 4.40pm on Sunday. The AFL also introduced its maligned variable pricing policy — good in theory, but terrible in practice and a PR disaster in light of a decade of rising prices. Overall, MCG attendances have slumped by more than 14% since 2012, while crowds at Etihad have fallen even more precipitously. That’s a disastrous result for a code dedicated to growth.

The falling crowds are also a result of the AFL’s worst own goal — the decision to create the Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney franchises. Forget the improving on-field performance (that was inevitable given the weight of high draft selections), the 16 other clubs suffer massive financial loss not only from funding the money-losing enterprises, but also from losing money on their home matches. If you’re Carlton or the Western Bulldogs, would you rather play GWS or Collingwood?

As for the excuse that the expansion teams were justified on the basis of all clubs getting increased revenue from higher broadcast rights, not only is that unproven (Seven doesn’t even show matches to Queensland on its main station), but the increased broadcast revenue doesn’t appear to trickle down to the clubs and grassroots fans. Despite broadcasting revenue increasing from $500 million in 2001 to $1.25 billion now, membership and entry costs have risen sharply.

The AFL’s attitude towards members is completely contradictory to good business sense — and a very different tactic to how savvy American franchises engage with fans. American sporting teams are almost all privately owned. Perhaps perversely, despite being run for profit, American teams treat fans substantially better than AFL clubs, perhaps acknowledging that members don’t exist purely to be milked for profit and a long-term view needs to be taken.

The legendary founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Art Rooney, would draft players from local colleges not due to their skill, but because of the popularity with local fans. New York Giants president John Mara writes longhand replies to letters from fans, while controversial Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay last year gave $8500 to a fan who was able to correctly guess a game score via Twitter. 

The fact that the AFL has destroyed attendance figures by scheduling games on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights shows that it simply has no idea that without fans, there won’t be profits.


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26 thoughts on “Footy fail: the AFL has lost its way

  1. klewso

    Watching these clowns running it now – like watching Little Caesar at the Colosseum?

    “Port v Swans” – 1st v 3rd – game of the year? Where was that shown on TV? We had to settle for last v third last?

    We went to Melbourne, to the MCG for the Hawks v Magpies game – packed into seats up the back of the nose-bleed section (VV?) where you have to be careful the people you’re passing to get to your seat don’t accidently push you over the edge of the precipice of the seats in front. And three rows down there were rows of empty seats.

    [And the Bombers? What a crock?
    “The only team that was using artificial enhancers!” They’re still up the ladder with all the other ones that “weren’t (nudge nudge wink wink)”?
    Look at the standard across the code, break-downs, recovery, since that “scandal” put a stop to such abuse “in one club”.
    If you’re going to “clean it up”, do the lot, or none at all.]

    If they’re going to treat us like shit while taking our money, they could at least have the common decency to flush?

  2. SusieQ

    Sums it up neatly. I’ve seen so many articles written that express the same view and I wonder if the AFL is actually paying any attention? Leaving aside Eddie’s whining (unless your’re a Collingwood fan, its just background noise), this could have been written by any of us footy fans. However, the smaller attendances at some games could be due to the positions on the ladder of some of the teams too. Still, sad to see our great game being ruined by greed.(#gotiges)

  3. Ken Hollick

    So true.The AFL is no longer a “Competition”.It is a series of games scheduled to maximize the financial gains to the AFL coffers.Fairness is very low on the AFL priorities when compiling the draw.This criteria permeates through all their thinking and the fact its not working with attendances down and clubs going broke is proof of their pig headed incompetence.

  4. JohnB

    It sticks out like a sore thumb that a CEO on $5M+ is not a good sign in any sport, especially one which essentially boils down to a couple of dozen teams plus backyard comps.

    What does this bloke bring to the game to warrant that pile of gold?

  5. Victor Boase

    Agree with Adam completely and just want to add that The TV rights don’t deliver much to me in Sydney unless I want to waste $75 a month on Fox Crap…er TV. My son in Perth also complains of the lousy coverage.
    Channel 7 would rather schedule re-runs of 1970 movies, or any of the content that passes for entertainment these days, rather than show live sport on free-to-air. Pay TV may be delivering to the AFL’s coffers but it is certainly not the medium of choice for this AFL fan.

  6. klewso

    Still, they’re travelling better than the RL – SoO aside? They haven’t had a couple of egomaniacs like Murdoch and Packer fighting over “the worker’s game” for the right to exploit it, to get to the pockets of those workers?

  7. Kevin Herbert

    The AFL continues to be the best run, most successful sporting competition in Australian history….and its attendance figures prove it. I applaud Andrew Demetriou for his insightful management of the League’s expansion.

    By way of comparison, annual attendance at AFL games along with attendances at State AFL games, is in excess of 8.5 million…which is only 400K less than the annual attendance figures for ALL rugby union games globally in EVERY competition e.g. the Six Nations, the Heineken Cup, the Bledisoe Cup etc etc. Pretty good effort for an indigenous game I say.

    The AFL Grand Final attracts the biggest annual single sporting crowd globally….and most tickets do not cost $1000.

    Rugby league is sliding backwards rapidly, as parents withdraw their kids from junior programs in droves. Weekly attendances are less than 1/3 that of the AFL.

    The AFL expansion teams are coming along just fine, with GWS drawing crowds between 7 & 10K…more than turned up for the supposed recent NRL blockbuster between table toppers/old rivals Manly & Canterbury Bankstown. The Gold Coast Suns have broken into the top 6 in their 4th year, right on schedule..as will GWS, who will win a flag by 2019.

    My suggestion to the above bleeding hearts is give AFL away….and go to an ARU game or a soccer match… you’ll need to have something to read to fill in long, boring passages.

  8. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Has anyone else noticed the extraordinary parallel between the Coalition and the AFL. Both claim to run their franchise for the better interests of the fans/voters and both actually operate strictly in the interests of big business.
    Another parallel, both are on the nose and sinking faster and faster as fans/voters understand that they are being treated with contempt.
    And yet another parallel, both will be severely punished for their cavalier attitude as fans and voters take their revenge by withdrawing their support with empty seats or at the voting booth.

  9. graybul

    Well said Alan. The roots of OUR game was based upon tribal allegiance . . it now is based upon corporate greed and sadly, is rooted! 2014 will be last year of membership of beloved Bulldogs. From aged six, along with father and his mates, I stood in Outer perched upon three/four full slabs to learn life’s lessons. Today, as an Interstate Member I get absolutely zip Press; 3/4 games per year TV coverage; short wave radio from Melb. . . all this from a marketing mantra about our NATIONAL Game. Corporate Boxes, unaffordable entrance fees etc may be defendable, but never the greed of Corporatization! Channel 7, Fox and AFL stole OUR GAME! Working Man 0. Monied Elites 100!!

  10. Kevin Herbert


    I can understand how being a Bulldogs supporter has become depressing. Along with Richmond, St Kilda, Carlton, & North Melbourne, I can’t see the Bullys winning an AFL flag until….I just can’t see it happening in the forseeable future, while I expect that GCoast & GWS will win at least 3 out of the next 10.

    There’s simply too many Melbourne-based AFL clubs without sufficient supporter bases e.g. GWS has entered the Western Sydney market of 3 million, and I expect it to have 50K members by the time it wins its first Flag in 2019.

  11. Kevin Herbert

    JohnB: it’s an $800 million business, so the CEO’s salary is reasonable by market comparisons

  12. AR

    Wow, didn’t with the article as I had to file my navel lint collection but am fascinated that it attracted so many, normally sane, Crikey habitues.

  13. AR

    ..”didn’t bother with the article..”

  14. John Ryan

    Once again Kevin Herbert comes along with unsubstantiated crap about Rugby League Juniors and gullible AFL BS about GWS crowds.
    GWS are a mobile joke and if they ever get 3000 actual people I will be surprised, dont count arms and legs,unless of course your GWS does the old trick of purchasing 5000 or more tickets then gives em away.
    If the people turn up or not they still get counted as being their,10,000 members where in Melbourne or their eventual home of Tassie.

  15. Justin Dee

    I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been trying to take my young son see his team play for the first time but could not find a game other than a night or twilight match which does not suit our young children.
    Last year, I couldn’t pay for his Auskick without using their PayPal sponsor and paying a commission.
    We are not involved in Auskick anymore, haven’ t been to a game and are put off watching TV because of the alcohol and gambling ads.
    AFL is in a sorry state – and that’s without mentioning the drugs scandal.

  16. Waste of Time

    When there are only 7,000 people at a game such as GWS at Olympic Park it has that family friendly feel and the AFL exploit the hell out of that. I am guessing you cant go and have kick to kick, or meet players for autographs on the ground after a game in the big stadiums, with the big clubs in Vic, SA or WA. So, they know very well where the heart is – they just ignore it at their peril. Carna Bloods and the Roys.

  17. John Ryan

    I would hate to tell you this but there have never been 7000 actual people at a GWS game at the Showgrounds,so I suppose you could call the tiers of empty seats family friendly

  18. klewso

    I love the game – but I reckon it could be run better, more fan-friendly.
    It’s the self-serving, scapegoating/”don’t ask-won’t tell” ad-min – pressuring the need for bigger and better performances to sell “their” game/returns – who don’t have to put up with what punters (and players) have too – that gets up my nose.

    [I reckon anyone who thinks “the Bombers were the only ones “using”” (something “edgy”, that wasn’t even banned) has been snorting too much of the line the viewsmedia/powers-that-be have been cutting and pushing.]

  19. Kevin Herbert

    John Ryan:

    So produce your evidence that GWS are not pulling crowds of up to 10K….we’re waiting.

    Why don’t you contact the AFL with your concerns & get their response…or do you want me to do it?

    Face it…AFL dominates Australian sport for one reason only…..it’s the most entertaining contact sport available nationwide…and will continue to grow steadily under the guidance of the AFL Board.

  20. Kristian

    Spare a thought too for Perth footy fans.
    I’m lucky that my Dad signed me up as a club member 15 years ago, otherwise I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of seeing a game where there’s twice as many “members” as there are seats in our crappy stadium.
    And don’t the clubs know it! They’ve regularly increased my membership fee almost 10% year-on-year, safe in the knowledge that if I don’t pay it, one of the 10,000s on the waiting list will.
    And what value do I get added for my increase fee? The same, high-school quality magazine, a pencil case and some stickers.
    Of course, if I was a real fan, I could go and buy any of the ridiculously overpriced licensed tat at the Team Store – $95 polo shirts, anyone?

  21. The Pav


    The ultimate “shareholders ” are more than club memebers. They are also those of us who support & love the game ( despite the AFL’s best efforts) who are not memebers for a a myriad of reasons.

    For example I am not a “member” of the Dockers because I am not reallyu a member just a ticket holder. I support the local league so I will miss games and pay for the privilege, Subi Oval is a crap facility and there is no balance in the crowd so it lacks atmosphere ( not the AFLs fault totally) and prices are ridiculous.

    The game has become elitist and remote from the commion people

  22. John Ryan

    dear Kevin Herbert I have no interest in what the AFL say they are complicit in the lie,I have run across people like you before sing from the AFL song sheet lies and all think you should be re named FabulousDil

  23. John Ryan

    What about sparing a thought for the long suffering Perth Ratepayer and taxpayers who will pay up to 3 billion so 2 wealthy AFL club members can have nice comfy seats,its a bloody joke

  24. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with Kevin Herbert. The apparently ‘pitiful’ crowd of 40,936 at  the Collingwood v Carlton game is many times what any other footy code in Australia attracts to any of its standard fixtures. The claim that ‘the AFL is among the worst-managed organisations in the country’ is arrant nonsense.

    The only aspect of a domestic competition that any other footy code does better than the AFL is League’s state of origin, which is a great annual carnival. Unfortunately Rules hasn’t been able to establish a decent state of origin comp, despite many different tries.

  25. Waste of Time

    Hi John Ryan – I wont argue about how many turn up because I don’t know. You are right though – it is not many in comparison to many other events, but I don’t care, and my kids don’t care – we like AFL so the fewer the better – no lines, easy to get around, good facilties etc. My point was that not many turn up, and the AFL exploit that to promote an unrealistic image of what the code currently seems to be about at the highest level: TV rights and corporate sponsorship, not average club members.

  26. (the other) HR Nicholls

    The Faustian pact that the league has made means that the fixture is constructed to fill Foxtel with sequential games all weekend – and it’s the same for all codes; it does seems like the AFL are happier to bend traditions around to suit on game times and the like, though.

    I think saying that the AFL is the worst-run league in the country is a bit much, but they sure are cack-handed in their execution of many things. It does make logical sense to set up a team for Western Sydney because there’s so many people there. But compare it to the Western Sydney Wanderers in the A-Leage – from the name onward (‘Greater’ Western Sydney, classic catch-all blanditude) it reeks of marketing consensus rather than what the locals would actually want from a team.

    It’s not helped that the Australian sport media lacks a David Conn type to report on the game’s business side, and instead is made up of former players and sports journos who seem more like cheerleaders for their various sources (as the Essendon farrago has shown, a big hi to Caro and Robbo if you’re reading this).


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