The final round of the AFL home and away season wrapped up over the weekend, and head honchos will be hoping that the finals series, staring this week, will focus attention back on the game itself. The Australian is reporting that the league is close to wrapping up yet another broadcast deal, with hopes that it will even surpass the current $1.258 billion deal. It would be a good news story in a year in which what has happened on the sidelines became the main event. The league has admitted there are lessons to learn from its off-field controversies, and has named season 2015 as the “year of the fan”.

But what has every other year been for, if not the fans? Observers of the game would say that it has been years for business in recent times, and that the new focus could help the AFL mend its reputation with fans. The league has started to re-brand as the year finishes up, and observers say it is time to “walk the walk”.

Dr Colin McLeod, associate professor at the University of Melbourne and former general manager of marketing and corporate affairs at the AFL, says that while the league has already acknowledged these issues, it needs to create certainty for fans. “Consumers like certainty, they dislike risk. People have been uncertain about timing of matches, they’ve been struggling to get to games, there’s been no family-friendly times.”

McLeod says the AFL needs to work on “reputational” issues, pointing to the game’s image as a family-friendly sport. “That position has taken a bit of flack over the last 12 months.”

Last week the AFL received a warning from the ACCC over variable pricing at matches, a system where fans of more popular games pay more, while fans of clubs with smaller membership bases pay less in a bid to boost numbers. It went down like a lead balloon, and the ACCC warning heralds the beginning of the end of the move. As well as issues with fixturing (when games are actually played), this has actually resulted in a drop in attendance to big-name matches, which hurts the league and the clubs’ revenues. It’s a problem when the headlines aren’t who won or lost, but how many people showed up. Dr Stephen Alomes, adjunct professor at RMIT and author of  Australian Football: The People’s Game 1958-2058, said: “Variable ticket prices should be kicked into the Yarra — it offends people.”

In the past year a group of fans created the AFL Fans Association, because “by far the largest group of stakeholders in the game, the fans, have no say or representation in the running or future direction of Australian football”. The group isn’t an elected body, but members have already sat down with new AFL boss Gillon McLachlan to discuss their concerns about the game. President Brian Clarke told Crikey: “What we’ve been always saying is don’t treat the fans as consumers, because they don’t regard themselves as consumers.”

Experts and observers who spoke to Crikey all saw the ongoing Essendon drugs scandal as the elephant in the room, citing a lack of communication and independence in the investigation.

What is agreed on is that the AFL is on the right path, but it will take effort to continue to grow the game and win back fans who may have turned away.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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