Just over 30,000 watched the reigning premiers on their home ground on Saturday night, while the crowd at the Adelaide Oval was well below par. Nearly 44,000 people were at the MCG on Sunday, a reasonable turnout on a stinker of a day. There were 47,000 at Optus Stadium too, but AFL crowds, on average, are the lowest since 1996.
One commentator suggested the game has become “too woke” with all its rule changes and a crackdown on umpire dissent. Others believe the standard of play is driving punters away. But, arguably, the football has been far superior to that played half a decade ago, when crowd numbers peaked. West Coast’s dire year, the redevelopment of Kardinia Park, the floating fixture, and a recent Arctic blast have also played a role. Here are some of the possible major contributing factors.
The simplest and most plausible explanation is the ongoing impact of Covid. Every week, tens of thousands of Australians are sick and isolated. Victoria and WA have averaged over 10,000 new cases for the past month.
Even though Covid no longer leads the nightly news, there has been a distinct shift in how we live, work, travel, and connect. It has changed the way we use public transport, the way we eat out, the way we plan, and the way we watch sports. Older fans are understandably more reluctant to expose themselves to the virus, particularly with flu season in full swing. More of us work from home and are therefore less likely to be in the CBD on a Thursday or Friday night. Many more are hesitant about gathering in large numbers.
The matchday experience
Here’s author Matthew Crawford on the “attention economy”: “Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed.”
At football games, you’re constantly being addressed, shouted at,y implored to make some noise, have a punt, buy a jeep, kiss your partner, stuff your face, or sink some piss. You’re at the mercy of the ground announcer, music blaring after goals, and the constant, ear-perforating prattle. As a result, it’s virtually impossible to have a conversation with the person next to you. For all you kids, this is what half-time at the football used to sound like.
There’s always been dickheads at the football, and they’ve always been a tiny minority, but there have been some nasty incidents recently. A fortnight ago, a man allegedly fractured his skull with a didgeridoo. When planning your Friday or Saturday evening out, especially if you have kids, incidents like that play on your mind. Given a choice between a night on the couch with Brian Taylor and the gang or having your head split open by a wind instrument, what would you choose? Don’t answer that question.
It’s easier to watch at home.
When Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes flanked the AFL CEO at the TV rights announcement in 2015, the priority for the moguls was eyeballs on screens, not bums on seats. For Gil McLachlan, it’s a more delicate juggling act, but you suspect he wouldn’t lose sleep either way.
Will Hamill of the Crows and Andrew Gaff of the Eagles during the weekend’s game at Adelaide Oval. Photograph: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos/Getty Images
It wasn’t that long ago that there was a one-hour delay on Friday night games. As the opening siren would sound at a packed MCG, over on Channel 7, Dr. Harry would be poking his head in a beehive. These days, every game is live and in high definition. Kayo is cheap. It’s convenient. If you’re so inclined, you can park yourself on the couch on a Thursday night, watch every minute of every game, and then sign the divorce papers on Monday.
Unlike other sports, modern football doesn’t translate that well to television. And current TV doesn’t always translate well to one’s sanity. But we were conditioned throughout Covid to watch the sport on TV for better and frequently worse. For many, that’s a hard habit to shake, particularly when the wind whips a little harder on a winter’s afternoon.
Cost of living pressures
Inflation, interest rates, and petrol prices are rising, and Australians are tightening their belts. Much of the federal election was fought along these lines. To his credit, when McLachlan was appointed CEO, he went to great lengths to freeze the price of general admission tickets. But after a while, paying $12 for a mid-strength beer loses its appeal, as does forking out $80 to get hypothermia at the top of the Shane Warne Stand.
Ah, the good old days. The earlier you arrive, the better your seat. Even in the digital age, you swiped your membership card and pled yourself down.
These days, organizing a ticket is fraught, time-consuming, expensive, and often nonsensical. Navigating Ticketek, particularly for blockbuster games and those trying to secure multiple tickets, can be a one-way trip to the nuthouse and the poorhouse. For anyone without a smartphone, it’s especially difficult. As winter nears, it’s often cheaper and easier to stay home, turn up the heater and turn down the sound.