As the trickle of corporate influence over the AFL in the late 1980s became a raging flood, it’s often been noted that fans at the bottom were being taken for granted in the dash for cash.
Not any more.
In fact, after just a few games of the AFL, NRL and A-League’s experiment in pushing on through a global pandemic, there’s a case to be made that without the excitement of the fans, elite sport looks slightly ridiculous.
The AFL in particular has come in for criticism, with the first two games of the season providing a television broadcast with all the skills, but none of the passion.
Round one went ahead in a bid to get the season underway before the pandemic takes hold and to provide some financial security in times of strife.
But the lockout has clearly upended the pecking order when assessing what really makes a professional sport great.
Normally TV rights brings in the big bucks, the sponsors and business elites fill the super boxes and some fans can even stretch to a top of the tree membership package that buys you the right to line up first for a grand final ticket.
It turns out though that the ‘thick and thin’ type – the ones you cant often see because they are in the cheap seats upstairs – are the real indispensables.
They make the noise, they sit with their kids in the gods because they can’t afford the thousands of prime spots usually sitting empty below and they buy the overpriced pies, beer and trinkets that keep the clubs and hospitality casuals ticking over.
Clubs have often paid lip service to these supporters. Sure, the beanie wearers are thanked and feted from the dais in triumph and they get a membership scarf or pin every season, but mostly they get what they pay for.
When the scarce tickets have to be distributed, when decisions are made around fixturing, broadcasting, food prices or venues – cash is indeed king.
Now we know better.
Without the hardcore supporters – thundering approval or abuse, screaming pointlessly for free kicks, moaning at the replays – the game appears nothing but a bunch of 20-somethings scrambling around in a large park.
Channel Seven did its best to bring a fan element to its AFL coverage on Friday night, promoting a #wearewatching hashtag to try and inject the humour and diversity of a footy crowd. It mostly fell flat.
And while some welcomed footy’s return as something to hold onto in difficult times, there were others who pointed to the poor example as the rest of the country was told to practice social distancing.
On Thursday night, players were seen drinking from the same water bottle and sharing towels. In weeks to come these images could be as damning to the AFL as the lack of leadership on virus control exhibited by the federal government throughout February.
With the NRL and A-League also playing to empty stadiums, Australian sport knows that it is only one positive diagnosis away from a shutdown that would stop the competitions in their tracks.
The AFL’s Gillon McLachlan said on Friday that such a case would prompt an immediate month-long postponement – something that most of the world’s other big sporting competitions have already implemented.
And it’s not as if other big money sports aren’t being hit and responding with the nuclear option of shutting down, despite the cost.
Formula one copped much stick in Melbourne earlier this month when the coronavirus was found to have inveigled its way into the McLaren team.
This week the sport cancelled its famous Monaco Grand Prix, meaning the season will not start until June 7, at the earliest, in Azerbaijan.
Also overseas, Australian Ben Simmons’ Philadelphia 76ers saw some of its team staff test positive, and NFL coach of New Orleans Sean Payton was also a confirmed case. Self-isolation and public education statements followed.
Those outbreaks – along with the shutdown of major competitions like European soccer and most US sports – give Australia’s domestic competitions the dubious honor of racing the International Olympic Committee for gold in the ‘dragging-your-feet-in-a-crisis-marathon’.
While the AFL season opened on Thursday night at an empty MCG, the Olympic flame arrived in Japan to be greeted by a sparse crowd, wearing masks.
It is now clear that a lack of fans, frolic and fun kills the mystique and sense of occasion that makes a sporting event worth running in the first place.
Professional sport has been rumbled – it’s not about them, it’s about us.
Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley – always a consummate professional who has seen the best and worst of crowds over the years – noted how strange it was to have an empty stadium, but maintained he was still happy to be playing.
For Buckley the lack of a crowd was merely a challenge for his fellow professionals to overcome without a loss of intensity or performance.
“I think largely it’s all going to be about coming back to each other and, you know, the best teams sort of gel together and find energy from themselves,” he told Channel Seven after his Magpies beat the Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium on Friday night.
“There’s no doubt that the crowd is a different factor, but I thought, you know, our mentality was really strong around just looking after what we could control.”
The AFL certainly likes to be in control, but recent events have shown that no matter how much it wishes it were the case, events have run far ahead of it and the other football codes.
Most Australians are also off in the distance, waiting for our sport administrators to catch up. They may not be silent about it for too much longer.