Sport AFL Why are AFL supporters abandoning the footy?
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Why are AFL supporters abandoning the footy?

NAB Challenge crowd
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Round one of the AFL was like welcoming a beautiful lover back from an extended sabbatical – and arriving at the airport to find them espousing religion and having abandoned hair removal on spiritual grounds.

It was a truly awful round of footy, underwhelming in every way.

Freo spanked Collingwood in a disspiriting opening encounter and West Coast did the same to the Bulldogs nine days later to wrap up a round where highlights were harder to find than flight MH 370.

The peaks were a great win by GWS over their big brothers the Swans, and Essendon giving new games record holder Dustin Fletcher a big win in his 379th appearance – over a dismal North Melbourne who just couldn’t find the footy.

The paucity of quality match-ups was reflected in the crowd numbers.

The ticket prices have gone up, but it’s the snack bar where you really get stung – when you’re finally done queuing for a beer and a hot dog you half expect to see the young lad or lass on the register wearing a balaclava.

The aggregate attendance across the nine games was 245,301, the first time that number has dipped below 300,000 since 2006 and the lowest overall Round one attendance figure since 1995.

Getty
Still smiling, but for how long? Photo: Getty

More worrying, the average attendance was just 27,256 across the nine fixtures. In 1995, with eight games in the opening round, 240,721 people trudged through the turnstiles, an average of 30,090.

We can argue the impact the non-use of the MCG had on those numbers, and there were three games on the hallowed turf in Round one 1995.

But let’s get real, the AFL served up a shocker and the proof was in the pudding.

Adding to the fact the Round one fixtures elicited about as much passion as an ageing, fridge-lock era Marlon Brando – it’s getting too expensive to take a family to the footy.

The ticket prices have gone up, but it’s the snack bar where you really get stung – when you’re finally done queuing for a beer and a hot dog you half expect to see the young lad or lass on the register wearing a balaclava.

Hard rock music blasted before the bounce, ground announcers determined to gee up the crowd (remember when the game was enough to do that?) $7 mid-strength beers and $8 pizzas the size of your hand risk putting the game out of the reach of families.

As happened in the UK 20 years ago when terraces were abandoned in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent Taylor Report, footy grounds are in grave danger of becoming atmosphere-free zones.

The AFL must carefully balance the interests of the supporters (reasonable ticket prices) with the demands of running a major business (sponsors, TV stations and clubs).

Was Round one was just an unavoidable blip on the radar, or a portent of far more worrying times for the league and its growth boffins?

People decry the corporatisation of the sport but the success of the game over the last 10 years owes itself – at least partly – to how well the business of the AFL has been managed. With new clubs, high quality stadiums and excellent facilities for players, the money washing around has contributed to the spectacle. But while the AFL can only charge what the market will bear, there’s a chance that this year’s price rises might be causing some supporters to choke on their overpriced pies.

Junior general admission tickets (ages 6-14) doubled from $2.50 in 2013 to $5 in 2014, concession tickets are up by 40 per cent from $12 to $17, adult tickets by 25 per cent from $20 to $25 and family tickets by 25 per cent from $40 to $50.

The new variable ticket pricing system will also see more fans forced to book seats costing up to $60 at the MCG and $62 at Etihad stadium.

Round two serves up some better games (Richmond v Carlton, Essendon v Hawthorn, a showdown in Adelaide and Sydney v Collingwood), plus the MCG is back in operation.

It should give us an idea whether Round one was just an unavoidable blip on the radar, or a portent of far more worrying times for the league and its growth boffins.

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