There was a moment in 1986 – no doubt brought on by a stray ‘how’s your father’ from the crowd – when Channel Seven decided it might be an idea to pipe canned chants into its VFL broadcast rather than the game-day effort of the cheersquads.
It was a shocker … and, yet, here we are again – with both the AFL and NRL likely to insert a crowd hum as part of their TV offering as they attempt to re-engage with fans and build excitement about a season many fans have already written off.
Rugby league is the first elite competition in Australia to resume since the March 23 shutdown, with Brisbane and Parramatta clashing at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday, May 28.
With the financially-distressed NRL taking the lead in getting sport back on the field, the Nine network will show matches live in New South Wales and Queensland on its main network and on GEM in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
When AFL resumes on June 11, Channel Seven and FoxSports will get a ratings-friendly Sunday evening fixture and a technical fix for the flat atmosphere that blighted the Round 1 matches because of the crowd lock outs.
Channel Seven is assuring fans that canned crowd noise it plans on piping into the broadcast will be subtle and actually add to the experience.
Channel Seven’s managing director Lewis Martin told his news team last week it was a “subtle modification” whose longevity would depend on viewer acceptance.
“The choice is always with the viewer,” Martin said on Seven News.
“Ultimately the viewers and the fan will decide and we will definitely be trialling a couple of [other] things in Round 2.”
On the AFL’s website, a fan survey came down 52 to 48 per cent in favour of the tweak, although some sports fans on social media are yet to be convinced.
The NRL and Nine is said to be trialling the use of fan celebrations that will be inserted into the broadcast, although some supporters have pointed out that fake noise may be a better fix than a staged celebration.
In German soccer’s Bundesliga, which got up and running again last week, the fake crowd chants has been well accepted and many believe has made the broadcast a better television product.
The AFL on Monday confirmed its restart will be scheduled in blocks of four, as reported earlier by The New Daily, to ensure that player welfare is paramount in the initial weeks, with flexibility in the fixture as lockdown restrictions ease.
Richmond and Collingwood will kick off proceedings, with the Magpies being one club countenancing the option of having cardboard cutouts of individual fans behind the goals as part of a competition to make members feel a part of the action.
AFL fixture co-ordinator Travis Auld says the focus in the initial weeks will be Thursday and Friday night matches.
“As we navigate through the remaining 108 games plus finals, we will continue to be adaptable with our scheduling, ensuring our fixtures align with the relevant state government restrictions in place at the time,” Auld said.
Auld said the new Sunday evening match would likely remain all year.
It’s a fixture and timing designed to appeal to television viewers, with broadcast deals being front and centre in the mind of both the AFL and NRL.
Auld said government restrictions would likely be eased to allow crowds to return later in the season, with News Corp reporting that crowds could gradually be reintroduced to games, with the expected October 24 grand final possibly able to host 30,000 fans at the MCG.
The NRL has even bolder plans.
ARL Commission chair Peter V’landys is pushing for crowds with capped numbers to return to stadiums back from July 1.
While the NSW and Queensland governments on Monday said they are open to the possibility, they concede discussions might be premature, with any decision to rest on health advice from a federal level.
The AFL is suggesting its South Australian and Western Australian clubs, who have been forced to play interstate, might be able to return to their home grounds after the first four weeks of matches.
Auld hoped the Eagles, Fremantle, the Crows and Port will be able to return to their regular home bases after the first block of matches.
“Ideally we get through this four-week block and things progress, and we have the ability at some point for these clubs to go back and play games out of their home states,” he said. “It’s just unknown.
My sense is over the 16 weeks that teams – not just those four teams but other teams – are going to have to make sacrifices and everyone’s committed to that.’’
The AFL is also boosting the content available to its pay-TV provider Fox Footy with a reorganisation of its annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
That event is one much beloved by veteran players, who will this year instead be feted over four evening broadcasts from June 1 to 4, with each the subject of a long-form interview and career highlights package.
AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder said there would still be a formal ceremony when lockdown restrictions have ended.
“At this time while competition has been suspended across our country, we have badly missed the game we love,” Goyder said.
“But the time we have spent reminding ourselves of our favourite memories of our past heroes allows us to acknowledge those greats who have built our game.
“In time, each will be formally welcomed to the Hall of Fame in front of their peers, but it is appropriate we celebrate them now for the honour bestowed upon them.”
It’s a certainty that no fake applause will be required.