The AFL needs to find a way to draw crowds back to the game

ALL RIGHT...we are ready for football now.

You have to admit, those AFL opening round games felt a little like an extension on the NAB Challenge.

Pre-season matches dried up only a couple of weeks before the real thing.

There was no prolonged break in which footballers were packed away to train in their high performance venues, so we could hardly wait to watch them play again.

Cricketers were still in their whites vying for titles on most ovals across the state, suggesting that, at least when we drove around in our neighbourhoods, it still felt like summer.

Starting the season in mid-March was a little like supermarkets rolling out hot-cross buns on Boxing Day. 

We like them, we might taste them and even enjoy them, but it feels a little out of season.

Then, when Easter arrives, we are a little indifferent to hot-cross buns. Those delicious Nutella-filled ones are nothing new.

Central Highlands Football League makes its return to grounds across the region today – Ballarat Football League will soon follow – and this is when it starts to feel a little more like football season in Ballarat.

Those going to the games start to get back into the routine and enthusiasm for football.

Juniors make the immediate mental switch to football as their favourite sport.

People in the community start to talk more about football.

Theories have been flying about the league and media all week on how pricing, rising food costs and experimental fixturing has driven down crowds.

These are all by-products of the underlying problem.

AFL marketing failed to sell us on the game’s return.

The league should have made us believe we were hungry for our teams to start hunting premiership

points – and we should feel we need to flock to stadiums to see it.

Where was the excitement? Where was the dramatic, must-watch billing to open the season?

That lacklustre split opening round was woeful – ho-hum matches and terrible timing for enticing crowds that really dragged across two weeks.

How are we expected to be flocking to grounds after that was served up first?

It was no surprise that round two crowds were down too, even for traditional rivals Carlton and Richmond’s early season bout under lights.

AFL chief Andrew Demetriou, late this week, was blaming the no-show of club members as the problem to solve, in a bid to deflect attention and criticism away from the league’s new variable ticketing prices.

Really, it highlights that it was too much of a hassle to go and check out a game. There were other things we should be doing.

Members should be champing at the bit to make the opening round pilgrimage, to see their beloved teams start their campaigns in a flurry of excitement.

The MCG, SCG and revamped Adelaide Oval were unavailable for such treks in the first round.

If the AFL wants healthy crowd numbers for its Thursday night or Sunday night matches, supporters – including paid-up members with seats – are going to need a bit more convincing.

Woo us a little.

Online, live streaming and the league’s lucrative, continuous broadcasting partnership offers strong competition in the enticing option to stay in the comfort of your own home – minus the traffic jams and prohibitive parking fees – rather than trek out to a game.

Fans are more savvy with their time and how they consume the game.

A failure to acknowledge shows a lack of respect for the game’s fans.

It is all very well for the league to try following the American example – Sunday and Monday night football are big sellers in stadiums, and importantly on television, for a nation with a far greater population – but in the Melbourne-centred AFL, there is more than one club vying for top billing in town.

There is no real urgency or fear that we are missing out.

Crowds will return when we are ready.

A grand final rematch between Hawthorn and Fremantle on a Friday night at the MCG should go a long way to winning us back and would really kick the season off.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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