Australian rules football is generally considered the dominant code in our sporting-obsessed nation. It is a hybrid game with contested origins: some elements are drawn from rugby and football, and some from marn grook, the Indigenous game.
Whatever its origins, footy is played on suburban grounds, in country fields, on city streets and in backyards. Kick-to-kick fills in the time between playing proper games. Watching and talking and reading about it takes up endless hours. Footy enriches our shared memories, our folklore.
The game of footy, however, has been subject to a monopolisation of governance by the Australian Football League. The AFL not only actively seeks to make “play AFL” the vernacular to replace “play footy”, it also overwhelms Melbourne’s footy culture. More and more, the culture of elite, professional footy is characterised by commercialisation and corporatisation.
The degree of the AFL’s detachment from general footy fandom was evident by its recent underestimation of the passion of footy fans for attending the women’s competition – and watching the matches at iconic suburban venues like Princes Park.
What is being a fan all about?
Being a fan is about more than just supporting a team. Footy, as the cliché goes, is a religion – and, like a religion, it involves rituals. It is also about experiencing a place and gathering with others whom we may only know from our shared experience of habitually attending the same place.
We can’t separate our fandom of a club from the place in which they play. And so, when a team plays in a grand final, those who can’t attend the game itself watch it with others at the club’s traditional home ground. We want to enjoy the joy or sorrow with others who share our hopes and dreams.
The AFL replaced the suburban grounds. It made Etihad Stadium and the MCG the home of all but one of the Victorian clubs.
Sometimes the shift to a new stadium is welcomed; often it is not. Shifting stadium involves an upheaval in a club’s identity, but is regarded as “branding” and necessary for “marketing”.
The AFL has tried hard to establish its point of difference from the previous era of the Victorian Football League. One of the easiest ways to do this was to do away with the old grounds and establish new ones: thus, goodbye VFL Park, hello Etihad, goodbye Windy Hill, Princes Park, Victoria Park, Western Oval, Arden Street and Moorabbin.
The AFL wanted to extract the maximum dollars from fans, which it could get by playing at larger grounds. And, more often than not, fans are willing to be treated as customers rather than active stakeholders in the game.
So, the AFL has sought to drag its fans away from their traditional home grounds and homogenise the experience of going to the footy, so that the Melbourne experience of watching a game is limited to either the MCG or Etihad Stadium.
The AFL’s comnmercialist bent goes beyond the stadiums themselves to include even the uniforms of the teams. Its sense of ownership of the game is written onto the players’ uniforms. The AFL logo appears on the front of the jumper, on each player’s number and on their socks.
But do the fans care?
The AFL’s alliance with the gambling industry is troubling for many – including some players. This is not only because it threatens the game’s integrity, but also because so many Australians have problems with gambling. Although gambling on the outcome has long been part of the game, the degree of its normalisation is new.
Finally, the AFL has a A$2.5 billion, six-year TV deal – and yet fewer games will be on free-to-air TV in 2017.
Some aspects of the VFL are not to be missed: the blatant racism of the crowds and players, and the violence of the players against one another. Racism and discrimination remain within the AFL and sporting culture more broadly, but the voices of those combating discrimination have grown stronger.
The travel to suburban grounds and having proper home grounds at one’s club’s traditional home were community-strengthening moments. Instead, the MCG or Etihad is anyone’s home. The avaricious AFL has surgically removed the fans’ and members’ sense of ownership.
But, fans and members seem largely indifferent to the shifts in their game. They are only mobilised into anger when their team under-performs and not when their club continually marginalises them from having any input into how it runs. Regrettably, the clubs that are “member-owned” are this in name only. Critical and activist fans have few opportunities to have their voices heard by their clubs, let alone the AFL.
The AFL’s commercialisation of the elite competition of Australian rules leaves the traditional fan with little room to move. Either the fan gives up on a club that their family may have supported for generations, or the fan participates in and reinforces the standardisation of the art and practice of watching and participating in Australian rules.