Footy is back but times have changed

The COVID-19 crisis has brought the importance of fans to professional sport into sharp relief. Fans are central to the prosperity, sustainability and survival of the elite level of Australian Rules as we know it.

But the virus has shown the degree to which the Australian Football League (AFL) has misappropriated sovereignty of the game from the fans and club members for themselves and the gambling industry, TV and beer.

If you are a footy fan, either making it to a stadium or watching it on TV, you have to weather a storm of advertising for these products. 

Billboards at major locations in inner Melbourne perpetuate the seemingly inextricable link between professional footy and gambling advertisements. ‘Raise your game’ is one of the slogans of Australian bookmaker, BetEasy, a less than subtle encouragement to ‘increase the amount of money that you risk on an outcome’. 

But the absence of footy throughout the COVID crisis has meant an absence of these advertisements – a minor blessing for those who regard gambling as a scourge on the game.

Although gambling has been a part of modern sport since its professionalisation (and presumably earlier), the degree to which the AFL aligns itself with gambling (or ‘wagering’ by its preferred term), has restructured the fan-team relationship. 

Sports gambling shifts the fans’ focus from emotionally investing in their own team’s success (that is, winning) to an in-game outcome (the first goal, or winning by how much, or half-time difference, or whatever). 

How much a fan has skin in the game shifts from the emotional, long-term investment, to a risky, impulsive gut feeling in the name of maybe making a few bucks. 

The gambling fan positions the team in a way that makes the team ‘work’ for them.

Throughout the pandemic restrictions, and the enforced lay off of footy, head honchos of various clubs and the AFL Chief Executive Officer Gillon McLachlan frequently acknowledged the importance of fans. 

Not long after the bizarre scenes of Round One, which was played on the brink of lockdown, Hawthorn player, Isaac Smith, said after playing in front of an empty MCG “it makes me realise that we too often forget that the fans are the most important stakeholders in the game”. 

Former footballer, Kane Cornes, re-iterated these sentiments saying “we should never under-estimate the importance of fans again”.

Clubs, desperate to retain members who were either paying monthly membership instalments or had already paid in full, suddenly had to convince their fans to stay invested. This despite the likelihood of being able to attend very few, if any, games in 2020 – which is the primary ‘product’ they’re paying for. 

The overwhelming majority of members have maintained their memberships – either framing contributions as a donation, or, out of blind loyalty, which many sports fans are known for. 

Financial hardship hasn’t shaken many fans’ commitment to their clubs. 

Richmond Football Club has some 98,000 members in this shortened COVID season. Many other clubs probably have similarly high figures.

Gillon McLachlan also recently expressed that without the fan’s investment in the clubs, the pandemic would have been disastrous for the game. 

The AFL and the clubs have had to show that fans really matter. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that there has been no footy being played. Perhaps more importantly, fans have realised, in real time and in real terms, that footy is a game and COVID is a matter of life and death. 

Moreover, the AFL’s sudden appreciation for fans (beyond their role as consumers), is in contrast to the heavy-handed security deployed by the AFL to police fan behaviour in recent years.

These patrols were implemented without consulting fan groups. The only official body which represents fan interests, the AFL Fan Association, has been excluded from dialogue by the AFL.

The yawning gap opened up in our everyday lives by the coronavirus restrictions has seen an explosion of cycling, running, learning a musical instrument, and, since the re-opening of state parks, walking in the ‘great outdoors’. 

The ability of many to enjoy life without footy, has made the AFL nervous. 

The game isn’t much of a spectacle without the clamouring of fans cheering on every tackle, mark and goal and their baying for the blood of the opposition (and the umpires).

Perhaps some fans are questioning their relationship with the game.

Does the game still speak to me? Do I see my own values reflected in this game that I am watching? Do I love gambling as much as the AFL? How do I relate to these athletes when established players are likely earning $400,000 year with a few earning over $A1 million? Are the opportunities for girls and women to play Australian rules on par with those encouraged for boys and men?

The loyalty of fans throughout the COVID crisis demonstrates the ongoing investment fans are willing to make in their club and, in the game in general.

This is a financial investment and an emotional one that’s far greater than anything made through a gambling app, whose algorithms always guarantee that the player, user or gambler always loses. 

The gambler’s goal is to lose less than the next gambler. Even Richmond, during the club’s 30-year slump from 1981 to its steady rise from 2013, had better chances at winning. 

The pause in the daily dose of footy boosterism offers fans a moment to reflect on the values of the game and the way in which it is run by the AFL. 

Fans are, as Isaac Smith and Kane Cornes have told us, the greatest stakeholders in the game and shouldn’t be taken for mugs.

Dr Andy Fuller is a Richmond member and a member of the AFL Fans Association.