playing the field / AFL Grand Final

2 March 2015

On Tuesday the 18th of August the AFL announced it had sold the rights to broadcast matches for the six seasons from 2017-2022 for an Australian record of $2.508 billion. That’s a lot of money, especially when you consider how ground-breaking it seemed in 2011 when the AFL signed its current TV rights deal, the first to break through the billion dollar barrier. When rumours began to swirl earlier this year that the deal could reach $2 billion, they were widely dismissed. It was a great moment for the AFL. The announcement, which quickly drew comparisons to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper for its set up, featured some of Australia’s most powerful sport, media and business dynasties. Rupert Murdoch was there on behalf of News Corporation (or whatever it’s called now), Kerry Stokes of Channel 7, and whoever is in charge of running Telstra into the ground nowadays was also there. Not to mention the AFL’s newish CEO, Gillon McLachlan, descendent of a prominent South Australian family and Melbourne Uni Law graduate known for his friends in high places. The size of the deal, as well as the presence of what is probably the Australian chapter of the illuminati were emblematic of the AFL’s dominance. Culturally, corporately, and increasingly visibly, the AFL is the behemoth of the Australian sporting landscape, and it is for these reasons that the Grand Final is the jewel in Melbourne’s proverbial sporting crown.

Within the rather large AFL community, the Grand Final is colloquially referred to as the last Saturday in September, which is odd because nowadays it tends to occur in October. Taking place on a Saturday afternoon, it is the culmination of a weeklong festival in Melbourne which consists of the Grand Final parade, the wives and girlfriends parade, the influx of out-of-towners to watch their team play Hawthorn parade and non-stop media saturation. The game invariably lives up to the occasion, with an average margin of more than 35 points over the past five years. But the true value of the Grand Final is measured not by the on-field heroics, but by pre-game entertainment. Rolf Harris wowed us in 1982, and Meat Loaf gave a performance so bad all the seagulls at the MCG died and the AFL had to quell the controversy with an Australian only approach the following year. Mr Loaf later took to twitter to label his Australian haters “butt smellers” and to deny that he was paid $500,000 to feign a heart attack in front of nearly 5 million viewers, because he was most likely paid more than that. More recent performances by Lionel Richie and Tom Jones – ostensibly to satisfy an older, female fanbase – have helped the AFL restore its credibility. According to the 3AW Rumour File, this year could feature either KISS or AC/DC. Repeated attempts to confirm the AFL is courting Kendrick Lamar have also been denied, so I guess that’s a rumour now too.

The Grand Final is a testament to the AFL’s dominance over its rival football codes and an annual reminder of Melbourne’s ceaseless love affair with sporting events that draw a large crowd. In 2013, the AFL sold 7 million tickets, far exceeding the NRL and the A-League put together. The Grand Final has been sold out for decades, and will regularly have a television audience that peaks around 4.5 million across the country, making it the highest watched Saturday afternoon television event of the year. The NRL Grand Final peaks around 3.9 million. Like a python slowly swallowing a cow, the AFL has wrapped itself around the rest of Australia since the 1980’s. But Melbourne is still its epicentre and the Grand Final is arguably the city’s proudest sporting tradition. So much so that the Labor party went to last years state election promising to make the Friday before the match a public holiday. Despite a recent consultation process in which 90 per cent of submissions were against the idea and estimations from PricewaterhouseCoopers that it will cost the state $852 million in lost production, Premier Andrews has doggedly pushed ahead with his key electoral promise.

Dissenting voices, such as breakfast TV personality and Port Adelaide Power President David Koch, have spoken out against Melbourne’s stranglehold on the AFL’s marquee event. It’s unfair to the rest of the competition and undermines the league’s equalisation efforts they say, not entirely  without reason. But for residents of Melbourne and the broader football community, it’s hard to imagine the Grand Final could be played anywhere else. The current contract between the AFL and the MCC-MCG Trust won’t expire until 2037. That’s at least three broadcast deal announcements featuring Rupert Murdoch away.

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