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Not just COVID: Crowd drop-off on the AFL, broadcasters too

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Dunkley: Fans often provoke AFL players on nights out (2:52)

Western Bulldogs star Josh Dunkley says players need to be able to enjoy a night out without being harassed, revealing some of the treatment he's witnessed. (2:52)

Does AFL football have another problem? Perhaps. And yet it's one we appear to have been slow to diagnose and seemingly uncertain how to rectify.

It took a poorly-attended Richmond game at Marvel Stadium last Saturday night for the agenda-setting AFL media to start thinking about how many people were actually going to the football in 2021.

And when just a little bit of number-crunching followed, the results were pretty stark. Total crowds from rounds one to eight this season compared to the same period in 2019 (the last "normal" football year) were down by more than 737,000 people, an average of about 8000 per game.

It's important here to note the impact that COVID-19 continues to have on the competition. The early rounds in Melbourne were played before only 50 percent capacity crowds, while two games in Perth (including a Derby) have been "lockouts".

Nonetheless, that is still a considerable drop-off. And it doesn't appear to be simply a case of more people who did go now watching on TV, either.

While AFL audiences have increased by 15 percent on pay TV and streaming service Kayo compared to 2019, free-to-air TV numbers in metropolitan markets are down around five per cent on figures from two years ago.

Is it possible more hardcore AFL fans are choosing to watch from home instead of going, while at the same time fewer casual supporters of the code are either turning up in person or watching games on the Seven network? That should have both the AFL and Seven a little concerned.

But the solutions may not be so easy to come by. Because I suspect there's a convergence of factors at play. And while some of them are fixable, others are a bigger issue that won't be solved merely by some "value added" for fans to actually go to games, or even to turn on their TV sets.

Ticketing this year, thanks to COVID, has been something of a nightmare, and clearly has taken some toll. Reduced capacities, more logistically complicated admission practices and social distancing you suspect made going to games for some people more trouble than it was worth. Particularly when in Melbourne, until last weekend, they were unable to sit in the reserved seats they usually occupied, and in some cases, had to pay more to sit elsewhere.

And while this one might be harder to judge for a while yet, I believe last year's three-month layoff due to the pandemic has had some lingering impact.

I reckon I'm far from the only person who, as much as I love the game, found the absence of football on the weekends a lot easier to cope with than I feared.

For the first time in 50-odd years on a weekend between late March and June, I did other things. Spent time with family. Read more. Watched some movies and TV shows I'd wanted to catch up on for ages. Even, heaven forbid, took in the odd bit of art and culture.

What I understood more when the game returned was that while I had actually missed the football itself, I hadn't missed a lot of the increasingly large circuses which surround it, the saturation media coverage, the clickbait and the endless puffing of chests and stroking of egos in the former player cartel which now is the face of much of that coverage.

There's a level of self-indulgence about it all (take a lot of TV commentary now, for example) which is a real turn-off for a lot us who really do love the game a lot more than the celebrities jostling for airtime and who sometimes seem to make the actual game itself seem secondary.

Not to mention the media outlets facilitating that trend in the I think misguided belief the football public is hanging on their every word, many of those words regurgitated faithfully in the several other outlets for whom they work.

How in touch are they with what the average football fan thinks and wants? You do wonder.

Like when Fox Footy's "On The Couch" talks about redrafting the schedule so no games cross over (for TV viewing purposes), then in the next breath wonders why crowds might be down. Umm ... because you're actively enticing people to stay home and watch on TV, perhaps?

Or when Eddie McGuire pronounces matter-of-factly that "Saturday afternoon football is dead". The reasons? Apparently, because people now prefer to watch school sport or play golf on a Saturday, and watch the games on TV.

Ed, not everyone's kids go to a private school with organised weekend sport, nor are they all members of a golf club where you can get on the course of a weekend. Nor, for that matter, do they all even play golf.

And pay TV? Well, Kayo has made Fox Footy's coverage more accessible and affordable, but the take-up rate of pay TV in this country has always hovered around just 30 percent, much lower than other countries. Which makes that free-to-air drop more significant.

Funnily enough, McGuire's hypothesis, which could well be a self-fulfilling prophecy if the AFL continues to schedule the showpiece games away from afternoon timeslots, wasn't exactly supported by the evidence last Saturday, when more than 31,000 people turned up to the SCG for Sydney's clash with Collingwood, but just 18,798 to watch reigning premier Richmond play under the roof at Marvel Stadium later that night.

Is there a growing AFL "bubble" in which the privileged operate seemingly more and more oblivious to the wants and needs of the rank-and-file football fan? I think examples like those are pretty telling evidence there is.

So various members of the AFL "boys club" and celebrity commentators paying lip service to greater engagement with the game's supporter base doesn't count for a lot if they don't have much of an idea what that base is thinking.

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The best and worst AFL guernseys of all time

With the 'prison bars' debate dominating last week, the ESPN Footy Podcast team think back to some of the AFL's worst (and best) guernseys of all time.

Frankly, I reckon the people are pissed off. Not by the game itself, the aesthetic quality of which has improved this year. But by the ever-present suspicion that to those who run the game or who broadcast the game -- who often come across as a little mutual back-slapping society -- the viewers are just the riff-raff who will lap up what they are offered, along with a dollop of condescension, no questions asked.

But here's a news flash, guys. They are asking questions. They're not necessarily going to abandon the game as a result. But their loyalties and devotion can no longer be taken for granted. Let alone, as those worrying crowd figures indicate, their patronage.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au