It was the Friday that the Formula One grand prix was cancelled that most of Melbourne realised the seriousness of the novel coronavirus.
Prior to that day most had seen the footage of scenes in the streets and the hospitals in Wuhan and in Italy, but it all appeared to be far away from Australia. Nobody wanted to admit that it would get that serious here.
The cancelling of the grand prix that Friday morning brought home the seriousness of the pandemic for everyone in Australia.
That day I was in the Melbourne CBD and by 5pm that evening I noticed that the city had become deserted as most people returned to the safety of their homes.
Speaking to staff at one of the city’s more popular restaurants, most of the bookings for that day and the following week had been cancelled due to COVID-19.
It was a sign of what was to follow. Over the next two weeks major social distancing restrictions were put into place around Australia. Our cities became deserted, we started working from home and schools shut down, as did restaurants, cafes and bars. There were no parties, no visits, no weddings and even no funerals.
We quickly found new ways to live and work. Zoom became the word: Zoom meetings, Zoom mediations, Zoom drinks and even Zoom dinner parties. Our children were homeschooling via video, we attended video medical consultations and even virtual court hearings by video. The world adapted very quickly in the most difficult of circumstances.
But there is one thing that also disappeared worldwide at a time we needed it more than ever: sport, in particular the AFL.
At the time it had been just over six months since the Richmond Football Club had won the 2019 premiership at an MCG packed with 100m000 hysterical and delirious fans.
Who could have thought then that it would be the last time for at least months and possibly years that fans would be able to attend an AFL game in Melbourne, that it could be more than a season that we wouldn’t be able to hear the roar of the crowd that makes football what it is?
Melbourne is constantly referred to as the sporting capital of the world. To not be able to see any sport, particularly AFL, during the dark and difficult days of social isolation was going to make life even more difficult.
I watched the first game of the 2020 season between Richmond and Carlton. This was to be the night the Tigers unfurled their 12th premiership flag, but instead, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the game was on TV only. There was no crowd in the same stadium in which over 100,000 fans had watched Richmond play their previous game and win the premiership.
Spare a thought for Marlion Pickett, who played his first-ever AFL senior game in front of a crowd of over 100,000 only to play his next game in front of no crowd at all. Talk about highs and lows!
The first game this year was full of great skills and great football, but there was one thing missing. You can watch any game of any sport, be it AFL, rugby, football, gridiron, baseball or any other sport. The match may be close, the players may display the best skills of the sport, but as much as the commentators try to make it seem exciting, without a crowd the game has no spirit and no atmosphere.
It was like watching a closed practice session. It is the roar of the crowd, the cheering, the screaming, the clapping and even the booing that gives every game of every sport its spirit and its character. The sounds of a match in an empty stadium lacks everything we love about the game – the noise, the excitement, the atmosphere.
Interestingly, when the AFL recently returned to our screens without crowds, the television stations improvised with crowd noise special effects, which do make for a slightly better viewing experience.
The empty MCG on that first night and the empty stadiums since have made me consider whether it is actually the crowds rather than the players who make the game. Players in any sport at the highest level come and go. There are superstars and there are good players and there are average players and there are those who come and go without making an impact. The fans love the high marking, the tackling, the goal kicking, the flow of the game and the individual skills of the players that at times can be exciting and exhilarating.
Once we also had characters in sport, but apart from a few who remain, most of the characters were weeded out of professional sport, including the AFL, a long time ago. That’s an article for another day.
The reality is that crowds create the atmosphere and, more importantly, pay the high salaries of the players and administrators.
Watching that silent first game, I started to think about how the fans have been treated by the administrators of the game in recent years. This applies to all sports, but in the last few years this has been an issue for the AFL in particular. Last year the AFL penalised fans at games for barracking too loudly. There were many such examples throughout the year. A fan was evicted for shouting out to an umpire that he was a “baldheaded flog”. In another incident a fan was evicted and suspended for three weeks for calling an umpire a “green maggot”.
All of a sudden fans were discouraged from booing the opposition teams and umpiring decisions. This became a nightly discussion point on the various AFL talk shows on TV. Prominent football fans like Joffa Corfe boycotted AFL games due to the treatment of fans.
This all culminated in the middle of the year with the introduction of ‘behavioural awareness officers’ at games with those words emblazoned on their vests. That was the final straw for many fans and was not something they were going to put up with. I was at the Richmond-St Kilda game last year where the behavioural awareness officers patrolled the ground. There was a group of elderly St Kilda supporters sitting in our row and several families in front and behind us. That didn’t stop the officers from patrolling the area and looking at us suspiciously. It created a very uneasy feeling and atmosphere, as though the fans were under some sort of surveillance.
Interestingly, in those rare games where violence has erupted, there have been times when the security officers have been nowhere to be seen. At the time Joffa even wrote an article, from which one quote summed up the feelings of the fans. “We don’t want to be eyeballed, stood over, intimidated or threatened with eviction for being decent, honest, passionate supporters,” he wrote.
It was as if the AFL was trying to break with over 120 years of history and tradition and have a crowd of theatregoers at games rather than passionate fans who love their clubs.
Throughout the history of sport fans have attended games to support or barrack for their teams and to let off steam. Shouting at the umpire or booing the opposing team, the opposing coach (sometimes their own coach) and the umpires is part of the fan experience. It’s something to be embraced and not banned.
Of course fans should not at any time be allowed to do anything at a game that is against the law. Violence, abuse, racism, discrimination, offensive behaviour or language or anything else illegal should never be allowed or tolerated. If any such behaviour takes place, those offending need to be evicted from the ground and suspended.
There is no place in sport or the AFL for such behaviour, but the way the AFL treated its fans last year went way beyond this, and fans did not and should not tolerate it.
Of course there have been other ways the AFL has treated their biggest asset, the fans, over the years that has been less than satisfactory. The allocation of tickets, particularly for big games and finals, has been a perennial problem. In an era when the AFL has encouraged fans to become members and the fans have paid their hard-earned cash to buy memberships, the chances of members getting a ticket to the grand final or even to some big games if their team makes it are slim.
Clubs like Richmond and Collingwood who have large memberships – Richmond’s had a record 103,000 members in 2019 and are not far behind that in this COVID-19-affected season – will have only 20 to 30 per cent of their members able to attend a grand final if they were to make it.
A big chunk of tickets goes to corporates, many of whom are non-aligned ‘theatregoers’ with no interest in either team playing. While they contribute big dollars to the AFL coffers, it is at the expenses of the loyal members and, dare I say it, at the expense of the atmosphere of the grand final to an extent.
Then there is the high cost of getting to games. Members pay money for their memberships but then have to pay a booking fee to book an actual seat. At games the cost of food and drink is very expensive and even prohibitive so that going to the football becomes a very expensive outing.
The scheduling of games has also been an issue over the years, with twilight Sunday games and Thursday night games making it difficult for families with young children to attend.
I should add, in a different context, that perhaps the biggest betrayal of fans by the AFL was the treatment of South Melbourne and Fitzroy allegedly for the sake of the national competition. I will not go into the arguments for or against these decisions in this article, but the AFL in effect disenfranchised generations of fans by moving the Swans to Sydney and letting Fitzroy die – or, allegedly, merge.
Yes, many would argue there were and are many South Melbourne fans who embraced Sydney and some Fitzroy fans who embraced Brisbane, but of course it was never the same for most of those fans and many were lost to football forever.
On the other hand we now have a 17th and 18th team in the AFL who have been given most of the young talent in the drafts of the last decade and have received hundreds of millions of dollars in support but have few fans and are unlikely to develop large fan-bases given their geographical locations. Those millions could have saved both South Melbourne and Fitzroy.
Social distancing restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused the suspension of most sports around the world. As a result most sporting bodies and clubs around the world have suffered significant financial losses and are in varying degrees of financial difficulty. Loss of income from sponsors, televisions rights and fans has significantly reduced the incomes of clubs and sporting bodies. In the AFL that will mean budgets cuts in football departments for every club and perhaps a reduction in club lists.
In light of COVID-19 the AFL will need to reconsider their priorities on the fan issue and its ongoing treatment of fans. The loyal members have been asked during this pandemic not to request their membership fees back to help financially support the clubs and the AFL. Many of those members may have lost their jobs or their businesses in recent times and may be struggling, but most have not asked for a refund from. The corporate theatregoers are nowhere to be seen in this crisis.
The AFL and the clubs need to reward their loyal fan-base because they need it. Talented players will come and go, but it is the fans that are the lifeline of the AFL and it is the fans that make the game what it is. It is now evident to everyone that the biggest drawcard of our great game is the roar of the crowd. The AFL needs to do everything possible moving forward to embrace that drawcard.
The AFL season returned four weeks ago without crowds, and due to the spike of COVID-19 cases in Victoria we are faced with hubs in other states. For the first time in VFL/AFL history football will not be played in Melbourne for the foreseeable future. Matches games will now be played in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. Those states have allowed limited crowds, and that limit may increase as we move forward.
I am of the view the 2020 season should have been scrapped, but I understand the financial disaster the game would face if that were to happen, so the show must go on.
It has not been ideal and at times it has been and will be hard to watch, but I have been watching and supporting my beloved Tigers as much as ever. But it has not been the same, and if we get to have a grand final and we actually win it, I cannot imagine what it will be like when the final siren goes. No fans to celebrate with, the players doing a lap of an empty MCG with the premiership cup, no crowds at Punt Road and no street parties in Swan Street.
I will savour the 2019 premiership as at this point in time who knows when and if we will ever have a normal season again. But there is one thing I am really missing: the roar of the crowd.