Honorary Fellow, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne
The game of Australian Rules football is a grassroots and mass sport. It’s played by millions of girls and boys, women and men in casual and informal ways: on streets, in backyards and on muddy suburban ovals.
It’s a means for imaginary pleasures: we dream of being stars, while in reality, we can’t kick with our non-preferred feet. For some of us, when we realise the limitations of our own playing ability, we channel our passion into being ardent supporters of our beloved clubs.
Team jumpers and handknitted scarves are passed down from one generation to the next. For many fans, going to the footy with their children is a part of maintaining a tradition.
But the corporatisation of Australian Rules football at the professional level is increasingly interfering with the everyday fans’ enjoyment, and ownership, of the game.
This corporatisation is writ large through the AFL’s recent alliance with Disney, which is being hailed as a whole “new era of entertainment” in Australia. Meanwhile, the AFL remains in a lock-step partnership with the gambling industry and are heavy-handed toward anyone who is perceived to infringe upon their copyright.
Even the simple act of buying tickets for games is becoming more expensive and opaque – fans are even unable to clearly compare prices.
The end result of the game’s corporatisation and now ‘Disneyfication’ is increasing sameness in the sporting experience and the creation of a more streamlined, slick and consumer-driven experience.
The Australian Football League is an anomaly – rather than the norm – in the landscape of Australian Rules football, but it monopolises attention through its wealth, celebrity glamour and the skills of many of its star players. The success of the AFL is founded on the decline of the SANFL, WAFL, TFL and VFA.
The AFL, to the annoyance of many, has consistently sought to establish ‘AFL’ as a synonym for Australian Rules footy. Even legends of the game such as Leigh Matthews use the phrase, ‘play AFL’ and the term is now accepted in New South Wales.
Such is the price of ‘expansion’.
Footy exists on a broad spectrum of cultural practices within the Australian sporting landscape. The Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) has around eight divisions for men, and seven divisions for women.
It’s in this league that Fitzroy Football Club lives proudly on and is watched by loyal fans from the beautiful grandstand of Melbourne’s Brunswick St Oval. In amateur footy, the division between ‘fan’ and ‘volunteer’ is negligible.
In the VFLW, women’s footy is played throughout winter – well beyond that brief burst of summer attention given it by the AFL. In the VFL (M), the re-emergent Frankston Football Club is back and, along with great stalwart clubs like Williamstown, Port Melbourne, bucking the trend of affiliations with big-brother AFL clubs.
The AFL is increasingly distancing itself from the grassroots fans who have formed the foundations of the current elite version of the game. Instead, the AFL is cosying up to and forming profitable but problematic alliances with large and multinational companies: Disney being the latest and largest.
Despite the long list of professional players who have had gambling addictions, the AFL still regards it as good practice to adorn their ‘product’ with logos of gambling companies. Geelong, to their credit, have recently opted against having gambling advertisements at their stadium.
The AFL’s executives and the players enjoy their high incomes in part because of the boom in gambling sponsorship and lucrative TV rights. Children aged eight, now, would never have seen an AFL match without gambling advertisements. The ubiquitous gambling logos are normal for a new generation of fans.
They’re on your phone, your TV, your footy record, and on your social media feed too.
Some sports fans prefer the World Game of (Association) football – that Australians call soccer – and regard footy as a parochial obsession of the folk who have never ventured beyond the borders of Oz.
The (Disney owned) Marvel-isation of footy is seen not only in the frolics of the new cut down version of the game – AFLX, but also in the Thor-inspired “worst footy strip of all time” worn by the Western Bulldogs in their Round One game against the Sydney Swans. It should be no surprise that Bulldogs vice-president Kylie Watson-Wheeler is managing director of The Walt Disney Company Australia and New Zealand.
It seems tradition washes away swiftly.
Meanwhile, the AFL plays a dictatorial hand whenever anyone, like a regular fan, innovates and reproduces an image related to a player in the AFL.
The game, its images, its iconography is part of our shared history, mythology and memories. It’s an outcome of shared and collective passions. We use this passion to express ourselves, shape our identities and, of course, to have fun with family, friends and strangers – people we’d meet nowhere else.
But, the AFL relegates the interests of fans to the margins. We see that in the continual ticketing fiascos, the ceaseless gambling advertisements and the Disneyfication of once proud, supporter-driven clubs.
The intensifying promotion of Marvel products within the Australian Football League may provide fans with a moment of pause to re-consider their own connection to the game.
In the AFL, fans are only valued as consumers rather than as contributors to footy culture.
Fans have their own agency to choose sports and clubs which best reflect their communities, families and everyday shared experiences. They may just decide to go elsewhere rather than spend their hard-earned cash on the AFL, Disney and any number of gambling companies.
Copyright © Andy Fuller 2019
Originally published by Pursuit: Cutting-Edge Research and Insightful Commentary by World-Leading Experts, published by The University of Melbourne. Republished here ny kind permission of the author.