Sonia O’Sullivan: When does sport become just a social event?

It makes you wonder what it would take to attract more fans to athletics events?

Action from the 2018 AFLW Round 1 match between the Carlton Blues and the Collingwood Magpies at Ikon Park  in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph:  Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty

Action from the 2018 AFLW Round 1 match between the Carlton Blues and the Collingwood Magpies at Ikon Park in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty

 

Last Friday saw the kick-off of the second season of the Australian Football League for women – or the AFLW, as it’s come to be known – with a repeat of the inaugural game of the 2017 season. 

Carlton Blues versus Collingwood Magpies is a local derby, and last year drew a crowd of 24,000, a record attendance for the women’s game here. A full stadium, effectively, the gates actually being closed before kick-off and many supporters turned away. 

This is partly explained by the fact there is no admission charge to AFLW games. Fans can just walk up and select their seats, hoping of course that it won’t actually be a sell-out.

The success of the initial season had perked my interest to go along and see what all the fuss was about. 

I’m also keen to see how one of Ireland’s greatest ever women’s footballers Cora Staunton takes to the oval ball, this being the first step into the AFLW for the Mayo star. Only that will have to wait until next week, when her team, the Great Western Sydney Giants, come to Melbourne to take on Collingwood in their home ground, which up until recently was the Olympic Park Athletics Stadium. 

The AFL – for many men and women – is certainly a religion in Melbourne, and the second season of AFLW, under the AFL marketing umbrella, continues to grow the brand further into the fast-growing market place of women’s sport. 

For me it wasn’t an easy task to get to Carlton’s stadium at Princes Park  on the other side of Melbourne on a Friday evening, also being uncertain of when you’d get there, or if you’d even get in – especially if the fans returned in the same numbers as last year. 

I arranged to meet a friend who lived close by, and my daughter Sophie also decided to tag along. A sort of a girls night out, only we did wonder would there be more women than men watching women’s AFL, or indeed what kind of crowd would actually fill the stadium? 

It was a warm and bright evening as we walked across Princes Park, trying to get there as quick as we could. It was fairly quiet when we arrived so we had to wonder as well was everyone already seated inside, as most of the Australian media were predicting another lockout in the news all week. 

The marketing and exposure of the women’s game in AFL has certainly been a great success. There is more coverage of women’s football here than any other women’s sport. It does beg the question why other women competing in more traditional sports like athletics don’t get quite the same level of coverage or interest as women playing football.

Saved money 

Anyway, it was some relief to get into the ground and not face being locked outside. The no entry fee clearly helps attract the fans, every AFLW being free entrance, apart from one game later this month, where for charity purposes the admission is just two Australian dollars: already some 43,000 tickets have been sold for the 50,000 capacity at the Optus Stadium in Perth, where local team Freemantle will take on Collingwood. 

Underneath the old stands at Ikon Park there were lines and lines of people, all seemingly eager for beer and a pie. Maybe this was part of the whole experience I didn’t quite get. I suppose if the entry is free it’s best to spend the saved money somewhere else. And maybe the exact same goes on at the men’s game. (I avoided the beer and pies and stuck to water and chocolate, as I was driving). 

There actually appeared to be equal support from men and women in the stands. And the pre-game energy and half-time entertainment was certainly pumping.

It just seemed to lack something to really grab the audience's attention

We found some seats behind one of the goal ends hoping to get some close up action, although actually goals were few and far between, as the players too often fumbled the ball. On one occasion a Collingwood player totally miskicked directly in line of an open goal.

When you are at one end of the ground it’s very hard to see what’s going on at the far end, and it seems to take an age before the ball is cleared to open space.

The ground also seems too big for the women’s game, and with two fewer players than the men’s game, the women are required to cover more ground. And it was obvious on this opening game that these two teams haven’t quite mastered the amount of running required to keep the game flowing. 

Still there was a bit of a kick: afterwards Collingwood’s Sarah D’Arcy became the first player to be cited under the AFL’s new judiciary system, proposed with a two-match ban for kicking Carlton’s Sarah Hosking in the groin, the most talked about incident from week one of season two. 

But is it really about sport or an event? I was expecting more from the game on Friday night. That’s not necessarily comparing it to the men’s game, as I don’t go to many of them either, but I just suspected the flow of the game at a professional level in the second season would be much greater. 

It just seemed to lack something to really grab the audience's attention, yet it has a huge audience present in the ground, some 19,000 spectators, the game also broadcast live on TV. 

Short season

These players are all paid a minimum salary of $7,500 for rookie players up to $27,000 for marquee players. On top of this they’re given gear and boots, medical and nutritional back-up, and even childcare for any new mothers that play when they have to travel for away games. It is a short season too, played over just seven rounds and then a Grand Final. 

It seems to me that the game is being sold on as an extra arm of the AFL, something that will take time to grow and develop. But at what cost to other sports?

The financial carrot is there, whereas it is not so lucrative for other sports at entry level, which maybe aren’t sold so blatantly to the public, or with as many sponsors on board driving their brand on the backs of the women. 

On Tuesday of this week, I was back in the same Carlton suburb at the University of Melbourne athletics track, again racing across town to arrive just on time for the A grade 800m and mile races at the Victorian Milers club evening. 

These are a series of graded races set up to encourage athletes of similar abilities to improve their times and move up a grade each month. An Australian copy of the original British Milers Club set up in 1963, and more recently Irish milers club, all set up to improve the standard of middle distance running.

These races attract a full range of athletes – from youth and junior, club runners to Olympic athletes. Everyone is welcome and you will be slotted in based on your season best time. For most, the commitment and hours of training would be no less than the 13 hours a week required by AFLW, yet for most too the financial reward is next to nothing. 

The entertainment value is no less, and in my view far greater. There is no packed stadium or live TV though the introduction of livestream is a big attraction. Some 413 athletes competed on the night, in 37 races, all in just over three hours and supported by friends and family on the sidelines. 

It makes you wonder what it would take to attract more fans to these athletics events? Maybe some beer and pies, or at least some coffee and cake.

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