There have been two schools of thought surrounding the departure of Andrew Demetriou from the AFL’s CEO position.
The first has come predominantly from the fans who believe, with good reason, that it was probably a few seasons too late. These people have mainly focused on his administration’s failings, of which there were many.
The opposing view is typical media praise which accompanies any end of an era. They gloss over the valid criticisms and instead focus on the positives.
I’d like to take a different tack.
It is my contention that even the so-called positive aspects of Demetriou’s reign fall far short of public perception.
The Growth of the Game
When Demetriou took over the top job in 2003, the previous year’s attendance totalled 5.87 million. In 10 years that has grown to 6.36 million.
Impressed? You shouldn’t be.
With the expansion of the league there is now an extra match every week, this alone should have seen the figures rise to 6.6 million. Average attendances have actually declined.
In the last decade, the nation has undergone population growth unseen since the post-war era. The potential market has increased by 15% overall, and a disproportionate amount of that growth has occurred in the AFL homeland of Melbourne. Had the AFL maintained the same market share as in 2003, the current attendance should have risen to 6.75 million.
Either of these factors outshine the actual performance, but combining the two, crowd figures should theoretically have increased to 7.59 million simply by treading water.
The 2013 attendance of 6.36 million is proof the game has gone backwards in real terms, by approximately 19%. This has come at the expense of the clubs whose bottom line has historically depended upon ‘bums on seats’.
Demetriou has been credited with the vision to take the sport of AFL to new markets. Premiership success seems assured for the burgeoning clubs, as a result of the concessions they have received, but the implementation has left a lot to be desired.
The Suns and the Giants have been established in unfamiliar territory and have shown little to excite crowds. Regular beatings ensure potential fans will be driven from the game.
The lack of on-field performance mirrors the implementation of previous entries to those markets, the Swans and Bears. Due in no small part to their rocky beginnings, or simply the inviability of the market, decades (and a merger) later these teams still depend on handouts despite recent premiership success.
The AFL should have learnt its lesson. Instead this administration has repeated the old mistakes.
Regular 100+ point thrashings are an embarrassment to the clubs themselves, and the entire league. Longer term, it remains unlikely these clubs will ever be anything more than financial black holes irrespective of on-field success.
The Game is in a Great Position
Is it? Really?
Administratively, the league is arguably in the worst place it has ever been. The public are disillusioned by repeated scandals and a complete lack of accountability and transparency. Unfair and arbitrary punishments were routine under Demetriou’s corrupt dictatorship, resulting in a long laundry list of failures too numerous to mention. Demetriou’s exit is a start, but it will take considerably more for the AFL to repair the fractured relationship with it’s fans. Fans have been taken for granted, fleeced for all they are worth and continually lied to in the process.
On the field, the game isn’t much better. The attempt to make play more continuous has eliminated boring downtime, but the sport now appears indistinguishable from an under 7’s match. Every player on the field follows the ball without rhyme or reason. This ‘game plan’ ensures results are increasingly determined by turnovers and whoever can run into the most open goals. It is not unusual for 90% of a team’s score to come directly from the opposition. It has become an uncontested and unskilled brand of football which is increasingly frustrating to watch.
Broadcast Rights Deal
The TV rights deal has driven an explosion in the income of the AFL in recent years. This is great for the league’s bottom line, but not great for the competition. Increased exposure gives clubs more opportunity to capitalise on the sponsorship dollar, but this is a double edged sword. Given the initial inequity in the positions of the clubs, more exposure has only widened the divide between the rich and the poor.
The other problem with the TV rights deal is the reduction in accessibility to the fans. Pay TV is gradually taking over and puts the game out of the reach of many fans.
The previous broadcast deal was the peak of the AFL, but it is now in decline. Under the previous deal, there used to be four games on free-to-air, and a further half-game on delay filling the void between the Sunday match and the nightly news. Now there are only four games per round. Half a game doesn’t sound like much, but remember there are now nine games per round.
To explain this with figures; there used to be a 50% chance you would see your team play a full game, and an additional 12.5% chance of partial coverage. Now there is only a 44% chance a non-pay-TV subscriber will be able to see their team play in any given round.
The only positive from the deal has been the transition to more live matches, but this was a non-negotiable demanded by the public in a new world where social media made it impossible to stay connected without spoiling the results of delayed telecasts. The CEO can take no credit for following orders.
Supporters of the AFL boast about the funding Demetriou was able to procure from the government, while their sporting rivals are supremely envious. At last count the total exceeded $3 billion. It is a staggering sum, and Demetriou is largely to credit for the results. Although it is hard to see how it can be considered a positive, given those funds are pulled directly from your pocket.
But, hey, at least they pay taxes, right?
People bemoan the kickbacks given to our mining magnates or various industries, or the actions of multinationals – like Google or Apple – for their exploitation of the system. Using subsidies, corporate loopholes and tax havens, these firms manage to pay next to no tax on their earnings.
Unfortunately, the AFL is no different thanks to their government grants.
The net result of the $3 billion prised from the public purse by Demetriou is that one of the most successful and profitable local industries receives more from government contributions than the entire industry pays in taxes. They are a financial powerhouse more than capable of self reliance, yet thanks to corporate dealings they have become a financial liability with the taxpayer footing the bill, whether they follow the sport or not.
Do you feel like a sucker yet?
The departure of Demetriou is long overdue. His ‘bad’ has been atrocious, while his ‘good’ has arguably been even worse.
When Demetriou was appointed CEO he claimed he would preside over a glorious new era. In an interview with CEO Forum Group, he listed three main priorities.
- To strengthen our ties with the broader community, to bring our game closer to the supporters
- To enhance relationships with key stakeholders, such as clubs and players
- To reinvigorate our own organisation
His administration has failed in all regards, most prominently the 2nd goal. Disharmony between the clubs and headquarters is at an all time high, while the most recent collective bargaining agreement threatened to result in unprecedented strike action from the playing group.
Demetriou continued in the interview, ‘Top of my list would be an absolute commitment to honesty, integrity and transparency’.
Demetriou’s lasting legacy will be precisely the opposite of his publicly stated intentions; dishonesty, division and obscurantism.