THE BLOG

The Players Need To Think Hard About Who Makes The AFL's Wheel Go Round

They don't own the game. The fans do.

03/03/2017 4:05 PM AEDT | Updated 03/03/2017 4:05 PM AEDT
Getty Images
Scott Pendlebury is not the most important person in this picture.

In their determined pursuit of a pay rise, the AFL players should think twice before sitting down.

Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury recently said he'd have 'no qualms sitting down' in the first quarter of a match if the players did not get a pay deal they were satisfied with.

Perhaps it was a veiled threat to the AFL as a warning that the players mean business and won't budge. Perhaps it was fiery rhetoric designed to make a point.

The Players Association have since watered down any talk of a player strike and today's reports have suggested that a deal between the AFL and the players is all but done.

However, this week, Pendlebury's former teammate, Dane Swan, suggested the players should strike. During his time on 'I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here' he told his camp mates that he'd "strike for sure".

"The game is not going round without the players, the AFL can think what they like but as soon as the players say we are not coming to work, they've got nothing," he said.

This may well be true, but it also seems to miss the point. The players may well be the stars of the show, but they don't own the game. The fans do.]

If the AFL disengages the fans, or loses junior, country and suburban support to other codes, the flow on effects will ultimately include smaller ground attendances and TV audiences, and declining memberships.

I have written before that the athletes who make our sports great deserve to be rewarded with handsome pay packets. After all, they're the ones we go to see. Indeed it's the players who the AFL utilise as marketing tools to sell the game.

They train hard, push their bodies to places the rest of us can't go and live under the microscope of intense media and public scrutiny. From their point of view, they should be recognised and rewarded for putting on the show they do, for without the talents of our biggest stars, where would be game be?

However, the sticking point is that it's not all about them.

The most recent broadcasting rights were sold by the AFL for $2.508 billion. The record amount is a reflection of the market value of the game. The demand for it is undeniable and it is true that the players are the most exciting part of the game.

But in a world where all sports are climbing over each other to be seen and heard, the AFL can't take its popularity as a given and must continue to work to keep it at the top of the mountain. As such, the AFL wants to invest in the future of the game, for the reality is, fewer fans in the future, means less money for the players.

If the AFL disengages the fans, or loses junior, country and suburban support to other codes, the flow on effects will ultimately include smaller ground attendances and TV audiences, and declining memberships.

Where will the money come from then?

The Australian Sports Commission's AusPlay report, released late last year, revealed that soccer was the most popular participation sport in Australia at club level with 1.086 million players, compared with 635,627 who played Aussie Rules.

The AFL may well be flying as the number one professional football code in the country, but you don't have to go too far into the suburbs and country areas to know some leagues are on their knees with clubs merging and great divides between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.

Some clubs don't have reserves. Some play with as few as 14 players. Some have players that play eight quarters over two games to make up the numbers. Worse still, some clubs don't exist anymore.

A health check on the state of country football may not make for pleasant reading. These leagues and clubs need more funding. Perhaps they should sit down in protest, too.

The players should fight for their cause, but not follow the lead of other, bigger sports. Comparisons with the 2011 NBA player's strike that lasted 161 days and saw the regular season reduced from 82 games to 66, are misguided.

The US market and the Australian market are very different.

The AFL may well be flying as the number one professional football code in the country, but you don't have to go too far into the suburbs and country areas to know some leagues are on their knees with clubs merging and great divides between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.

The fact the AFL has nine teams in one city with another just down the road in Geelong is unique in itself. The corporate money is stretched. Attracting sponsorship dollars in a crowded market is no easy task, and history will tell you, not all clubs have survived. The AFL contributes funds to all Victorian teams

Furthermore, the game is not yet a priority for the majority of NSW and Queensland corporates, sponsors and fans. Indeed the AFL is pouring millions of dollars into those clubs so they survive.

And remember, ultimately the game is as popular as it is because a majority of fans across the country choose it over other sports and, in particular, other football codes. After all, much of the game's revenue comes from the fans and their demand for the game.

It's the fans who show up. It's the fans who watch on TV. It's the fans who purchase memberships. Ultimately, without the fans there is no game.

When all is said and done, the game belongs to us. It is the people's game.

I grew up in Yarrawonga, at least three hours from the MCG. We travelled to Melbourne a lot to watch the footy, often driving back home after the final siren the same night. he days were long and they were expensive too.

But the effort was always worth it, largely because the players put on a mighty show. And as such, they deserve their fair slice of the pie. Few would deny that. But in the future, before they sit, or strike, they should think of those in the stands and watching at home, for they don't have to come or watch. They've chosen to be there because they want to see their game played.

In fact, the fans, in all corners of the country, at all levels of the game, should be considered and thought of more than any other stakeholder when decisions are made.

After all, the fans own it.


ALSO ON HUFFPOST AUSTRALIA

More On This Topic