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Good night, and good luck: AFL grand final trial no less brilliant

Scott Heinrich
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Darren England/AAP</span>
Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Was the night grand final really that bad? Covid-19 might have thrust change upon an organisation bolted to tradition, but at least the AFL was open to what lessons might be learned from the new timeslot of the 2020 decider, if not the new location. “It’s out of Victoria, I think people feel it’s a good time to have a look at it,” chief executive Gill McLachlan said last week. “We’ll see where we get to by the full-time siren, then everyone can judge a night grand final on its merits.”

The verdict is in, and it does not look good for the yellow Sherrin. Although Richmond’s latest premiership triumph was considered a success on several levels, there seems little appetite in the game to embrace the alternative findings of the “Gabba experiment”. Chief among grievances is the timeslot. “I love the day game,” winning captain Trent Cotchin said. “It’s what I grew up with during the day playing footy. It is just what feels the norm.”

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That is about as measured as it gets. Elsewhere, the buck to convention has been met with widespread vitriol. Take a trawl through Twitter on the subject and there could be no confusion as to how a mere seven per cent of voters in a Herald Sun poll want the grand final to be played at night in years to come. “If the AFL uses Covid to introduce under the cover of darkness a night grand final permanently, it will be a disgrace,” veteran AFL journalist Caroline Wilson told the ABC. On the same Offsiders program, TV personality and Tigers fan Waleed Aly said he “hated it”. Gideon Haigh, a journalist whose vocabulary is broader than most, opted for succinctness in describing the night affair as “total crap”.

So why the animosity? Given the resounding ratings success of Richmond’s win over Geelong, there is a feeling in the sport – right or otherwise – that by scheduling a grand final at night, the AFL is selling out. It must be said, the TV figures were impressive: the national average audience of 3.81 million was the highest since 2016 and up 30 per cent on last year’s grand final. In Victoria, viewing figures were up 50 per cent on 2019. In locked-down Melbourne, the average audience figures were the highest for a grand final ever.

It seems that if TV executives are happy with a finale under lights then dyed-in-the-wool fans cannot be. “It really celebrated the game with all the drama,” Channel Seven Melbourne managing director, Lewis Martin, told Fairfax. “The game was king but I thought the colour and drama of the game was complemented by being at night.” Nobody can argue the game itself suffered under spotlights, and why would it? Night games are de rigueur in the AFL right up to the preliminary final stage and on Saturday night Richmond and Geelong served up a grand final of immense quality. Maybe the backdrop of darkness even heightened the drama.

The want to position the season-decider as either a game or an event is bewildering. Why can’t it be both? Elsewhere in the developed world, most big-ticket play-off games are held at night. The Super Bowl and Uefa Champions League final might be choreographed to within an inch of their lives, but the star of the show is always the game. Detractors sneer at the bright lights, the elongated lead-in and the lavish entertainment – “I feel like it’s the kind of thing you like when you don’t actually care about the game,” Aly added – but the fact is the MCG grand final has always been an event as well as a game. In Melbourne, the event lasts for a week and it is brilliant.

This year, the streets of Melbourne were bereft. There was no grand final parade, no scarves or banners lining the streets of Richmond. It did not feel like grand final week to Melburnians but that is the annual lot of people in every other city in Australia. Except for Brisbane this year. The Gabba did it differently, but in many ways it was no less brilliant.

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One of the few gifts Covid-19 has bestowed upon us is the opportunity, forced as it may be, to look at things as we would not when things were normal. With the grand final locked in at the MCG until 2057, the first decider played outside Melbourne has passed as no more than a novelty. But it counts as an opportunity lost and not least a shame that it took a global pandemic to pave the way for the AFL to become a truly national competition. The issues of timeslot and location should go hand in hand and be part of a robust discussion about the code’s future.

The Gabba has shown it can hold a night grand final and do it well. Perhaps a day grand final is best for the MCG. A twilight timeslot for Adelaide and Sydney, anyone? Everything should be on the table for a game that is yet to comprehend that change is not always bad.