When the AFL trumpeted the signing of the competition’s one millionth club member this season, a modern phenomenon had reached a significant milestone.
One million “proud, passionate and paid-up” fans, to borrow just one of the slogans used to spruik club membership in recent decades.
The NRL might counter that its comparable, even superior, viewing TV figures compensate for their relatively low memberships and subsequently emptier grandstands.
But regardless of the competing cases of live attendance and vast audiences, the AFL club’s enormous subscription rate is an astonishing achievement — even if the head count includes the Labradors, goldfish and other family pets.
Yet with the AFL’s surge in membership — from 422,815 in 1998 to this year’s historic figure — has come a significant problem.
Memberships are bigger but finals venues are not.
Where 121,696 watched Carlton hunt down Collingwood in the epic 1970 grand final, the MCG now barely caters for 100,000 spectators. Meanwhile, seats for so-called “average” fans have been reduced by corporate areas and various special category memberships.
The dilemma for the AFL — or at least for its baked-on supporter base — is that the gradual reduction in availability has coincided with an increase in supporter entitlement.
The bitter outcome was this week etched on the disappointed faces of those Richmond and Collingwood supporters, who could not get a ticket to Friday night’s vastly over-subscribed preliminary final.
That many supporters of two teams with enormous official support (Richmond has more than 100,000 members, Collingwood 75,000) will be locked out is inevitable and hardly new.
Images of disappointed fans missing out on finals tickets are as much a staple of September media coverage as mystery injuries and politicians in club colours, even if the aggrieved supporters are now at the end of a virtual queue instead of a real one.
The significant difference is that fans do not merely feel disappointed they won’t see the big game, they feel betrayed by a system that fails to reward their loyalty and up-front investment as members.
The current AFL membership model burgeoned in the 1990s when cash-strapped clubs worked hard to parlay latent support into guaranteed revenue.
Club memberships and add-ons such as reserved seats were sold with both a stick and a carrot. While simultaneously tempting fans with the privileges of membership, clubs also shamed those who did not sign on with the barely concealed message: “If you’re not a member, you’re not a real fan.”
Memberships morphed into multiple categories with only the most expensive guaranteeing finals and grand final tickets, while basic package holders were left fighting for what crumbs fell from the September table.
The problem in what is now an 18-team competition is that those fans who can’t afford to count an expensive platinum membership as a virtual donation must use a crystal ball when buying their season tickets.
The pain of getting that decision wrong was felt last September by those Richmond supporters who did not buy a membership guaranteeing finals and grand final access to watch a team that had not given many hints that a 37-year premiership drought was about to break.
Similarly, Collingwood and Melbourne supporters who didn’t foresee finals glory this season could be left in the lurch — even those who might have bought fewer memberships and attended every home-and-away game.
Finals tickets allocation rarely fair
At the heart of the wrenching ordeal faced by fans who sweated over their laptops watching the Ticketek “site busy” page whirl is the status of “real fandom”, which, it could be argued, should be earned, not purchased.
In that sense, the old queues at suburban grounds for finals tickets at least rewarded the most sacrificial. They were certainly fairer than the online agencies that do not discriminate between the tech-savvy — or just plain lucky — and the footy mad.
While scalping is a predictable target of headline-seeking politicians, there was also a time when the footy black market provided a reasonable exchange for tickets from the hands of opportunists to desperate fans.
Although now, the wider distribution network of online markets means that scalped tickets are subject to hyper-inflation and priced well beyond the means of that notional “average” supporter.
A commonly suggested means of ensuring finals tickets end up in the hands of “deserving” supporters is to reward home-and-away game attendance.
In the case of Melbourne-based clubs, members who have attended 15 games might be given priority over those who have attended fewer.
But then, how do you know whether fans that had their memberships barcode scanned 15 times actually attended those games and didn’t give the ticket to a friend?
Meanwhile, clubs who use guaranteed finals tickets to add value to the most expensive membership packages won’t want that privilege to be eroded and their most valuable subscribers to reduce their annual spend.
More likely, the shortage of finals tickets will continue to be the cause of constant heartache for disenfranchised supporters as soon as next week.
If success-starved Melbourne beats West Coast, the demand for tickets to a grand final against Richmond or Collingwood will be even greater given the vast (some would say scandalous) allocation of grand final seats to corporate clients and other “neutrals”.
Whether because the ground is too small or the membership too big, thousands of paid-up diehards will spend the biggest day of their footy year in their lounge rooms.