Volume 8 Number 5
May 14 - June 9 2012
Australian Rules Football in a Commercial Era – Catering for Theatregoers and Tribals, charts the AFL’s journey from humble amateur state league to what has become the nation’s largest and most profitable sporting organisation, and an annual winter obsession for southern Australians.
Dr East, who completed his Master of Arts at the University of Melbourne, follows the history of commercial demands on the game of Australian football, focusing on the Victorian Football League and its evolvement into the AFL.
According to Dr East, much of the professional game’s journey has been a struggle between the desires of the clubs and the governing body’s demands.
He interviewed many of the game’s personalities, including the current AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou, premiership captain and coach David Parkin (currently director of coaching at University Blacks), and Geelong full-back Tom Lonergan. Many of the game’s key commercial interests are discussed, including venues, player professionalism, media impact and the game’s expansion into non-traditional markets.
Dr East cites the development of an independent VFL Commission in the mid 1980s as the moment when the League entrenched its commercial and administrative power.
“The VFL Commission civilised the process of managing clubs’ ambitions and expectations,” Dr East says. “Clubs have to prioritise success, so a strong independent commission is needed to ensure that the field remains as level as possible. Without the Commission, the game as we know it would have been a disaster.”
The game’s finances are tightly controlled by the Commission, which is expanding the AFL into new markets while protecting the ten remaining Victorian clubs.
“The AFL is interested in expanding the market up to a point where it is feasible for clubs to be sustained,” Dr East says.
“We will continue to see resources poured into areas such as Western Sydney and the Gold Coast, but we are also seeing a focus on retaining traditional clubs such as Melbourne, North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.”
A new TV rights deal ensures the AFL will receive $1.253 billion over the next five years – the reward for expanding to 18 teams. The rights deal and a focus on maximising attendances through an attractive fixture help maintain Victorian clubs’ viability.
Dr East believes the current position is sustainable as the AFL has survived more austere times.
“It is rare for clubs to be perpetually financially devastated. The same follows for the AFL and the sport itself,” he says.
“These situations are not permanent – they ebb and they flow. The AFL and the clubs are quite good at riding out tough times. They are resilient.”
However the game’s current status and fortune should not be taken for granted. Dr East emphasises the importance of clubs developing new fan bases away from their traditional catchments. Hawthorn’s experiment has become the benchmark – the Hawks committing to four home games each year in Launceston, allowing them to greatly expand their supporter base.
“Hawthorn’s plan shows a shift from a common understanding of tradition and loyalty to a more post-modern one where you actually draw on multiple sources. They have embraced Tasmania as another home location,” Dr East says.
This division is a fine process, necessitating a close affinity with the existing supporter ‘heartland’.
“Clubs can redefine a sense of ‘home’, but must do it in a particular manner that is seen as authentic. Spectators like stability and want to know that a club has some form of dedication towards them.”
Dr East stresses the importance of finding a niche that neither exploits fans in the second home market, nor alienates the die-hard supporter base.
“There is a bit of benchmarking to be learnt from the Hawthorn example. The really big question is sustainability, as we are yet to see how feasible it is over the long term to retain two bases,” he says.
“But I think it is definitely something they have to do for any club that has financial challenges – to keep one foot in the traditional camp but also look more widely.”
The book analyses the AFL’s current dilemmas, including the mooted effect of player free agency. Dr East believes the dangers free agency pose to clubs might be overrated.
“While money is a factor, players mention that the things which retain them at their current clubs are team success and existing friendships,” Dr East says.
‘Australian Rules Football in a Commercial Era – catering for theatregoers and tribals’ (Walla Walla Press. 2012).