As the first night-time AFL Grand Final drew to a close, there was a pervading sense that this was something of a watershed moment. Was this to be the start of a new trend or was it simply a strange final fit for strange times? Ultimately, time will tell, but the change certainly got people talking. The new time slot of the 2020 decider has already drawn much criticism from all corners of Australia, but at least fans got to see just what such a spectacle might look like.
In the end, it was Richmond who triumphed on the biggest stage of all, though for some people, the stage itself was a bit too brightly lit. Playing the Grand Final at night broke a tradition that dates back decades, and hence, the decision was always likely to cause some degree of consternation. It became known as the “Gabba Experiment’, though, if winning captain Trent Cotchin has his way, an experiment is exactly what it will remain. “I love the day game”, he stated. “It’s what I grew up with, during the day playing footy. It is just what feels the norm”.
Cotchin’s point is certainly a salient one, as norms, traditions and customs are concepts that we all struggle to let go of. But new norms must be established at some point, and it’s entirely possible, given all that is happening in the world right now, that playing at night could in fact become the new ‘norm’. The problem is that Cotchin’s remarks are about as diplomatic as it gets when it comes to criticism of the new timeslot. Over on Twitter, it’s another matter entirely.
Online, the vitriol towards the decision was immediate and unrelenting. A poll conducted by the Herald Sun found that only 7% of responders wanted the Grand Final to be played in the evening – not that such sentiment holds any sway with the decision-makers. Veteran AFL journalist Caroline Wilson told ABC; “If the AFL uses Covid to introduce under the cover of darkness a night Grand Final permanently, it will be a disgrace”.
Gideon Haigh, a cricket/fiction writer by trade, was similarly scathing, labelling the decision as “total crap”. Far from just being a few vocal traditionalists, it seems as if the whole of Australia has come out in force to ensure that a night-time event never takes place again.
The animosity towards the schedule change seems to come from a place of frustration on the part of the fans, many of whom believe that the AFL is massively selling out. The move towards a night-time event will, in theory at least, bring in more viewers. This was proven as such, as the national average audience of 3.81 million was the highest since 2016, up 30 per cent on last years blue ribbon clash. In Victoria alone, figures were up 50% compared to 2019 – which has made some conspiratorial onlookers question the true motivation behind the changes.
Breaking with tradition for the sake of financial gain is one thing, but the crux of the issue is that Covid is being peddled as a convenient explanation for the new start time. Elsewhere in the world, grand sporting events are commonly played at night-time. The Superbowl, Champions League final and the soccer World Cup final are all (for the time being at least) played in the evening.
Whether a similar future beacon for the AFL remains to be seen, but if the initial reviews are anything to be go by, organisers might do well to stick to the traditional time slot. The only issue with listening to the fans on this one is that despite their initial protestations, they still tuned in. As hard as it may be to accept, the later start time likely played a big role in the rise in viewers this year – a fact that will do very little to silence the cynics.