But this time the game’s governors have gone too far in their cynical manipulation of football supporters and their intangible but deeply passionate relationship with the last Saturday in September.
Because McLachlan’s declaration at the Melbourne Town Hall on Thursday night that the 2019 grand final would start again at 2.30pm was fake news. AFL chairman Richard Goyder’s board virtually settled at the commission’s first meeting this year in February that there would be no change to the scheduling of the big game.
There was no debate or new recommendation when the commission met again this week, simply a ratification of what had already been decided.
To analyse why McLachlan told a briefing of senior journalists and commentators that the decision had not been made is not a complex exercise. Yet again he grabbed plenty of headlines, yet again he opened up the debate. And he injected a sense of drama into the AFL’s season launch.
And the wider football public who have every right to claim ownership of the game and its grandest occasion was further softened to the prospect of a historic change that the AFL chief declared two years ago was “inevitable”.
As it unfolded on Thursday the official launch – a largely slick and well-staged affair – needed little else but the dramatic reminder of the final stages of the West Coast-Collingwood play-off. A superb
production which focused on three pivotal Eagles, culminating in Dom Sheed’s last kick.
There was the revelation that none of those three Eagles was actually meant to be on the ground when they achieved victory. And the emotional audio in the middle of the MCG of Nathan Buckley comforting his stricken son and reminding him that life would go on.
McLachlan’s address followed after further build-up to an announcement by his chairman. The chief executive’s speech was something of a personal love letter to football combining his passion for the game from boyhood along with its traditions with the need to be bold and challenging when progress demanded it.
So emphatic was McLachlan in his stated pledge not to cower from change – accompanied at some point by violins – some commissioners wondered whether they’d missed the memo and the grand final was to be shifted after all. All part of the staged drama.
Clearly McLachlan likes the idea of the twilight or night-time start or he would never have used the word “inevitable” in 2017. This regime is seriously considering the move, the Demetriou administration never did.
The only time McLachlan’s predecessor looked at moving the start time was after the Collingwood-St Kilda draw of 2010 when a David Leckie-led posse of Seven bosses figuratively gang-tackled Demetriou and his chairman Mike Fitzpatrick in the Olympic Room at the MCG pushing for a twilight replay. But Demetriou succumbed to tradition, saying at the time that once the Saturday day final was gone it would never return. He said that about the centre bounce, too. Not that it stopped him from throwing up the debate when it suited him.
Goyder made it clear last week he was open to change and some commissioners are more determined than him to take the game into the dark. The arguments are less about world sport and following international trends but growing the game in NSW and Queensland. It is said at the game’s headquarters that a prime-time grand final could attract an extra 800,000 viewers in the northern states.
Worth walking away from a superb cultural tradition that trumps every other sporting occasion across Australia? When McLachlan has already declared Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney and the AFLW are the long-term play in growing the game and the national audience? All the while downgrading Tasmania in the name of dollars and numbers?
Either way the AFL had no intention of moving the 2019 grand final but chose to pretend it might do so for at least a month after a decision had been made. McLachlan and his friend and Seven boss Tim Worner met last week for a coffee and the subject was never raised.
Not one club president or CEO was consulted. It is the commission’s right to make these historic calls of great significance but surely the 18 clubs must be part of a decision like this. The public might be softening thanks to the AFL’s media strategy but supporters still largely oppose a move. So do the players.
But most disappointing is the fact that we now must endure the debate every year and with this year’s decision comes no clarity on 2020. A braver group of governors would back their own judgment should they truly believe change is for the good or – for the sake of the stability of game and its precious jewel – declare the grand final fixed at 2.30 in the afternoon at least for the length of the current broadcast deal.
Because tossing the grand final around on an annual basis diminishes the occasion. Selling the 2019 rule changes to various Australian rules stakeholders over the past month the AFL football operations men point to a determination to preserve the magic of the game.
And yet their bosses have failed to do so by their headline-grabbing treatment of the most important match of the year. To be frank it’s a little cheap and it creates the impression something is not quite right where the grand final is concerned. Whereas you only have to cast your mind back over the past three final spring Saturdays to conclude that 2016, 2017 and 2018 were close to perfect.
Caroline Wilson was previously chief football writer for The Age. She has won numerous awards, including the Melbourne Press Club’s Graham Perkin award in 2014 as Australian journalist of the year.