With the 2020 AFL season on the line, Queensland stood up to help keep the game alive, winning the right to host the coveted grand final in the process. But what will hosting the AFL’s biggest spectacle mean for the state, the fans and the game itself in the long term?
It was the sport story that only 2020 could have provided. NRL glamour club, the Brisbane Broncos, collected the first wooden spoon in the club’s history. While across town in the AFL, the Brisbane Lions were flying, riding a wave of local support as they attempted to secure a home grand final.
Nothing in 2020 seemed normal. The impact of COVID-19 on Victoria meant that for the first time in 123 years, the AFL grand final was played outside the state, under lights, in the balmy rugby league heartland of Brisbane.
It was a decision that reignited the debate about regularly sharing the grand final between cities, and showed the potential of a prime-time fixture for broadcasters – dividing purist AFL fans and delighting the progressive campaigners who are desperate to see the game expand. It also pitted state against state in a bidding war, while forcing some to question what impact hosting such an event would have on the taxpayers’ hip pockets at such an uncertain time.
But there’s one thing that can’t be denied. Queensland – along with Western Australia and South Australia – helped keep the AFL season alive. The majority of the home-and-away season was played in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, with matches also played at the iconic Cazalys Stadium in Cairns. Team hubs were set up on the Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast and in Cairns, providing a welcome boost for accommodation providers, restaurants and car-rental services.
And on Saturday October 24, the Gabba turned on a spectacle as the nation once again turned to sport when it needed it most.
UQ law and marketing researcher Associate Professor Sarah Kelly was across Queensland’s bid to host the grand final at the Gabba, as part of her role as Deputy Chair of the Brisbane Lions and as a board member of Tourism and Events Queensland.
“Queensland objectively saved the AFL and other codes this year, and the hope it brought to the nation was just what we needed,” Kelly said.
“It also potentially helped save employment across a huge sector, through enabling the broadcast of the game and the trickle-down effects on the grass-roots growth of the sport.
“The main argument for Queensland hosting the grand final was about legacy – not only for the development of Aussie Rules across Queensland as a development market for the code, but also when considered in the context of a portfolio of mega sporting events planned for the state.
“Hosting mega events like the AFL grand final, the Women’s FIFA World Cup in 2023 [Brisbane will host a number of matches during the tournament] and, hopefully, a successful 2032 Olympics bid all translate to economic and social impacts. By this, I mean enhanced sporting, transport and community infrastructure; and enhanced destination brand image more broadly for trade, tourism, events, international diplomacy and also community pride; which are all measurable short- and long-term impacts.
“In short, Queensland will be showcased as a prestigious destination on a global and national stage.
“The AFL grand final is arguably the biggest national sporting event on the calendar and it really positions Queensland as not only an attractive destination to host major events, but also as a major business centre for Australia and the world.”
UQ researcher on the economics of professional sport Professor John Mangan said if the AFL grand final promotes Brisbane as a viable alternative for hosting major sporting events in years to come, then this will be a good outcome.
Yet, despite reports of a total of $136 million of economic contribution generated in Queensland as a result of AFL activity – including $60 million spent by the AFL on player hubs – Mangan questioned how this one-off event would benefit the economy in the long term.
“Sporting events, particularly one-off special events, have some short-term benefits from the spending on accommodation, travel, and consumption from interstate and overseas visitors,” Mangan said.
“Spending by domestic fans does not count as it is largely displacement spending. In this case, there will be no overseas visitors and fewer interstate visitors because of COVID-19 and the fact that the AFL is not an international sport.
“If the increased AFL spending can keep some operators afloat, it will have a disproportionately beneficial impact. The main long-term effect will be keeping existing operators afloat.
“In that respect, hosting the teams and their families in hubs during the season is much more economically significant than hosting the grand final, with crowd restrictions and border-crossing issues.
"Flying hordes of AFL officials and their families to Queensland to sign the grand final hosting agreement seemed unnecessary in a pandemic. On the other hand, professional sports are important for public morale, and a number of studies have shown things like World Cup victories do provide some economic and productivity benefits to a depressed economy.
“If the exact amount that Queensland has paid to host the grand final was known, then a proper cost-benefit analysis could be undertaken.
Brisbane Lions midfielder Dayne Zorko. Image: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
Economics aside, Kelly believes the exposure of the game to Queenslanders has come at just the right time for the AFL as it looks to truly cement itself as Australia's number one football code.
According to an ABC News report in October, AFL Queensland has seen a 10–15 per cent increase in Auskick participants across the state, with 13,000 juniors making up the biggest competition in the country.
“Queensland is a growth market for the AFL, so just by having something that’s so aspirational and highly visible in the state on a weekly – sometimes daily – basis has been a boost for the Queensland AFL and the game at a grass-roots level,” Kelly said.
“With the Lions playing so well, and the Gold Coast Suns also doing well, it’s sparking so much interest and it’s showing in registrations and club-membership growth.
“On top of this, we’ve been growing the women’s game and performing well. From an AFL perspective, it enhances the value of sponsors and broadcast rights in upcoming negotiations.”
Brisbane Lions AFLW star and UQ Sport Elite Athlete Program Officer Emily Bates said she had already noticed more people across Brisbane becoming invested in the 2020 AFL season and the performances of the clubs they support.
“I visited a few junior training sessions lately and you can see a lot of kids wearing different jerseys – normally you would just see a few Lions jerseys around,” the UQ graduate and dual AFLW best-and-fairest winner said.
“I spoke with parents and they mentioned that they were heading to the footy that night, which might have been on a Tuesday or Wednesday.
“There was more of a buzz at training – even at senior level with my local team, Yeronga – the girls were constantly talking about going to the footy every night of the week. They were always fans, but now they’re becoming more passionate, avid fans.”
While Bates (Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Sciences ’18) said it will take a while to see the full impact of this exposure on the Queensland market, she said a recent spike in media coverage is encouraging.
“For once, the AFL is really in the spotlight in Queensland. The game is constantly in the news and I can see that slight shift.
“We used to be 10 pages deep in the sports section of newspapers. Now, we’re on the back page or two pages in, and we’re starting to crawl into that traditional rugby league space."
This might not sit comfortably with traditional rugby league fans, who are already wary of the AFL’s slow march into the north-eastern states.
But it’s not just rugby league fans who are wary. The decision to move the AFL grand final away from Melbourne and its spiritual home of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) divided many Victorian AFL fans, as well as Western Australian and South Australian supporters, who believe they deserved it more.
And it’s a fair argument. The AFL is the number one football code in Western Australia and South Australia, and both have state-of-art venues ready to host the biggest game of the season.
Mangan said professional sports are about money and business, yet the sports industry differs from other industries because of the importance of tradition, loyalty and team identification.
“I think taking the AFL grand final away from its spiritual home in Melbourne would diminish the event and make it seem like just another commercial transaction.”
“Studies have shown that players like to play finals at traditional grounds, such as the MCG, Wembley Stadium and Lord’s.
“On the other hand, the US regularly changes the location of the Super Bowl without any noticeable reduction in its attraction.
“The Melbourne reaction was a mixture of support that the season had progressed, and regret that they temporarily lost their signature event. For Queenslanders, there may have been some pride but, again, a one-off event does not really have long-term impacts.”
Kelly was thrilled that Brisbane hosted the AFL grand final this year, but she said the game must be careful not to lose track of what makes it so popular.
“Something that distinguishes the AFL from other sports is that there are a lot of rituals and traditions that enrich the game, and it is a better spectacle as a live game.” she said.
“I think the MCG grand final, along with the grand final parade on the Friday before the match and the fact that it’s a public holiday, makes it a great weekend of celebration – whether your team is playing or not.
“That being said, I’m all for a strong argument for other development markets and other states getting to host these events as well.
“The COVID-19 curve ball delivered this amazing opportunity to Queensland and it will go down in the history books. It was different, but it was a great event.”
Brisbane Lions players Cam Rayner and Charlie Cameron celebrate a win over Collingwood at The Gabba. Image: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images