Why AFL grand final is the most successful event in Australia

Hawthorn fans watched the players train this week - everyone is a winner when it comes to the AFL grand final. AAP/Julian Smith

When the Sydney Swans take on Hawthorn at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Saturday, it won’t just be AFL fans cheering.

As Australia’s dominant sport competition, the AFL generates more revenue than any other national sporting code. In 2012 it attracted $425 million comprising ticket sales, memberships, television rights, sponsorships, merchandise, gaming, and sundry income.

In contrast Cricket Australia generated $206 million, while Tennis Australia, National Rugby League, and Football Federation Australia secured $186 million, $136 million and $95 million respectively.

This not surprising in view of the AFL’s spectator numbers. In 2013 it attracted 6.4 million fans to its home and away games, while another 559,000 attended the finals series. In short, the total season attendance exceeded seven million people.

The NRL cobbled together just over 3.1 million admissions, while the A League assembled 1.8 million ‘fan visits’ for the season.

The AFL has also become the most popular site for sports betting, excluding horse racing. Horse racing turned over $20 billion in 2012, while the AFL and the NRL churned $900 million and $750 million respectively, underpinned by a 13% annual growth rate.

This is not a bad financial outcome for an enterprise that is technically not for profit, has no shareholders, and is not required to pay dividends. Being a company limited by guarantee, the AFL is able to undertake commercial initiatives, but does not have to pay tax on its profits, since, legally speaking, it only makes surpluses.

These surplus funds are reinvested in the business, so to speak, and used to “grow the game” into the future.

The second point to note that as a highlight of the Australian sporting calendar, the grand final receives saturated media exposure - its national television audience usually peaks at around 4.5 million, which makes it the highest rating Saturday afternoon television event for the year.

It is additionally the highest rating football competition, with NRL grand final viewership usually peaking at just over 3.9 million.

The AFL grand final is also good for the city of Melbourne. The excitement begins with the Brownlow medal count for the best player of the season, it builds with the parade of players through the city streets on Friday, and culminates in the frenetic playing out of the game on Saturday afternoon. It is an old ritual, but a good one.

Many fans come from interstate, and, from a commercial perspective the more “out of towners” the better. Saturday’s game is anticipated to draw 30,000 interstate fans.

On the assumption they will have spent $200 on a ticket, paid $600 for two nights of accommodation, and spent another $500 on food, drink, and entertainment, then this average per-person spend of $1,400 will generate additional in-Melbourne expenditure of $42 million. This becomes a valuable boost the local economy.

But, Melbourne gets more than commercial benefits from hosting the AFL grand Final. The psychological, social, and cultural benefits are less tangible, but are more significant. This is because the AFL grand final is more than a game, and more than an event. It is a sporting festival that brings people together in the most inclusive of ways. Class divisions are forgotten, social bonds are created, friendships are strengthened, civic pride is enhanced, and individuals feel emotionally alive.

There is massive community goodwill, and connectivity and optimism dominate the mood of the city. It celebrates our egalitarianism, and allows us to reflect on our democratic traditions. It also highlights our rich cultural heritage, and especially the magnificent achievements of our aboriginal footballers. It is the perfect springtime experience.

Critics argue that the AFL is a focal point for brutal exhibitions of ugly hyper-masculinity, a site for a barrage of racist and homophobic commentary, a game that marginalises minorities, and an institution that not only sexualises women, but also accommodates violence against them. In response, the AFL argues it is trying actively to change the culture that enables these problems.

The AFL Grand Final is both good for the economy and good for society. It is Australia’s most socially responsible sporting enterprise, and by any measure, contributes an enormous amount of social utility to the broader community. It is a great indigenous game, a first-order icon, and a national treasure, all wrapped into one.