Could US college football be a precedent for the rise of the VFL?

As AFL comes to dominate the Australian sports landscape with its multi billion dollar TV deals, glorious stadiums, own media arm and huge paycheques for star players, a surprise competitor is rising.

Football without glitz or glamour (or tickets) is having a resurgence.

VFL and SANFL growing on Google trends
Interest in VFL and SANFL growing on Google trends
AFL ebbing on Google trends
Interest in AFL stagnant and even ebbing on Google trends

I am seeing a lot more mentions of semi-pro football on social media. People on Twitter are barracking for the Box Hill Hawks. People on Facebook are getting behind the Norwood Redlegs. And they are as enthused about the price of the beer as about the quality of the football. It’s a holistic assessment of the quality of the experience.

If you go to a game in one of these leagues, you might be able to walk there. And at quarter time, instead of being insulted by advertising, you can go onto the field and listen to the coach address the players.

Photo credit: Simon Arden
Half time entertainment, VFL style. Photo credit: Simon Arden

Interest in AFL seems to have waned a little. The AFL has seen average crowds fall back to the levels of 15 years ago.

afl attendance

Is the AFL experience good value? I paid $40 to see a finals football match last weekend and you can’t deny the view is good and the atmosphere is vibrant. But a pie and a drink will set you back a further $15. It’s not exactly cheap family entertainment any more.

Overall, AFL has been growing its audience through broadcast. But even it admitted falling viewership on the free-to-air stations in its 2013 annual report:

“Seven Network audiences were slightly down year-on-year (0.7 per cent), a smaller decline than the decline for Australian free-to-air television ratings generally, while viewership on subscription television increased by 6.3 per cent year on year. FOX Footy in 2013 remained the best performing channel on the Foxtel platform in five capital cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth)”

TV ratings for 2014 are not easy to analyse, but the first data point I compared did not look good. The 2008 2nd elimination final attracted 1.1 million viewers, (Sydney v North Melbourne) while the 2014 equivalent got 654,000 (Essendon vs North Melbourne).

As any music artist can tell you, having a product that is consumed via broadcast is no way to make money. And AFL tickets cost so much now that the game is a premium product. Is there space for a challenger? Could we end up like US football, with two popular leagues of different standards?

In the US, College Football is a $6 billion industry, barely smaller than the $9 billion NFL.

This Stephen Fry video gives a sense of its scale:

Despite its amateur status, US college football is highly commercialised. Ticket prices can actually be up to $200. But then again, NFL tickets can cost up to $300, so perhaps the comparison with the VFL, SANFL and WAFL is fair, just on a much smaller level.

In any market, there is always room for a competitor. This is especially the case when an incumbent has been making big bucks, licking the cream from its whiskers and looking self-satisfied.

The AFL is Apple, and the smaller leagues are China’s XiaoMi, offering a product that’s never going to satisfy the die-hards, but will tempt many on price. If you are thinking about taking a handful of primary-school-aged kids to the football for the experience of it all, there’s no doubt VFL offers a pretty compelling alternative.

The VFL (then the VFA) has offered competition to the top league before.

“In 1960, the VFA first allowed premiership matches to be played on Sundays. After years of losing ground to the VFL, the VFA’s launch of Sunday games was a turning point for the better, as it allowed matches to be played without competing the VFL for spectators. Within a few years, clubs found that Sunday matches were as much as three to four times more lucrative than Saturday games.” (Wikipedia)

The only hiccup in this whole competitive narrative is the fact that the AFL and VFL are actually associated. But the SANFL is independent, and so is the WAFL. And the VFL and AFL have only been associated since 2000, so the link is not necessarily written in blood.

Is Australia ready for two separate, popular Aussie Rules football competitions in each football-loving state? I suspect the answer will be yes, especially if the AFL doesn’t do more to cater to grass-roots spectators.