Fans want to go back to the footy, but it may not look like this again

Australia World

Kirsty Morritt can’t wait to get back to the SCG to cheer on the Sydney Roosters.

Coronavirus vaccine or not, the membership holder and lifelong fan wants her weekends at the footy back.

“It’s definitely something that I’m missing in my life right now.”

She has been a Roosters member for 13 years and often goes to the games with her husband and parents.

“We go to 13 games a year I guess, and if they are playing some other games locally around Sydney, we generally go to those as well.”

Kirsty Morritt with her husband and parents at a Roosters match.

Kirsty Morritt with her husband and parents at a Roosters match.

Kirsty Morritt (Right) with her husband Ben and parents Paula and Graham at a Roosters match.(Supplied: Kirsty Morritt)

It’s the excitement and passion that these games invoke, that she misses the most.

“It’s the atmosphere, seeing the people that you see there on a weekly basis, being able to cheer them on really.

Kirsty isn’t the only one.

Some fans ‘dying for football to come back’

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Head of AFL Media Sarah Wyse agrees that a lot of fans are craving for live sport to return.

She actively tracks the metrics across the game’s various digital channels, from the AFL app to websites and social media channels.

Ms Wyse said the amount of engagement from fans since the AFL had to postpone its league after the opening round of the season had exceeded her expectations.

“We have actually seen over a 50 per cent increase in our web and app traffic and our engagement in social, compared to our off-season numbers,” she said.

“It just shows you that everybody is dying for football to come back.

“It’s been something that we have been truly shocked and pleasantly surprised by, in terms of our audience engagement and numbers.”

A symbolic Lone Bugler Anzac Day video in front of an empty MCG was one of the most viewed pieces of content created by Ms Wyse’s team during the shutdown.

So how would it look?

Lines of empty green seats fill the frame

Lines of empty green seats fill the frame

Lines of empty seats at the MCG.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

The NRL and AFL are preparing to play most of their seasons inside empty stadiums for the foreseeable future but plans are being put in place for the eventual return of spectators.

It’s not yet known how Australia’s sporting stadiums will manage the challenge of keeping fans safe, although working groups involving ticketing companies are currently examining options.

Professor David Shilbury from Deakin University; an expert in sport management, says fans should expect a very different experience inside the stadium, when that time arrives.

He says a focus on venue hygiene, crowd limits and socially distant seating arrangements are all likely to be the types of things being considered.

“The Boards and CEOs of the respective organisations are going to need to be carefully following the medical advice and I am sure they won’t let any of us go back into the stadiums until advice says we can.”

Trusting heavily the medical experts

A family sits on a rug on a hill watching the AFLW.

A family sits on a rug on a hill watching the AFLW.

Melbourne Demons fan Jack enjoys an AFLW game with his son John, 5, daughter Quinn, 1, and wife Jamila at Casey Fields near Melbourne in February.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Melbourne Demons fan Jack rarely misses a home game at the MCG but when he’s finally allowed back to watch, he will be carefully choosing which matches he’ll attend.

“But if it’s a Sunday afternoon match, the crowds generally can be spread out a bit anyway so I reckon I could easily find a spot in the G where we’re not all on top of each other,” he said.

Temperature checks on everyone entering the ground would make Jack feel more at ease, along with a cap on ticket sales, although he may wait weeks into the season before attending a game.

“I think I’d like to have a couple of seats (in between supporters),” he said.

“You don’t know if people have accidentally picked something up. And (maybe) I wouldn’t know if I’d picked something up either. It’s protecting other people (too).”

Smaller, boutique stadiums with larger, open areas might also become an option for some of Australia’s biggest sporting codes, so they’re able to spread people out further.

Along with Kirsty, Jack is keen to get back to matches, but he still wants reassurance he and his family would be safe.

“I do put a fair bit of trust in the medical experts, so if they say it’s fine, I’d go along.”

From famine to feast

Grounds keeper Bruce Fouracre is marking white lines on the grass at the new Townsville Stadium

Grounds keeper Bruce Fouracre is marking white lines on the grass at the new Townsville Stadium

Leagues are set to try to cram winter schedules in to the start of summer, giving fans a lot of options.(ABC North Queensland: Chloe Chomicki)

While fans will initially be stuck at home, a sporting feast will likely help make up for lost time, as leagues try to cram winter schedules into the start of the summer of sport.

October and November 2020 now loom as unprecedented months when it comes to their level of sporting activity.

In Australia alone there are expected to be NRL and AFL grand finals, a potential T20 cricket World Cup, A-League and NBL season resumptions and a possible Supercars finale.

Professor Shilbury says second-tier sport may have little choice but to schedule matches during the week to appease broadcast partners.

“Winter sports will be extending into the traditional summer periods and that has implications for broadcasters, which sports can they show on their networks,” he said.

Keeping fans engaged, now and beyond lockdown

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Wyse says fans can also look forward to lots of different types of sporting contents, as codes capitalise more on advances in technology to document the stories of their players.

“That behind-the-scenes unique footage that the AFL can deliver successfully because of our access, has been really successful for us,” she said.

“Getting to know the players behind the scenes, filming them in their most vulnerable moments, getting to know their families and getting to know who they are off the pitch.”

Wyse says another successful digital experiment has been the AFL’s fixture throwbacks, where a game from years ago is streamed across digital channels at a set time.

“The big thing that we talk about in terms of the future of the game, is relevance,” she said.

“How do we become relevant for new audiences?”

For supporters like Kirsty and Jack, the live show can’t return soon enough.

“I am really missing having that sporting event to go to,” Jack said.

“It was a break from work and gives me an excuse to yell at the top of my lungs. To catch up with my mates and have a few beers, maybe grab dinner.

“It’s a chance to just relax and refresh.”

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