Footy in 2020 was like no other year anyone has seen. From Round 1 being played in front of no fans, to a six-week suspension of the season, to moving the entire operation north into Queensland, the AFL responded to the coronavirus pandemic in an agile and ultimately responsible manner.
But while there were some things that worked in a weird and whacky 2020 season, there were some things we'd rather not see return in 2021.
Keep it for 2021
Footy on a Tuesday, Wednesday AND Thursday night? Didn't hate it. By the fourth straight week? Yeah it was a tad much, even for the die-hards! But 'Footy Fest' could work in 2021 -- and every season going forward -- if implemented properly. Matches don't need to be scheduled every night for weeks on end - instead, the AFL should look to have a 'school holidays footy fest' next season.
Over 10 days, from a Friday night through til the following Sunday, have matches on throughout the week. Preferably not at 3.40pm on a Friday afternoon or 4.10pm on a Tuesday, but in prime time. Parents will be more likely to allow kids to either attend the matches or watch them on TV, and the AFL (and broadcasters) post ratings bonanzas night after night.
The AFL stumbled across something special with the notion of 'Footy Fest'. It would be easy to overdo it (as they may have done in 2020), but if carefully considered and worked in with the calendar, there may be room for it to feature prominently going forward.
We're not asking for more 5.40pm Tuesday first bounces, but Friday night double-headers are surely something to consider. It doesn't need to be weekly occurrence, but there are certain times a year where it may be worth implementing. As with 'Footy Fest', school holidays are a logical choice, but if the AFL decided to start an east coast game at, say, 6.20pm, there's an option to then have a 9.10pm start in Perth - or 7.10pm local. This means West Australians get to experience a genuine prime time game, and if the Eagles or Dockers host either the Crows or Power, then those in Adelaide are looking at an 8.40pm first bounce.
Remember when Channel 7 used to delay Friday night footy until 8.30pm anyway? It wouldn't be too dissimilar, and if done sparingly, could be quite effective.
Dreamtime in Darwin
No disrespect to what Essendon and Richmond do at the MCG every year, as they've built it into a must-watch spectacle on the footy calendar, but why hasn't the AFL been scheduling marquee games in the Northern Territory for Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round from the start?
There was something magical about watching the Tigers and Bombers battle it out in Darwin. From the incredibly moving Welcome to Country by Larrakia man Richard Fejo, to the on-field performances of Indigenous players Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Irving Mosquito (two goals each) for the Bombers, and Shai Bolton (29 touches, one goal, three Brownlow votes) for the Tigers. The incredible atmosphere of a sellout crowd, or -- as usual -- the beautifully designed jumpers that both teams were wearing.
Games have been played at TIO Stadium in Darwin for more than 15 years, but it was the first time we've had a fixture there during the Indigenous Round. Even though it only came about in happenstance during the COVID-19 pandemic, surely it's a no-brainer to have a big name game in the Northern Territory every Sir Doug Nicholls round.
Quicker MRO turnarounds
Given games were being played throughout the week during Footy Fest and Footy Fest 2.0, it meant the AFL and Match Review Officer Michael Christian had to get a wriggle on in assessing any incidents of misconduct. What this meant was that players were not waiting until a Monday morning to find out if they were to be suspended or fined; instead, the next morning, the AFL announced any sanctions from the previous evening's game(s). It's how it should always have been, but it took a global pandemic for a decent system to be implemented.
This is perhaps a little self-indulgent coming from a member of the media, but Zoom press conferences were a masterstroke addition in 2021. Not only did they allow journalists to 'attend' more opportunities per day compared to 'in-person' press conferences, players were noticeably more relaxed when fielding questions, and it made transcribing, writing and publishing news stories all the more easier (and faster).
Sadly, as newsrooms continue to shrink in size, it's going to be tougher for reporters to get to in-person pressers going forward, so holding these over Zoom may be the way to keep fans informed and up-to-date going forward. While this isn't practical for every media opportunity, having a player or two face the media on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday via Zoom would get a big tick from us.
The idea could even be expanded to have fans livestream the conferences - send out a 'watch only' Zoom link prior to the opportunity and they can watch proceedings in real-time.
Special mentions go out to playing each team once which doesn't seem like it's going to happen anytime soon, and Gillon McLachlan's mullet, which tragically succumbed to the Queensland heat following his 14 days of quarantine.
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Leave it in 2020
A night Grand Final
The AFL got its night Grand Final wish in 2020, and it came about accompanied with the perfect excuse: if ever there was a year to experiment, 2020 was it.
And given how traditional and sacred the timeslot and location of the Grand Final has been over many, many decades, it was truly strange to see the AFL's showpiece being played in Brisbane - and at night. Was it worth the experiment? Yes. Did it work? Kind of! But it shouldn't be repeated.
There's something special and unique about a 2.30pm bounce at the MCG. Whether you're at the ground, soaking up the atmosphere beforehand, or having a pre-game barbecue at a mate's place, or heading out to your local watering hole for an evening after the result is known, it's become a part of the fabric of the sport, and it's a culture that can't just be abandoned.
I've already put my hand up; I was an advocate for a night Grand Final leading up to the 2020 decider, but having seen one, I'm firmly back in the 'day Granny' camp, and I'm certainly not alone.
Commentators calling games from a studio
This one's pretty self-explanatory and, again, came about out of necessity more than anything else, but commentators must call the game live from the ground in 2021. Both Channel 7 and Fox had their talent call most of their matches from 'home' - whether that was in the Fox studios in Melbourne, or with Bruce McAvaney wiring into the Channel 7 team from his home in Adelaide, but it was painfully obvious they were seeing ... well, exactly what we could all see on the TV!
The value in commentary is what is outside the picture, and having the special comments guys and girls notice what is happening down the field and not just where the ball might be. Add in the fact that callers were constantly calling over one another if they weren't in the same room, and it meant the aspect which is supposed to add to the broadcast was actually taking attention away from it.
It was a fair experiment, and I'm sure the broadcasters were thrilled they were saving money on flights and accommodation by keeping their callers at home, but for the good of the sport and the quality of the broadcast, let's not do it again...
Releasing the fixture in batches
This may be slightly controversial, but releasing the fixture in batches at a time doesn't work for fans. Sure, you might be stuck with the the odd dud contest on Friday night footy each year, but even clashes between two 'hot' teams can end in 10-goal spankings, and it's the fans -- the lifeblood of the sport -- who rely on the fixture release as a way to plan getting to games. Whether they live regionally, interstate or want to book interstate trips, locking in a fixture early allows supporters to plan their leave, budget their weekends and travel accordingly.
It's not just the fans who would prefer to know earlier than later; players I've spoken to said they prefer certainty when looking at upcoming fixtures as well. And won't someone think of the guys and girls who make the fixture fridge magnets? They'll be out of business if the AFL insists on releasing rounds three or four weeks at a time!
It was necessary in 2020, but let's leave last-minute fixturing behind us going forward.
Special mentions also go to fake crowd noises which we hope never to hear ever again, shorter quarters which have already been spiked by the league, as well as the weird phenomenon of the Brownlow medallist having to present himself the medal. That was truly bizarre.