No Players, No Game? Don’t forget the fans

BY BOZZA

This week we were again treated to the sound of AFL players, and their representatives, refusing to rule out the possibility of strike action as a tactic in their collective bargaining negotiations with the AFL. As talks between League HQ and the AFLPA are expected to be renewed after stalling late last year, a number of key characters in the drama have been more than willing to share their opinions when asked.

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The AFLPA are working hard to tie to an agreed percentage of revenue, something the AFL seems reticent to consider. The players’ representative AFLPA CEO Paul Marsh explained the reasoning a little on Melbourne Radio during the week. “It’s a key principle the AFL Players want, no doubt about that,” he said. “This has been driven by the players and there’s been good reason for that. We think this is the right model and the players have been very strong on this.”

This was evident when Brownlow Medalist, and AFLPA board member, Patrick Dangerfield was interviewed about the matter back in December. As talks between the League and players stalled, Dangerfield was asked if strike action was a consideration if the player’s demands weren’t met. Dangerfield, clearly frustrated at what he perceived as feet dragging by the governing body, answered: “It’s a chance.”

Marsh, with negotiations recommencing with the AFL, was a little more circumspect on the matter of a potential player strike when asked about it this week. “I think it’s a possibility but I’ll give you another word — it’s unlikely. I don’t think that is where it will end up. I don’t think that’s where we’re going to go.”

While Marsh was more conciliatory, Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury was a little more combative when he was asked for comment. “I think it’s something that we’ve got to fight for and I don’t think the players are going to blink either,” Pendlebury said on a Collingwood club podcast.”If the AFL’s not going to blink and the players don’t blink who knows what happens when the ball goes up in that first NAB Cup [JLT Series] game. I have no qualms sitting down at the first quarter, not at all.”

Pendlebury acknowledged that fans reaction to strike action would most likely be negative. “They’ll be spewing, and rightly so.” He believes that this will pass though, adding, “But they will understand when the media print the story and print all the facts, they will read about it and educate themselves and understand it’s all for a bigger product.”

While Pendlebury may be able to read the play better than most on the football field, I believe he hasn’t read this well at all. Nor did Dangerfield in December when he said, “”Without us as players, there is no game. It starts with us, and we’re part of the AFL, we understand that there’s other areas of the game that need to be catered for as well,” he said. “That’s engagement, that’s stadiums, but without players, there is no competition.”

Both players have forgotten the interdependent relationship the game has with its fans. Without question it’s true that the game cannot generate revenue without players, it is equally true that the game cannot generate revenue without fans. At the end of the day, the money the players want more of comes directly or indirectly from those who fill out the stadia, watch on TV and buy the products advertised at the ground or on the box.

It is for this reason that the AFLPA is trying desperately to downplay the talk of industrial action the players are fanning the flames of. The connection that those in the outer or on their couches at home feel with club and player is loyal but also irrational. It is the kind of irrationality that will see people choose to attend a teams final over a friend or family members’ wedding. It isn’t a bottomless reservoir of good will though, more like the love of a possessive lover.

If the players need any illustration of why they should think twice about industrial action, they need look no further than the reception supporters reserve for players that change clubs. Almost to a fault, supporters will blindly defend their clubs players in almost every possible situation. Like any kind of blind loyalty, when it is spurned it quickly turns, never more obviously than when a star player changes clubs. The sight of normally reserved people expressing their displeasure at someone for having the temerity to change employer should be enough to dissuade a player considering a strike.

If that isn’t enough to convince them, the Super League schism of the late 1990ss should. Early in the decade the game was flying high and expanding fast. Then quicker than Tina Turner could sing Simply the Best, it was a game both divided and licking its wounds that are still raw in some corners to this day.

It is for these reasons that the AFLPA need to tread very carefully here. The players have the same rights as every other person in this country to negotiate hard with their employer. Unfortunately for the players, their wages are a transaction different to most others. They are a result of a tapestry finely woven by the footballing community for generations. It is this fabric of the game that unites each and everyone sports stakeholders, and whether the players are right, wrong, or indifferent, the public finds it hard to see this fabric torn by wealthy people putting their hands out for more money.

Without question, the players have every right to strike for better conditions but because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean you ever should. The game they service and profit from appears a well-oiled machine but is, in fact, millions and millions of loose pieces bound tightly by over a century of shared purpose. One piece misplaced and it no longer operates the same. It would be wise for the AFLPA to consider that no matter how they attempt to shape the narrative, if they strike they will break the trust between them and the fans. You know what they say about trust, like anything delicate it might be repairable but, if broken, it will never be the same again.

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