The AFL is set to abandon Sunday night football following the disastrous attendance at the Collingwood-Carlton MCG night match which drew just 40,921 people.
“Sunday night matches have drawn strong viewer numbers on both the Fox Footy Channel and the Seven Network but crowd numbers have been strongly impacted, particularly in the games played in this timeslot in Melbourne in rounds one, three, 12 and last night," AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said in a statement released on Monday morning.
"We will always look at new initiatives – just as we have done in the past with Friday night and Saturday twilight football – but match-day attendance is a core ingredient of the success of our game and, in this instance, we acknowledge the very strong feedback from our fans and our clubs in relation to Sunday night football, particularly in Victoria."
The Magpies-Blues clash was one of six Sunday night games (Eastern time) played this season as part of an AFL experiment to test timeslot ahead of future broadcasting rights negotiation deals. 1,019,315 people watched the game nationally on either Seven, its secondary channel 7mate or on Fox Footy. However the game was the lowest attended MCG encounter between the two traditional rivals since 1921.
"While the two national Seven/Fox Footy Sunday night matches (Rounds 3 and 15) have drawn comparable television viewers to a Friday night game, the impact on attendance does not justify moving matches into this new timeslot and the AFL remains committed to attendances at the ground as critical to our game,” McLachlan said.
The AFL comments support the proposition of a leading media analyst who believes that the AFL needs to either go all-in on Sunday night football, or abandon the concept altogether. Steve Allen - the managing director of media advisory organisation Fusion Strategy - suggested that haphazard fixturing didn't benefit anyone.
"They have to appreciate both from the public's point of view and the telecaster's point of view, you need a consistent schedule. The AFL's scheduling in my view this year, has been chaotic. I'd recommend organising a calendar where the consumers have got predictability of where the program will be if it's on a Sunday night," Allen said.
Allen maintained that Sunday night had plenty to offer for the league and TV networks if a balance could be struck between the needs of spectators at the ground at those watching at home.
"If they scheduled a Sunday night match, in our judgement it would certainly be worth 50% more, or twice the audience of say a Saturday afternoon match or Sunday twilight match. There is going to be a bigger audience, there's no question. Now whether that means a lower gate audience, that is the big question."
Of the six matches in the timeslot this year, Channel Seven has shown two live into Melbourne on a simulcast with Fox Footy, while the remainder have belonged exclusively to the pay provider. Allen hinted that Sunday night games were likely to be more attractive for Foxtel than for free-to-air channels which always have large audiences at that time of the week.
"Commercial networks really aren't favouring it, they can get more revenue and more ratings they believe out of a more regular format with shows they know. I think Pay-TV would go for this. I think it'd be crazy if they didn't."
The league is halfway through its monumental $1.253 billion five-year TV rights deal. Its inception led to every game except the Grand Final being broadcast live on Foxtel, with Seven screening four games per week including the marquee Friday night slot, in addition to all finals live.
Gillon McLachlan told Fairfax Media last week that the future of Sunday night football could hinge on the Collingwood-Carlton attendance.
‘‘We’ll see how Sunday goes, but the general feedback is that there’s great support for Thursday nights, less support for Sundays (at night) and Mondays," McLachlan said.
The league had been hoping for at least 55,000, and late on Sunday night its spokesman Patrick Keane tweeted that the fans' preference was clear.
"13000 reserved seat holders didn't attend tnite & AFL takes that msg onboard," he said.
Collingwood president Eddie McGuire is demanding compensation from the AFL for the financial detriment his club suffered as a result of the game's scheduling.
Fox Footy special comments man David King commended the league for experimenting.
"I personally think that last night was worth a look. It could have been an outrageous success, it didn't prove that way. You've got to try these things," King told SEN on Monday morning.
"It would've been fantastic for people at home, sure it didn't get a great turnout live. We probably have to accept that it was a wet cold night in Melbourne and that was going to be the case. Maybe we have to look to games at Etihad Stadium virtually indoors."