Leaps and bounds and scarves everywhere – Around the grounds at AFL’s Gather Round

A man walks into a bar and is handed a football. There’s no punchline – that’s just one of numerous baffling encounters I’ve had over the past few days in a city that’s gone AFL mad.

Previously known best for its churches, Don Bradman statues, and a Paul Kelly tune lightly deriding the place, Adelaide is now the undisputed capital of the Australian Football League. At least until the weekend’s over, when thousands of tonnes of football paraphernalia will be shredded and stored, local retail workers thankfully lose the custom guernseys forced on them by excitable bosses, and the city can go back to searching for the Beaumont Children or whatever happens here when a red oval ball isn’t central to daily life in and around the city.

It is, of course, Gather Round, where all games in an AFL round are played within busking distance of the Adelaide CBD.

The entire round sold out in just nine hours, and everyone involved is very excited. Activations, or ‘inflatable things’, splash out from Adelaide Oval in concentric circles. Rundle Street Mall is awash in scarves and flags. Even op-shops are in on the game, dragging out worn jerseys and player’s manuals from 1993 to feature in scarf-laden window displays. Adelaide Library isn’t immune either, collecting all AFL-related lending materials in a prominent display. I spend three full days with the opening lines of Blowing In The Wind cycling through my head: Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam…

The footbridge across the river to the stadium is a nice five minute stroll on Wednesday afternoon; by Thursday evening it’s a 45-minute crawl, but nobody seems to mind too much, even if their team just lost.

Because, after all, a lot of them just won. These are not locals. Adelaide is not built for this many people. There is a fly-in, fly-out aspect to the weekend; indeed SA Premier Peter Malinauskas estimates some 70,000 tickets were sold to interstate fans, up by 30,000 from the previous year.

I see evidence of these interlopers everywhere. There have been numerous Kochie sightings. Word is the ghost of Don Bradman has been floating around, mumbling about the studs ruining the cricket pitch. A group of rowdy university students tells me of their eight-hour road trip from Melbourne – “only one piss stop”, was the bold and unverifiable claim. I overhear a guy in the lobby of a hotel talking about how he has tickets for all nine games. “I hope we won’t be too tired by game nine,” he says. I scan his face for signs of sarcasm – there is none present. Later, I walk past him and his wife sitting out the front of a Hindley Street cafe. They look tired. Game two is still hours away.

Leigh Montagna came to Adelaide from Melbourne, although I’m quite sure he didn’t travel in the aforementioned eight-hour road trip.

In a previous life, before he was a vital part of the Fox Footy commentary team – providing a litany of statistics and clear-headed analysis that a lot of sporting commentators can’t muster in the red hot heat of the action – he played 287 games for the St Kilda Football Club.

He was at last year’s Gather Round, and loved what he dubbed “the carnival feel” of the event.

“Everyone’s just in a good mood, because everyone’s here for footy, everyone loves it,” he enthuses.

It is also a rather unique proposition, as Montagna points out.

“The thing that stood out last year, and so far this year, was having all supporter bases in the one place – for every team. We’re a bit unique, like some other sports around the world, you can’t have fans of different teams in the same bar, let alone all 18 teams’ fans – but we have that here, and we do it really well.”

I look around and spot five different team beanies. Point made.

Montagna is one of those rare players uniquely suited for a post-playing life in commentary. Various members of the Foxtel Group mention to me over the week that finding players who can adequately make that transition into what is essentially a shiny floor television host with an encyclopedic footy brain is a difficult feat.

Montagna confesses to having always been “a footy head” while playing, becoming absorbed in the minutia that comes with tracking performance and trends.

“I was one of those few players that actually enjoyed the opposition analysis meeting or the strategy meetings,” he said. “Any time towards the end of my career, I would go and sit with the assistant coaches and throw up ideas.

“So I always liked that side of footy, the strategy and the analytics. I think the reason why I use analytics [while commentating] is I want my point of difference to be, if I have an opinion, I’m backing it up with some evidence, either through stats or through vision, to say, ‘This is why I’m saying it.’

“I don’t want to be that person who just throws out an opinion into the universe without having any reason behind it. I want people to know if I’m saying something, it’s because I’ve got something behind it – stats or vision – to try and back up my points.”

Here’s a stat. Over 200,000 tickets sold in nine hours. Here’s another: $4.5 billion, over seven years. The former stat relates to the Gather Round, while the latter is the amount paid to the AFL by Seven and Foxtel for the television rights through to 2031. It’s a staggering sum, and a big part of how the Foxtel Group positions itself these days.

“We are a sports-led business,” Rebecca McCloy confirms. She is executive director of sport for the Foxtel Group – and points out that Kayo is the “home of 50 sports.”

“We’re a content business but we’re also a device business,” she tells me, and regardless of who produces the actual sporting content — be it a free-to-air channel, or ESPN — Foxtel wins. This sentiment is shared among many people I speak to over the last few days. “I think sports fans are sports fans,” Les Wigan, managing director of Hubbl, reasons when I attempt to poke at any AFL/NRL rivalry.

“When we look at Kayo, you’ve got people who watch on average nine different sports now,” McCloy points out. “So in terms of growing the pie, when people say, ‘who are you going to target’ for a [particular] sport, I’ll say ‘sports fans.’

McCloy has seen this with Kayo, where — like boats in a high tide — all sports rise equally. The Netflix series Drive To Survive has bolstered Formula 1, which in turns adds a new slew of sporting fans to the market. And so on.

But surely the AFL/NRL divide is real?

“They compete off the field, absolutely,” McCloy said, “but when you’ve got an aggregated service, obviously with Hubbl and with Kayo and the breadth of sports, we see them all lifting.

“Our objective is just to grow the sports fan universe as broad as we can, and then cross-pollinate between the sports and keep people on the platform for longer.”

It’s a good plan. And if you are shelling out billions for one particular sport, such as AFL, that broadening comes with taking the sport national.

This year’s opening round, which saw games played exclusively in Sydney and Brisbane, was a nice lead-in to Gather Round a few weeks later.

“They are absolutely priority markets, there’s no doubt about it,” Seven’s national sport sales director, Rob Maclean told me a few weeks back, referring to New South Wales and Queensland. The Foxtel team share this sentiment.

Adelaide is growing and locked in for the next three years, while no doubt there are backroom talks of similar “carnivals” elsewhere in the country. After all, despite the success of interstate teams, AFL is still seen as a Victorian pursuit.

“We’re conscious of that, absolutely,” Fox Footy’s managing director Michael Neill tells me, albeit as Melbourne takes a 33-point lead against Adelaide.

“A simple example is how we do on AFL 360 on Monday nights, we have coaches’ night, and we have an even spread of coaches from all around the country, same with players’ night. Some players come into the studio, but we often do live crosses to a Travis Boak here in Adelaide or a Lachie Nealel in Brisbane.

“There’s always the accusation, especially with the AFL, that it’s very Victorian-centric. We have to address that. Our potential customers, and a lot of our viewers already, are in the northern states.”

As a lot of those interstate fans start to flood the hotel bar, the buzz so thick you could cut it with a scarf, I ask Montagna if he misses playing.

“No, I don’t miss it anymore,” he says firmly. He recalls how hard it was, the preparation, and all the effort that goes into it – although – as a ‘footy head’ he does admit to missing the constant feedback that comes from doing a measurable week-by-week job.

“Now, I’m lucky. I get to do the easy bit. I get to just watch it, and talk about it, and don’t have to put the effort in, and don’t have to put the commitment in.

“And my time’s come and gone. I’m pretty pragmatic about that. Now, I just enjoy it as a fan.”

Enjoy your weekend – there’s footy on TV, so I hear.


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