opinion

MITCHELL JOHNSON: Western Australia boasts everything it needs for unique AFL event like Gather Round

Mitchell Johnson
The Nightly
4 Min Read
WA deserves its own unique AFL round.
WA deserves its own unique AFL round. Credit: Supplied

The AFL’s Gather Round is great but as all 18 clubs and thousands of travelling fans gather in Adelaide for a festival of fun it does raise the question – what is our big footy event in Perth?

As the AFL’s epicentre, Melbourne already has grand final week – kicking off with the Brownlow Medal before the parade and the big game every year at the MCG.

Adelaide now has Gather Round, but the third of the big traditional Aussie rules States in Western Australia appears to have been left behind.

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Of course Gather Round may come to Perth one day, with the current contract with the South Australian Government running until 2026.

It could be really exciting here. WA is an amazing place to visit and having Optus Stadium and the WACA Ground close by could potentially be very handy.

While a redeveloped WACA Ground just a bridge walk over the river from Optus Stadium could work, the potential to play a game down south or even up north could also offer a tourism opportunity if logistics could be worked out.

Gather Round is a great initiative and you can imagine how Adelaide has been pumping this weekend. But spreading the love is the best way forward.

Taking the show on the road will be better for all clubs and fans and each State and city would get an opportunity to showcase what they have to offer, which seems pretty reasonable. We are a sports-loving nation and Gather Round could get even bigger if done right.

The concept has the ability to work well anywhere, even in the rugby league heartlands of Sydney and Brisbane. It’s an event and if it can be set up well and done the right way with the entertainment and all clubs getting behind it then I think they can have success with this anywhere.

Adelaide is clearly well suited though. The State is claiming $83 million in economic activity was generated by last year’s event and all matches this year are sold out – with nearly 40 per cent of tickets sold to fans from outside of SA.

I spent a bit of time in Adelaide early in my cricket days at the academy under the great late Rod Marsh. The town certainly loves its footy, that’s the first thing I really noticed.

When playing cricket at Adelaide Oval, the crowd really got into it. There is space for plenty of entertainment out the back and great food and we’ve seen how much they love their annual Test match. Granted it’s not the same thing, but South Australians do turn up and make the most of things.

Gather Round is a great way to attract new fans like myself to be drawn to a game of footy. The idea is about getting people through the gates and entertaining them - not just with the footy but also the music, fan zones, food and wine and other experiences that SA has to offer.

It creates a reason for people to travel somewhere they might have never thought of visiting. Having invested in it, there is a lot of pressure on the SA Government to get it right and to make sure the infrastructure is up to standard and able to cope with the big number of visitors.

A concept of what the WACA will look like.
A concept of what the WACA will look like. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

As a player I’m sure it’s a great experience. It’s a departure from every other round, a chance to interact closely with fans and, for some teams such as West Coast on Saturday, a chance to play at some unique venues they wouldn’t normally play at as a professional.

Of course, if the Eagles and Fremantle had their way, they wouldn’t want to make an extra interstate trip each year on top of the 10 they already had.

It seems there are a few clubs unhappy with the advantage Gather Round hands to the SA sides, particularly the teams who have to play against them at their own home ground while the other seven matches are neutral.

But it’s probably the WA clubs who are penalised the most, with more air miles added when they already did the most anyway.

Do the Eagles and Dockers deserve an extra home game to compensate for the extra trip? Maybe, but if it was to be spread around each State they would get their bonus home game in the years Gather Round was staged in Perth.

In the end, WA teams in national competitions in all sports know they have to travel. For that to ever be evened out, the AFL would need to have a total revamp of the way they thought about scheduling and equalisation.

Gather Round grass signage is seen before the 2024 AFL Round 04 match between the West Coast Eagles and the Sydney Swans at Adelaide Hills.
Gather Round grass signage is seen before the 2024 AFL Round 04 match between the West Coast Eagles and the Sydney Swans at Adelaide Hills. Credit: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos

Even more radical – could the AFL grand final ever go on the road? Optus Stadium showed it could put on a great show when it hosted the decider during COVID in 2021.

I can see that it irritates many that the MCG owns the grand final no matter which teams qualify or finish higher, but I’m also a traditionalist when it comes to this sort of thing.

I would be interested to hear how the players felt about it.

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