A Gabba grand final shows the AFL is following its heart over its head

Welcome to sunny Queensland, home of the Great Barrier Reef, Wally Lewis and the 2020 AFL grand final.

A protracted process has today reached its inevitable end, with the AFL officially awarding its coveted decider to Brisbane and the Gabba, taking the grand final out of Melbourne for the first time in VFL/AFL history.

This season of turmoil, reflecting and punctuating a year like no other, will end in a manner not a single person could have predicted even nine months ago: under the Gabba lights on October 24.

Even now it feels strange to contemplate, and generally speaking, we’ve become pretty good at recalibrating with the unimaginable this year.

Even though Queensland has been an unbackable favourite throughout this bidding process, what we will all experience on AFL grand final night will be as foreign and unfamiliar as the words “AFL grand final night”.

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But perhaps the only thing stranger than the end result was the process that led to it, a process which saw the AFL shed its skin as an empirical corporate juggernaut and take the side of sentimentality.

In 2020, the tin man has grown a heart.

There were clearly many factors behind the decision to award the grand final to Queensland, but at the forefront was always a sense of gratitude and justice to the state for its service to the game in 2020.

Brisbane Lions players run on to the field as fireworks, flame and smoke surround their entrance

Brisbane Lions players run on to the field as fireworks, flame and smoke surround their entrance

All eyes will be on the Gabba on October 24 as the AFL grand final comes to town.(AAP: Darren England)

The same lines would be echoed whenever the topic came up: “there wouldn’t have even been a season without Queensland” and “it just wouldn’t be right to have it anywhere else” prevailing throughout.

If fact, chief executive Gillon McLachlan basically went so far as to confirm that was the deciding factor between the Brisbane and Adelaide — which is on standby should Queensland’s rona situation deteriorate — bids.

“I think, in the end, in Queensland there was a view around the industry that given all the work they had done to help us, with so many teams based up here, that that is probably the overriding factor,” McLachlan said.

As an afterthought, he added, “they were strong in all areas”.

Of course, there was more to this call than simply wanting to thank Annastacia Palaszczuk and co for helping them out of a jam.

Expansion remains the AFL’s white whale, and the success of the game in Queensland and New South Wales has been at the forefront of so many league decisions over the last decade.

This season represents an opportunity like no other for Australian rules football to gain a foothold in Queensland.

Despite reports of an increase in TV viewership in the state, there has been no sudden surge in Sherrin ownership in Brisbane in 2020 — the talk of the town remains the struggling Broncos, the also-struggling Cowboys and Titans, and where Cameron Smith will play next season.

Will hosting a grand final change that? The AFL suggests it will and if the Lions happen to reach or even win said grand final, it may be right.

But even still it paints a picture of a decision based on intangibles, of taking a punt on a bit of a dark horse and relenting to the vibe of it all.

A young Brisbane Lions fan waves a flag as he smiles in the stands at the Gabba next to two adults.

A young Brisbane Lions fan waves a flag as he smiles in the stands at the Gabba next to two adults.

The AFL wants to see the game make serious inroads in Queensland.(AAP: Darren England)

Because when you put it all down on paper, and go over the respective bids based on the sorts of metrics the AFL itself has traditionally used, there isn’t a whole lot in Brisbane’s favour.

If the half-hearted annual debate about the MCG’s permanent claim to the grand final and its implications for the integrity of the competition has taught us nothing, it’s that nothing short of a pandemic is going to take that game away from that city.

The justification given is pretty consistent too. Firstly, there’s a contract in place. But beyond that, you have to play the grand final at the MCG because it’s the biggest and best stadium in Australia, which helps the AFL pull in stupid amounts of money each year, and is the true traditional heartland of the game.

Had the AFL applied those same parameters to this decision, McLachlan would not have been proclaiming Brisbane the victor this afternoon.

That contractual obligation has, for obvious reasons, been voided for this one year, but if the AFL’s priority really was bringing in the biggest crowd and the most money possible, in the best and most modern stadium available and in a traditional footy location, the grand final would be in Perth or Adelaide.

Add in the fact that both WA and SA are in better situations COVID-wise than Queensland, and their weather conditions in late October will be far more footy-friendly, the logical, black and white case becomes inconveniently simple.

Now, none of this is to say the AFL has made a wrong or poor decision. Far from it — a Brisbane grand final is more than defensible and in the case of WA, the border situation would make things trickier (but still very possible).

Fans inside Perth Stadium before the Western Derby, with teams warming up on the field

Fans inside Perth Stadium before the Western Derby, with teams warming up on the field

Perth Stadium was another strong contender to host the grand final.(ABC News: Jacob Kagi)

It’s just a different kind of decision, one that perhaps the AFL would not have made even 12 months ago. It speaks to the collective trauma the game has been through this season — miniscule when put in a wider perspective but still significant for one of the country’s largest industries — that sentiment would be allowed to even enter the equation.

All year, McLachlan has spoken of the need to be “flexible and agile”, but perhaps he can now extend his mantra to add “fair”. At the end of the day, the feeling that playing the grand final in Brisbane is the most fair outcome has won the day.

It’s an admirable position to take. The next challenge is keeping that ethos alive.

If McLachlan and the AFL are able to take that forward into post-corona times, and are able to govern the game with flexibility and fairness at the forefront, even the states who have today missed out will be better for it in the long run.

As Port Adelaide players walk off the field, a large crowd of fans cheer and hold flags and banners

As Port Adelaide players walk off the field, a large crowd of fans cheer and hold flags and banners

Adelaide Oval is hosting decent — and passionate — crowds in 2020.(AAP: David Mariuz)