One by one in this most bizarre of AFL seasons, the barriers have come down.
If staging the grand final outside of Melbourne for the first time wasn’t enough of a break from tradition, the AFL doubled down by announcing another first: this year’s decider at the Gabba would be played at night.
A possible afternoon clash with the Cox Plate on October 24 — one of the biggest events in Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival — gave the AFL the opportunity to make the move.
“Certainly, I don’t think any earlier than 5:30pm up here [6:30pm in Melbourne] and more likely later in the day,” the AFL’s chief executive Gillon McLachlan said when asked exactly what time it could be staged.
The announcement has been coming for weeks if not months, but even then, the final decision was only made this week.
“We were sort of landing this in the last 24 hours,” McLachlan said.
The key word in that last sentence is “broadcasters”.
The NRL, which has always been less slavish to tradition, has staged night grand finals for almost two decades. Yes, it was brought in to appease the broadcasters, but arguably the spectacle is also greater.
Night-time is prime time and there’s no question the AFL’s broadcast partners have wanted to move the grand final for years.
Seven West’s Managing Director, James Warburton, took a break from bashing Cricket Australia last month to heap praise on the AFL and spruik the possibility of a night grand final, saying it would be ideal from an advertising perspective.
“Obviously, having a crowd would be absolutely fantastic and possibly being a prime-time grand final, if that’s the direction they would go, it would be a fantastic revenue outcome for us as well,” Warburton said.
The possibility has been discussed ad nauseum.
The sticking point has been tradition, but it’s been an odd logic.
The AFL’s marquee timeslot each round (up till this season, at least) has been Friday night.
Six of the AFL’s eight finals last season (excluding the grand final) were played at night — and one of the remaining two was a twilight fixture starting in the late afternoon.
Yet tradition has dictated the grand final has remained a day game.
Whether you’re a fan of the afternoon slot or not, the argument in favour of tradition that goes: “that’s how we’ve always done it” is about the weakest available.
Tradition dictates that the umpires bounce the ball at the start of every quarter and after every goal even though they regularly stuff it up and revert to throwing it straight up which works every time.
This year has proven that anything is possible. It turns out you don’t have to have a full fixture scheduled months in advance of the season, you can do it week to week.
If there is a possible fly in the ointment, it’s the possibility that the dewy conditions which can prevail in the humid Brisbane nights could ruin the spectacle of the game, as the ball becomes as slippery as if it were raining.
But Gillon McLachlan was relaxed about the prospect.
“Very confident about the dew and if it is [dewy], then it’ll be a game where it has dew.”
He has a point — Aussie Rules is a sport that has to roll with the conditions. After all, it can rain in Melbourne in late September.
The question that will hang around next year, is that now that the mould has been broken, will night grand finals become a regular fixture — even if AFL life returns to some kind of normal?
McLachlan is leaving the possibility open.
“Clearly people will have a look at it, and it won’t be so foreign I’m sure and you’ll debate it on its merits afterwards,” he said.
Asked straight out if this year would be a circuit-breaker to help push through future night grand finals, he said:
“So I think everyone can see what the game looks like at night and with the other stuff wrapped around it, and then you can make a more balanced decision next year.
In a season where everything has gone out the window, tradition has also been given the flick.
A day grand final was sacrosanct until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.