AFL: Twilight spot a diamond in the rough

Coined with an obvious sense of disaffection, the Sunday night “graveyard slot” has become the last resort of the AFL in terms of fixturing. It is often host to the odd game out, the one undeserving of a prime time spot.

In the deal with Channel 7 and Fox Footy that saw exorbitant amounts of money change hands for the broadcasting rights, one of the noticeable changes was the starting times of matches over the course of the weekend.

Long gone is the “chicken or fish” option of 2:10pm or 7:10pm on a Saturday, this year has seen a remarkable array of numbers jumbled about in any order as to keep the broadcasters happy and constant streams of football on their screens.

It is understandable from a business stand-point, and in a perfect world, punters would sit down and watch wall-to-wall football over a weekend. Unfortunately there is the all-too-often weekly ‘nothing’ match that holds zero interest to many, and the AFL find themselves in a pickle on a week-to-week basis.

Where they used to bury the non-event amongst other, more intriguing games, now it is more likely to hold its own airtime for a significant proportion of the football weekend. Thus, it often gets swept along to pay TV, in the dark corner of Sunday twilight – the cold reminder that the working week is just hours away.

Sunday twilight has unfortunately become the relative afterthought. Traditionalists (in this case anyone over the age of 16) were accustomed to four timeslots in years gone by: Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

The new Sunday twilight spot is harshly judged, and perhaps misused by the AFL. For instance, in America, Sunday Night Football is the second largest occurrence in the NFL’s week behind the well-known Monday Night Football. It is marketed well, and is often a marquee game.

The Bombers and Pies battle it out on Sunday evening. (Wayne Ludbey)

The Bombers and Pies battle it out on Sunday evening. (Wayne Ludbey)

Whist the AFL already has important slots on a Friday and Saturday night, the Sunday twilight one could become bigger than what it is. As for the start and finish times, they are unusual but actually quite convenient.

For those that may have important things on at home, they have the entire morning and early afternoon to go about their business, where before, most of the day would be considered a write-off. With the 4:40pm start, what began as an afternoon match quickly turns into a night match with the unique atmosphere of the later game. When the final siren sounds, a quick glance to the watch shows that it is not even dinner time, leaving patrons to spend quality time with their family, or continue celebrating or drowning their sorrows well into the evening.

It’s a schedule that also translated across to the Saturday this season. Traditionalists still might not like it, but on a Saturday the schedule works just as well, leaving plenty of time for Saturday night antics after a big win at the ‘G.

But last week, something different was trialled. The AFL along with Fox Footy undertook the daring prospect that saw Collingwood host Essendon in the “graveyard slot”, and the result was proof that the Sunday twilight gig can work. Some were surprised at the crowd figure – an impressive 69,821 in wet and windy conditions – but others were just as surprised at the Fox Footy rating. 312,000 people tuned in, 50,000 more compared to last week’s corresponding game. Further to that, when figures from the earlier Sunday games (on Fox) are put next to the Sunday twilight, the twilight figures comfortably account for the early matches.

Of course, Channel 7 like to run their Sunday coverage straight into their news bulletin, but the market for especially free-to-air Sunday twilight is quite large at a television scale.

Not only that, but it was Collingwood and Essendon’s third (and almost second) highest return-fixture clash attendance in a decade – of course, it’s important to keep in mind the abysmal conditions that lingered around the MCG on Sunday.

Perhaps the AFL have realised that Sunday twilight is the ugly duckling of the fixture. Perhaps we will continue to see some of the bigger matches for the weekend scheduled for that time. Like anything else new, the football public will object – but that is just traditionalism. Give it some time and a few big clashes, for it might just come to have some pull.

Matt Walsh is a second-year Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) student and an upstart contributor. Find his tweets @MattWalshMedia

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