To Play or not to Play on Thursday Night, that is the question

The AFL has released its fixtures for the end of the season and the least surprising thing about it should be the fact that like almost every season before it, theres a dearth of Thursday night fixtures. Media pundits are crying a river of tears if it – notably broadcast types – and so are code war warriors worried about the perception that the NRL gets a free kick from the absence of the Thursday night game.

First and foremost the Thursday night game is about television – where it has become a marquee slot for both the AFL and NRL competitions, generating excellent television ratings and reasonable attendance from time to time. However it is and always was about television.

Every dollar is sacred. The League generates $476m a year this season from its media deal – and $600m per annum from the next one – so there has to be some consideration given to the folks who pay you the big money. However that has to be balanced against the leagues desire to protect its constituent clubs and pay its numerous other bills for development, AFLW and state footy.

Note: This figure doesnt include Contra.

Popular opinion has always been that the League is heavily dependent on the TV dollar, and while thats true, its not prepared to entirely sacrifice everything to the TV Gods at the expense of the good old gate.

The League has always walked a delicate balance between chasing the media dollar and maintaining/improving on its attendances and memberships. And theres good reason for this – the league and its clubs received hundreds of millions of dollars annually from both streams. For the clubs in particular these amounts are quite comparable in size.

In 2023, the AFL reported $1.063 billion dollars in revenue, and $444 million in cash media revenues – about 42% of its total revenue was media rights related. The League takes its total revenue and supplied $393 million in funds to the AFL clubs.

In 2023, the Clubs reported $352 million in distributions from the league out of total club revenue of $1.234 billion for the year (29% of revenue). For some clubs this varies – for the league giants like Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond and West Coast, the distribution represents between 12 and 18 per cent of revenue. For the smaller clubs though that percentage is much higher, including North Melbourne (46%) and the newest clubs, Gold Coast (56%) and GWS (63%).

While membership and matchday revenues reached $349 million (28% of revenue). As with distributions, this amount varies wildly between clubs with the WA clubs in particular having tremendous benefits from their stadium arrangements having a hefty 41% of revenue derived from matchday and membership. The Hawks, Demons, Cats, Crows and Bombers all take in between 30-40% of their revenue in this area. At the other end of the ladder its North Melbourne (17%), the QLD sides (15%) and the Giants.

Straddling the space between the two sits Sponsorship and corporate revenues at $301 million (24% of revenue) and Merchandise around 35 milion (2% of Revenue). With the bulk of other revenues coming from Government Grants, Licensed Venues, Pokie Machines and assorted other ventures.

The League itself needs attendances to generate profits at Marvel Stadium, where it reaps the benefits of parking, attendances and catering. It also receivess bonuses for meeting and exceeding attendance targets at the MCG, as well as providing value for its own AFL members.

The choice is a difficult one to make if you are an administrator, as in 2024 Thursday nights have the second best attendance average of all regular timeslots, narrowly ahead of Satrurday Twilight. However, no one wants the Timeslot to suffer from burn out (least of all the league who cited a lack of competitive fixtures as being a reason for the lack of late season Thursday fixtures)

Note: this is actually 2024, but I didnt notice until i finished. Sorry!

Thursday nights are problematic, as while they draw ok on an occasional basis, they are difficult events to get families out to – especially on a dark and cold winter school or work night – and then pay a small fortune to freeze in a largely open stadium (unless its at Marvel obviously). Finishing work at 5, getting home and then getting to the gate in time for match start is difficult at the best of times, and almost impossible with young children. Let alone getting home at 11pm or later.

TV audiences have been ok, with Seven averaging 607,000 viewers in 2024, and an average reach of 1.860m. While we dont have Foxtel set top box numbers, we know that the average Fox stream (Kayo/Now/Go) is 216,000.

With all this in mind, its easy to see how the league tests fixtures out, and then abandons them if the crowds dont turn up. Monday night footy was trialled and passed in, Sunday nights went the same way, while Sunday twilight was almost the permanent fixture of WA clubs for a while. Public holiday ‘eve’ ventures proved wildly successful for the league with ANZAC Day eve being followed up with Kings Birthday eve and the QLD labor day eve fixtures.

Its also easy to see how people get caught up in the marquee match on Thursday idea. On the face of it ratings and crowds justify it, but on the other hand, its not the be all and end all to clubs and fans.

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