There are certain football phrases that instantly set off alarm bells. “As an industry” is one. “Get around him” is another. “AFL led delegation” is particularly problematic at this time of year. Whenever anyone vaguely connected with Australian Rules Football attends the Super Bowl, silly things are invariably said. Most of the time, they scam their way into the VIP area, photobomb some bewildered old line-backer, and get absolutely trolleyed.
But those a little bit higher on footy’s totem pole often come back brimming with ideas. Why, they ask on their panel shows and their radio slots, can’t our players and our ‘product’ be a bit more American? Why can’t we jazz up our match-day experience? Why can’t footballers wear $15,000 suits to games? Before long, they want a local version of US College drafting system. They want a translucent canopy draped across the MCG.
Eddie McGuire was part of a delegation at last week’s Super Bowl. Like anyone who has been to SoFi Stadium, he was blown away. It is the most expensive stadium ever built. It has a glass roof. It has a floating, 80 million-pixelated, elliptical video screen beaming stats, replays and advertisements. Next year, it will host the 39th Wrestlemania. “It looks like an alien edifice dreamed up for a Star Trek movie,” Sports Illustrated wrote.
For Eddie, the possibilities were dancing in his eyes. “A sensory overload,” he called it. When he gets on a roll – when he is bubbling ideas and unveiling five-year plans, he can be a strangely compelling and convincing figure. By the time he has drawn breath, you can find yourself pumping your first and screaming at your startled partner: “Oath we need a roof on the MCG. Damn straight we need underground pathways linking Bay 13, Richmond station, and our own version of Silicon Valley in the Jolimont railyards.”
This is not an Eddie-bashing column. For all his trespasses, he has an excellent sense of sporting history, and of Melbourne. The city, and the sport it obsesses over, pulses through him. In this country right now, we are not very good at addressing the future. For the last two years, most of us barely cast our minds more than 24 hours ahead. Eddie himself did not have the best pandemic. But nothing is impossible for him. His mind and mouth drift 20 years back and rocket 50 years forward, sometimes within the space of a single sentence. A lot of his frustration seems to stem from the fact that most people do not look at the world the same way. Red tape, budgets, prevailing public opinion – they are for clerks. We need people like him – thinking big, throwing flames, crashing through – but they need reining in.
It is obvious that the MCG’s Great Southern Stand is due for an upgrade. When it was constructed in the early 1990s, Victoria was just emerging from a crippling recession. Jeff Kennett was about to blaze in and change everything. Eddie was breaking every story and propping up every bar in Melbourne. At the stand’s unveiling, Wasim Akram tore through the Englishmen in the World Cup Final. Ian Botham copped a howler of a decision, and embarked on one of the all-time great benders.
We were genuinely proud of it. And we still are. “The MCG is a shrine, a citadel, a landmark, a totem,” the Age’s Greg Baum once wrote. “It is to this city what the Opera House is to Sydney, the Eiffel Tower to Paris and the Statue of Liberty to New York.” The world, this city, and the way we watch sport has completely changed since Baum wrote that.
Forty years on, the MCG is in danger of being shown up by Perth’s Optus Stadium, and the Adelaide Oval. Eddie wants to tear down the Great Southern Stand and start again. Others are urging restraint. For many, it is an opportune time to reflect on what we actually want as spectators. Are we fans, or are we consumers? Do we simply want to watch sport, or are we seeking an experience? And do we want a fading citadel, or a shiny sports and entertainment precinct?
“Why would you willingly sit in the rain in 2022?” SEN owner Craig Hutchison asked on his podcast this week? Hutchy knows his American Football. Like Eddie, he is a big picture man. Unlike Eddie, he is no footy romantic. He thinks Australian sports fans worry too much about what they don’t want and are blind to what is possible.
Perhaps he is right. What I don’t want at the MCG could fill a column. I don’t want a sensory overload. I don’t want Guy Grossi dishing up Duck Surprise at quarter time. I don’t want fun facilitators perforating my eardrums. I don’t want T-shirts being fired into the crowd like mortar cannons. I don’t want the MCG, a ground I love, to be visible from outer space.
Nick Hornby once wrote that English football was “prey to all sorts of people who weren’t, as it were, the people.” This is a good opportunity to actually listen to ordinary fans, not those with the loudest voices and the deepest pockets. If they stuffed it up, and if it ended up resembling a gargantuan version of – oh I don’t know – Docklands Stadium, it would be an act of vandalism.
Baum himself recalls a conversation at the MCG on grand final day with former Brownlow Medallist, Neil Roberts. “Lucky bastards,” Roberts said, gazing at the vast, sunbathed crowd. “They could screw up everything and they would still have this.” We still have it. After two years, we are about to get it back at full capacity. And it should never be at the mercy of February thought bubbles and arms races.