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Prime time Gould backlash food for AFL thought

Gould was accused of being one-eyed and grudging in his congratulations, but he stuck to his guns on Monday. And with his name – and their network – trending across social media, bosses at Nine, the owner of this masthead, would presumably be happy for Gould to play the villain in every game.

“They need to go back and listen again. They only hear what they want to hear. There is a difference between bias and honesty, I’m always honest,” Gould said on 2GB on Monday.

Cameron Smith and the Storm celebrate their grand final win on the whistle.

Cameron Smith and the Storm celebrate their grand final win on the whistle. Credit:Getty Images

Gould’s comments became a sideshow, and an acknowledgment that the television spectacle has become a huge part of the event. Whether you agreed with him or not, some would argue his commentary, and the fan engagement it provoked, helped take the grand final from sporting contest to prime time event.

His comments lit a fuse with many viewers, including those who had only a passing interest in league, or those in Melbourne who had only tuned in because the Storm were in the final. With so many people now watching with a device or phone in hand and keen to interact, Gould gave them plenty of ammunition to bond over.

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Which brings us to the AFL grand final, held at night for the first time on Saturday, with its timeslot for next season and beyond a topic of fierce debate. On one side is the broadcaster, Channel Seven, which wants the grand final played in front of the biggest possible television audience – at night – and on the other the traditionalists, who want the focus to be on the football rather than the entertainment around it.

That is the choice facing the AFL, which ventured into this wider entertainment territory under lights on the weekend. Yes, many of the best matches through the season have been held at night for a long time but the grand final is a different beast. It’s about tapping into a wider market, particularly in the northern states, where the league is keen to leave a greater footprint. This is where the half-time entertainment also comes into play, for it helps add to the appeal of the overall event.

Brisbane outfit Sheppard was given the chance to headline the first half-time grand final show since 2012 and did a good job. The AFL will never be the NFL and boast a half-time array of mega stars that can overshadow the game itself but, nonetheless, it’s an important slot when tapping into the wider market.

The ratings for Saturday night’s clash, in which Richmond rubber-stamped a dynasty with three flags in four years, had executives at Seven West Media itching for more. It attracted 3.81 million viewers, the highest figure since 2016, when 4,121,000 people watched the Western Bulldogs humble Sydney. It was also up more than 30 per cent on the 2019 grand final, and gave Seven the largest prime time audience share from 6pm to midnight any network has enjoyed since 2001.

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“It really celebrated the game with all the drama. The game was king but I thought the colour and drama of the game was complimented by being at night, no doubt,” Seven Melbourne’s chief Lewis Martin said.

But many Victorians, judging by the response on social media, would prefer more footy and less sideshow. Some fans were put out that the half-time entertainment was given more air time than analysis of the game itself, while Richmond captain Trent Cotchin and president Peggy O’Neal just like the tradition of the afternoon, and in O’Neal’s case are mindful of the need to appeal to families with young children.

The AFL has never been afraid to mess with tradition when necessary but the afternoon grand final at the MCG has remained a pillar.

Saturday’s clash boasted enough early drama, was a tight tussle to half-time and then had the late brilliance of Dustin Martin that it did not need a Gould-type remark from a Luke Hodge, Brian Taylor or Michael Voss to sharpen interest.

Gould’s comments undoubtedly would have sparked a response had the NRL final been in the afternoon.

But if the AFL wants its showpiece event to have mass appeal – and even to lift the broadcast rights fees it charges – Gould has shown there is no better time to be bold – or provocative – than in prime time.

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