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AFL tone deaf when it comes to striking a chord with public

News that the AFL had overseen the re-recording of 15 traditional club theme songs prompted a backlash on which it clearly hadn’t been counting.

AFL tone deaf when it comes to striking a chord with public

Rohan Connolly    

One of the most frequent criticisms of the AFL for a long time has been that’s it an organisation often tone deaf to the desires of football supporters. And last Friday, the league managed to provide further evidence, quite literally.

With less than a week to go until the first game of the 2018 season, the anticipation and positive vibes were building steadily. Then, almost on cue, the AFL found itself putting out another public relations spot fire.

It emerged that 15 of the 18 AFL club theme songs, played over ground PA systems as teams enter the arena and after a victory had been re-recorded, the voices of the “Fable Singers”, whose original versions had been released in 1972, banished forever.

How did it emerge? Well, clearly not realising that this was a matter that would strike an emotional chord (pardon the pun), the AFL had blithely sent an email to a few select media partners saying it had instructed relevant parties to delete the old versions of the songs and use the new ones.

But if the AFL thought this was a trifling matter barely worth a mention, it soon had a loud wake-up call.

I was hosting the afternoon slot on radio 1116 SEN at the time. It’s fair to say our talkback lines and text machine went into meltdown as the punters vented their anger. Within hours, design group “League Tees” had already run off a “Save The Fable Singers” t-shirt. Soon, the AFL found itself having to issue a “clarification”.

It explained that some clubs had asked for new recordings to correct mistakes made in the original versions. Richmond’s would now say, correctly, “risking head and shin” instead of “skin”. Collingwood’s now sung “we” instead of “they” and “hear” instead of “see the barrackers”.

Fair enough, although the wrong words were barely noticeable and had a certain quaint charm of their own.

But the AFL couldn’t leave it there. According to its statement, it “offered all the clubs the ability to have a new recording, to offer stronger digital sound quality. A number of the club songs are old recordings of diminishing quality.”

Hang on a second. What? All the old songs had long been digitised. People have had them as ringtones on phones for the past 20 years. Did they really expect us to believe that AFL venues were still chucking an old bit of vinyl on a turntable at the end of every game? As a “dog ate my homework” excuse, that’s up there with the best of them.

The back-pedalling has continued apace. Collingwood president Eddie McGuire told SEN later on Friday that the Pies would be sticking with the original version for now for its “far better resonance”.

Geelong, which had added a second verse to its “We Are Geelong”, has also noted the backlash and will revert to the original. As now have Hawthorn and Essendon.

“(The theme song) is very close to a lot of people’s hearts. It’s not as though you can go around changing it willy-nilly,” chief executive Brian Cook told the Geelong Advertiser on Monday.

“So from our point of view, I think it’s really important for members and supporters to know we will tread really carefully on this one and we’ll do it well, and decide and communicate with everyone.”

Seems a pretty obvious path, doesn’t it? And it’s not like there hadn’t been earlier warnings about what to expect when you mess with tradition.

Back in 1999, Essendon, without telling anyone, rolled out a new Mike Brady version of “See The Bombers Fly Up” after its round one victory. Within seconds, previously delighted fans had begun booing. The old version was back for round two.

These are versions of songs which are regularly played at people’s funerals and weddings. Yes, they’re decidedly old school, maybe a bit daggy, but that’s part of the appeal.

Fans of other sports, of which the club song ritual isn’t a part, may well scratch their heads and wonder what all the fuss is about. And to the untrained ear, the new versions probably hardly sound any different.

Ask, though, the Hawthorn supporters who cringed upon hearing their club’s new version of “We’re A Happy Team At Hawthorn”, in which the “play to win” line now sounds as genteel as an invitation to a tea party rather than a war cry sung with gusto.

And there’s a tinniness generally to the new versions, the rich tones gone, the sound more cheap cabaret singer than old-style chorus.

No, in the grand scheme of things it may not mean much. But it’s funny how the sorts of things which mean a lot to the rank-and-file supporter – like the time of the grand final, being able to see young stars run around in a curtain-raiser, family-friendly scheduling – are repeatedly the sorts of things on which the AFL seems to have its ears blocked.

It’s no easy task running a multi-million dollar national sporting competition. But surely it’s not that hard simply to listen to what the people who support that competition want. Or again in this case, don’t want.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS AUSTRALIA

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