50,000 fans attend AFL opener, setting Covid record crowd
The roar returned to the MCG Thursday night, with a sell-out crowd on hand for the opening game of the 2021 AFL season, while a total of 248,066 fans attended round one.
It had been 537 days since sports fans could attend an AFL game in Victoria and on their first opportunity, they returned in big numbers, returning a sense of normality to the Melbourne sporting landscape, a city commonly referred to as the sporting capital of the world - and for good reason.
With Victorian stadiums restricted to 50% of their capacity for at least the opening round of the season, the Melbourne Cricket Ground was just 728 short of its reduced 50,000 capacity.
The crowd of 49,218 is the largest sports attendance recorded in Australia since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and the biggest in the southern hemisphere, with the likes of Europe and the USA still crippled by the virus. Only India has recorded two larger crowds for T20 Internationals against England.
Before Thursday night’s game, the highest crowd belonged to last year’s State of Origin decider when 49,155 fans packed Suncorp Stadium and prior to that back in October, Auckland’s Eden Park had 46,049 fans attend game two of the Bledisloe Cup.
One year ago, the traditional AFL season opened between Carlton and Richmond was played in front of an empty MCG. In 2019, the corresponding game was attended by more than 85,000 fans.
Having the fans back in the stands had Melbourne buzzing and the atmosphere was electric, as the Tigers ran out 25-point over the Blues. Pre-game fireworks set the scene and the MCG’s LED lighting system was used to its full potential for the first time, converting the playing surface into a nightclub, something we’ve become accustomed to at Optus Stadium and Bankwest Stadium.
The big crowds continued over the opening round of the 2021 AFL season, with a total of 248,066 fans attending matches. Four games exceeded 85% of the stadium's restricted capacity, including 46,051 for Collingwood v Western Bulldogs at the MCG, 38,493 for West Coast v Gold Coast at Optus Stadium and 25,128 for Essendon v Hawthorn at Marvel Stadium. Elsewhere, almost 27,000 fans were on hand at Adelaide Oval and 23,000 fans at the Gabba.
The average attendance across all nine games was 27,562. Total stadium capacity was reduced from about 592,000 to 378,000 (64%), of which 66% was filled.
It has been confirmed that capacity in Victorian stadiums will increase to 75% in time for round two, meaning up to 75,000 fans can attend Thursday's Carlton-Collingwood blockbuster. The AFL is hopeful of full capacity for the traditional Anzac Day game.
Around the country, Queensland has no restrictions meaning up to 36,000 fans can pack the Gabba, while venues in WA and SA can be filled to 75%, meaning 45,000 can fill Optus Stadium and approximately 40,000 can fill the Adelaide Oval.
While the New South Wales Government website states outdoor stadiums can be filled to 100% of their seated capacity, it has been announced both the SCG and Giants Stadium are restricted to 75% at present.
While some of the biggest leagues in the world including the English Premier League and NBA continue to be played behind closed doors, here in Australia, even at 50% restrictions, we must consider ourselves grateful that we can once again attend sport in such big numbers.