Watching an Australian rules football game is a must-do on any (autumn/winter) Melbourne itinerary. In this post I offer a visitor’s guide to going to the footy in Melbourne.
Here in Melbourne, footy is practically a religion, so it makes sense for any visitor to this city during the footy season to include watching a game in their itinerary. You don’t need to be a huge sports fan to appreciate the spectacle and atmosphere of a game of Aussie rules.
What is ‘footy’?
‘Footy’ is the colloquial (and widely used) term to describe Australian rules football. Sometimes you’ll hear footy’s professional competition referred to as ‘AFL’ which is the Australian Football League, the name of the national professional football league.
Footy is a sport played between two teams of eighteen players on an oval-shaped field (either an Australian football ground, a modified cricket field, or a sports venue of a similar size). The general aim of the game is to score goals by kicking the oval-shaped ball between the two tall goal posts for a goal (6 points) or if a player misses and the ball passes between the large and smaller posts, it’s a behind (1 point). The team with the highest total score at the end of the match wins.
Players can play anywhere on the ground and use any part of their body to move the ball. Primarily they kick, handpass or run with the ball (intermittantly bouncing it or touching it on the ground). Footy is a contact sport which allows tackling below the neck and above the knees, and a distinctive feature of the game is the ‘mark’ which is when a player catches a ball from a kick and then has undisputed possession.
The rules are completely perplexing to most newbies, and I don’t completely understand all of them myself…so if you want to bone up on the finer details, I suggest you check out the AFL explained page of the AFL website.
Footy has been played in Australia since 1858, when it was ‘invented’ by a couple of boys’ schools, who played the first match in open parkland in Melbourne. It was originally a sport played predominantly in Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, but a national league was developed during the 1980s, and you could now watch an AFL game in six of the states of Australia.
When is the footy on?
The AFL season runs from March through to the last Saturday in September (or first Saturday in October) which is AFL Grand Final Day. The ‘season’ starts with a pre-season competition (currently known as the NAB Challenge), followed by a Premiership (home and away) season which runs for 23-rounds right through our winter. After the 23 rounds, the top eight teams (there’s 18 teams altogether) play off in a four-round finals series, culminating in the Grand Final.
Matches are generally played on Friday nights, Saturdays (afternoon and night) and Sunday afternoons, with the occasional Thursday night or public holiday games sprinkled throughout the season. You can check the full fixture for all dates at the AFL website.
There’s often pre-match activities going on, and you can see the teams warm up before they exit the field to run back onto it through the team match banners, so it’s advisable to turn up at the ground a good hour before the game start time.
Which venue should you go to?
As far as I’m concerned there is only one venue for a Melbourne visitor to see a footy game, and that’s the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The MCG is the high temple of Australian Rules Football.
The MCG was established in 1853 in the fledging settlement of Melbourne as a cricket ground, and it continues to be a venue for cricket throughout the summer. It has also hosted the 1956 Olympic Games and 2006 Commonwealth Games, World Cup soccer qualifiers, rugby league home and away matches and State of Origin and international rugby union matches, as well as being the venue for huge concerts.
It was in the parkland next door to the MCG that the first game of footy was played in 1858. And it’s in the MCG (or the ‘G, as it is known to locals) that the AFL Grand Final is played to a capacity crowd of 100,000+.
If there is no suitable game being played at the MCG when you visit Melbourne, you can also see footy at Etihad Stadium (in the Docklands).
Getting to the MCG
The MCG is located in parkland on the edge of the city, about a 10-20 minute walk from most hotels in the CBD.
If you’re staying further afield, the best way to get to the ground is via public transport. My preference is train, as there are two train stations very close to the MCG – Richmond and Jolimont. For Jolimont, catch trains running on Hurstbridge or Epping lines from the city. For Richmond from the city, take any train on the Lilydale, Belgrave, Alamein, Glen Waverley, Dandenong, Pakenham, Cranbourne, Frankston or Sandringham lines.
Trams also stop just a short walk from the MCG (No. 75 (City-Vermont South), No. 48 (City-North Balwyn) and No. 70 (City-Wattle Park). Visit Metlink for more information.
If want to plan ahead, you can book tickets through Ticketek booking agency. Use the AFL seat pricing guide to choose the game you want to see, then click on ‘Buy tickets’ which will take you to the Ticketek booking page for that game. In the drop-down menu, choose ‘Club Members & Public Reserve’ which will then show you the ticket options and prices available to you. During the regular home and away season, general admission tickets at the MCG start at $25 for adults, and just $5 for kids. Booking on-line incurs an additional $2.60 fee.
Or you can do what I did this past weekend, and just turn up at the MCG, find the General Admission ticket window, and buy tickets there. But if you’re going to do this, check first with someone who knows something about football as to whether the game is likely to be a sell-out…if it is, you won’t get walk-up tickets. General admission tickets, whether booked on-line or purchased at the ground, are not allocated to seats. Once you’re inside the stands, you just have to find some seats in the designated general admission areas. So get there early.
It’s a totally different story for finals ticketing (games in September). Check the AFL ticketing page for details about finals, as well as for when each set of home and away game tickets is on sale.
What to wear
You need to keep in mind that footy is a winter sport, held in an outdoor venue. While the pre-season and start of season games could be held on relatively warm days, by the middle of the season, it can be extremely chilly sitting in the MCG, especially once the sun drops behind the Members’ Stand. Dress warmly with layers.
The traditional attire of club supporters at a game consists of beanies (woolen hats), scarves and/or jackets, tops and footy jumpers in the club’s colours. If you want to throw yourself totally into the experience, choose one of the teams that will be playing, wander down to the shops in the centre of Melbourne and purchase yourself a beanie and scarf in the club colours. It doesn’t matter which one, as (unlike sports grounds in some parts of the world) supporters of both teams are seated together. Or if you leave it until you get to the MCG, you can buy merchandise there.
Even though I usually support Hawthorn, when I went to the Melbourne-Collingwood game, I dug out an old Collingwood scarf (from Queenie’s younger days…before she saw the Hawthorn light) and I went for Collingwood. It makes the footy a lot more interesting if you have some skin in the game.
If you haven’t picked a team before you get to the game, turn to the people you are sitting next to, explain that you’re a visitor and it’s your first game and ask who they support – then join them. You’ll make friends for life (and they may even explain what’s happening on the ground)!
What to eat at the footy
The traditional cuisine for spectators at an Aussie rules footy match is a pie ‘n sauce. The pie consists of minced beef and gravy encased in a pastry outer. The sauce is a tomato sauce (like ketchup).
This year, in response to complaints that it was becoming too expensive for families to have a day out at the footy by the time tickets and food were all tallied up, prices were reduced at the MCG by up to 40 per cent on a range of items such as hot dogs, hot chips, and the traditional Four ‘N Twenty meat pies. So now you can get a hot dog, hot chips or a meat pie for just $4. Or if you’re after something a little less tradition there are healthier options such as salads or sushi and even a gluten-free meat pie available, plus there are fish, burger, gourmet hot dog, roast chicken and pizza outlets – and a multitude of mobile coffee carts.
You’ll find bar outlets throughout the stands where you can buy alcohol (beer, wine and spirits) in plastic cups that you can take back to your seat (provided you’re not sitting in an alcohol-free (dry) area). If the game is just too gripping and you don’t want to leave your seat, or you can’t wait until a quarter- or half-time break, roaming sellers of food and drinks are dotted throughout the lower levels of stadium.
You cannot bring alcohol into the MCG, and bags are searched on entry. Responsible consumption of alcohol is encouraged and policed. For night games, only low-strength alcohol is available.
The teams and all the details
If you want to know all about that day’s game – the team details and the player’s stats, plus read some special interest articles and updates – you can buy a copy of the AFL Record. It’s the official ‘program’ for the day and is sold for $5 at a number of locations outside and inside the stadium.
How long does a game for?
An AFL game is played in four quarters, with each quarter running for 20 minutes, excluding time on (stoppage time). This is time when the clock is stopped for the ball going out of bounds, injuries, goals or points being kicked etc. So both the players and the crowd never quite know when the siren will sound to end a quarter. About two-thirds of all quarters last longer than 30 minutes from start to finish.
All up you’re looking at over a two hour commitment when you start watching a game.
How do you know what is going on?
If you’re like me, you probably won’t know what is going on. But I always sit with people who do, and ask them all my stupid questions. Plus, the vocal supporters in the crowd will shout out helpful comments about what’s going on – particularly about the skill or otherwise of the umpires.
The basics you need to know are:
- Two teams of 18 players each are on the ground. (An additional four players from each team sit on the interchange bench, three ready to swap on and off during the game, and one substitute who can only come on if a player is pulled out of the game e.g. through injury.)
- Each team wears their club colours, and each player is known by a personal number which is on his back.
- There are also three field umpires, two goal umpires and four boundary umpires (all dressed in fluoro green tops) on the ground, and runners for each team (dressed all in pink) who carry messages between the coaches and the players, plus water carriers (pink vests) who take water bottles out to the players to allow them a sip of hydration during play. In the event of injury, the doctors or physios who come onto the field also wear pink vests.
- Each of the teams is aiming to kick the ball between the their own tall goal posts as many times as possible.
The play is broadcast onto super-screens which show a better view of some of the action (plus action-replay), keep the score and show the quarter time clock. There are also TV screens throughout the undercover seating areas. Choose seats with a good view of the screens and you’ll not only see the up-close action well, you’ll benefit from the explanations which appear on screen when an umpiring call is made.
If you want to know more about the game itself:
The AFL website contains more than you could ever want to know.
Would seeing a footy match be on your itinerary if you visited Melbourne?
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