THE NEW AFL season will bring the connection and sense of community fans are craving after a summer of disastrous bushfires and the recent coronavirus concerns, according to League CEO Gillon McLachlan. 

McLachlan used his speech at the 2020 Toyota AFL Premiership Season launch to highlight the competition's ability to bring people together during challenging times and the AFL's preparedness for testing times ahead.

>> Read Gillon McLachlan's full season launch speech below

He described the coming season as a "pillar of comfort" at a time when "the need for community and connection becomes a bigger priority than ever".

"There's no doubt that after this summer, people want connection – and they want their footy and their footy club," McLachlan told the audience on Tuesday night.

"It has been an unprecedented summer, both with the devastating bushfires and now more recently with the coronavirus alert. The Australian community has been tested.

"The reality is that all of us will continue to be tested as a competition, as a code and as a football community this year and in future years.

I know the football community will continue to prepare together, work together and emerge stronger together no matter what.

- AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan

McLachlan said the AFL's strengthened financial position made it well prepared for future challenges.

To underline the strength of the competition going into a new season, he said 2019 had delivered:

  • A third straight year of crowd growth
  • A second year with more than one million members
  • Record participation of more than 1.7 million
  • Seven clubs with crowd growth and 14 with membership growth
  • TV ratings growth by 2 per cent
  • A second year of double-digit female football growth
The 2020 premiership cup on display at the launch of the season. Picture: AFL Photos

McLachlan then tipped the tightest season in living memory after the average margin in matches dropped by 11 per cent in 2019 and one in three matches was deemed an upset.

"Some fans are filled with optimism by the prospects of a new season," the League chief said.

"Some feel trepidation, or even nervous hope. Some feel belief. But what I know is that millions of fans are feeling something. It's this emotion that is the life force of our game.

"It's our job to ensure we protect the emotional connection, that sense of an essential bond between individual and the game of footy. 

"Bring on season 2020.  Bring on the new decade. Don't worry too much, it might get complicated, but the game always finds a way."

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AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan's speech at the 2020 premiership season launch

THE PASSAGE of time changes us all. Our bodies consistently seem to change first, never for the better.

Our priorities move consistently, and our sense of ourselves and what really is important continues to evolve.

Maybe it's because I am getting older and find myself watching more Jennifer Aniston rom-coms that the need for community and connection becomes a bigger priority than ever.

There's no doubt that after this summer, people want connection – and they want their footy and their footy club.

It has been an unprecedented summer. Both with the devastating bushfires – and now more recently with the coronavirus alert. The Australian community has been tested.

The reality is that all of us will continue to be tested as a competition, as a code and as a football community this year and in future years.

None of us can ever predict what happens in the future – or what further challenges we will face.

What we can say with great confidence is that I know the football community will continue to prepare together, work together and emerge stronger together no matter what.

I know that because we have done it before. And because we have worked together to put our sport in a strong place for the future.

As a football community we have built strong foundations that provide the confidence to invest in growth while also providing security in a time of uncertainty.

We are well prepared for the future because we are well planned for the future.

As a football community we have:

  • A profitable league and increasingly profitable clubs
  • Strengthened the financial position of our code, including developing a balance sheet with a stadium and a future fund that allows investment in revenue-generating assets that can underpin the funding of growth and community programs in the future

We are well placed.

What does that mean to members and supporters?

It means that we have been able hold ticket prices, invest in better facilities for fans, been able to increase our investment in the accelerated growth of AFLW, invest in community programs, invest in stadiums and grassroots facilities and continue to support our clubs at the elite and community level to become stronger.

It has ensured the competition is in good shape and in 2019 we achieved:

  • The third straight year of growth in crowds.
  • The second year of a million-plus members
  • Record participation of more than 1.7 million
  • Seven clubs with crowd growth, 14 with membership growth
  • Overall viewership up with TV ratings up 2%
  • Second year of double-digit female football growth

But those figures don't explain the excitement in looking forward to the 2020 season.

These ones might:

In 2019

  • 1 in 3 matches was an upset
  • 1 in 5 matches was decided by 10 points or less
  • Average margins down 11%

That is the rational side of me as the leader of the governing body. The need to ensure we make sure the game is in good shape.

The emotional part of me is just wanting football to start. Now.

Given all summer's unpredictability, the coming season stands as a pillar of comfort.

Optimism, expectation, hope.

Now – more so than ever – people want football… Need football.

It's real and it's tangible.

Something we rely on. Something we build our week and our lives around.

Something that matters and is an essential part of us. Connects us. Reminds us we belong.

That sense of belonging and connection is why 1 in 24 Australians are members of an AFL club. An emotional attachment

It's why we all find comfort in our devotion for our club, wearing the team colours head to toe. Sharing the same match-day routine with family and friends.

Or for some – turning our homes or more often bedrooms into footy shrines. Fulfilling the ritual of getting your three-day-old a club membership. Getting guernseys and team gear for our nieces and nephews and god-children… singing the club song with complete strangers.

Footy matters.

Footy is real. And unifying. And raw. And personal. And in its way, bloody important. Not like family, but not unlike it either.

And while our clubs are constants in our lives, it's the moments that ignite our love of footy.

We all know the moments. You remember where you were, who were with, what you were doing.

Importantly, how they made you feel.

It's Sydney Stack acknowledging the genius of Eddie Betts, a young kid momentarily dropping the on-field mask to marvel with the rest of us to acknowledge something special.

It's James Hird running over to fans in celebration and being embraced. The coming together of player and supporter to capture a moment of shared joy. A spontaneous connection between champion and his tribe.

It's Jason McCartney and one last game, because we wanted for him to heal so much, because the country needed to heal.

It's Tayla Harris and that pose cast in bronze, not just for its balletic beauty, but because she stood up for herself and her competition, and the generations coming after her.

It's Gary Moorcroft's mark… seriously, that mark!

It's watching the emergency services workers and volunteers from bushfire-affected areas run through the banner in front of our players and cheered by over 50,000 supporters,

It's Bob Murphy standing on the premiership dais. A coach sensing a captain's pain. A team and a club and a crowd opening its arms.

It's Marlion Pickett's goal in last year's Grand Final.

His teammates descending from everywhere.

Football providing redemption. Not only a moment but a second chance.

It's Plugger breaking the record. It's Dom Sheed's goal. It's Fyfe's second Brownlow.

It's the siren sounding to end a premiership drought – Collingwood. Sydney. Geelong. Western Bulldogs. Richmond.

It's West Coast, Adelaide, Port Adelaide breaking through for their first-ever flags.

Everyone has different moments.

The moments woven into the fabric of our footy lives, reminding us why this is a brilliant game.

We know that this season will bring us new moments. Add to our own library and highlight reels we carry in our heads.

This 2020 Toyota AFL season is a season shaping as the most even season in living memory.

Some fans are filled with optimism by the prospects of a new season.

Some feel trepidation, or even nervous hope. Some feel belief.

But what I know is that millions of fans are feeling something.

It's this emotion that is the life force of our game.

And driving that emotion are our fans who are football's lungs.

Lungs breathing life into every aspect of our game. Every moment.

Bringing new meaning to our game. And new people to our game.

And it's our job to ensure we protect the emotional connection, that sense of an essential bond between individual and the game of footy.

The thing in our favour, is that this thing called AFL footy is an incredibly compelling creation, a sport that is so easy to love.

A sport that makes you believe.

Bring on season 2020. Bring on the new decade.

Don't worry too much, it might get complicated, but the game always finds a way.

I'll see you at the footy.