AFL Debate Club: How could Gather Round best be improved in coming years?

Connolly: Gather Round was great, but has room to improve (2:02)

The inaugural Gather Round in South Australia drew eyes from near and far, but Rohan Connolly says there is ways for the AFL to improve it further. (2:02)

Welcome to ESPN's AFL Debate Club, the column in which our writers and contributors will take one prompt from the week and put their opinion on the record. The kicker? No opinion is immune from criticism!

This week, Rohan Connolly and Jake Michaels look at Gather Round, whether the inaugural iteration was successful and how it can be improved moving forward.

How could Gather Round best be improved in coming years?

Rohan Connolly: If I could start on a curmudgeonly note here, I could certainly do without quite as much syrup from the attending media about how great a concept it is! Come on guys and girls, are you angling for jobs with SA Tourism or something?

Seriously, though, I think everyone involved has emerged with pretty obvious wins from a financial and promotional perspective. I've particularly liked the "back to the 'burbs" feel of the Norwood Oval and Mt Barker games, so that's something I think could be extended.

If the AFL, with the help of government, can get the Adelaide Hills venue up to par, it should logically be able to do the same for other current SANFL venues, like South Adelaide's home at Noarlunga, for example. And I'd hope that could be a precursor to similar venues used regularly throughout the AFL season.

I do think once the newly-inked deal with SA is completed the concept needs to be taken to developing rather than established territory.

Take Gold Coast, for example. More than a decade into its existence the Suns are still something of a problem child and we're still discussing their viability. A football festival like this could be turned into a week-long celebration of the code.

The other area I feel could be thought through better is the integrity of the fixture. Whilst it's great we've got at least another round out of this idea, it was unfair to both Carlton and the Western Bulldogs that they've ended up playing an extra away game in 2023 than their rivals.

Some will argue that playing the Showdown during Gather Round is wasting the chance for two rather than one showpiece games, but if the concept really is this good, why not back it in to draw big crowds even for non-local teams? I'm sure those footy media types who enjoyed the AFL's largesse last weekend will be happy to spruik it again, won't they?

Jake Michaels: I've got to be honest; I was a little skeptical about the whole Gather Round concept when it was first conceived (yes, rugby and NRL fans, I'm well aware it isn't a totally unique idea).

But what we witnessed in South Australia between Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon was enough to convince me this should become a permanent round on the AFL calendar. And no, Rohan, I'm not seeking a career change into South Australian tourism!

How do we improve Gather Round, you ask?

At the risk of sounding boring, I wouldn't be looking to change too much. Again, the AFL really nailed the concept and execution, taking advantage of school holidays to help bolster crowd numbers, re-introducing the much-loved double-headers (I loved watching the Bulldogs warming up at three-quarter time of the Bombers-Demons game), and bringing the elite game back to suburban grounds. Tick. Tick. Tick.

With that said, Rohan's spot on. Gather Round must be shared.

Introducing it in South Australian was a safe bet for the AFL. The state is already footy-mad and fans were always going to show up (67% of tickets for the round were purchased by South Australians) but if the league wants to grow the sport, then it surely has to look at Queensland and New South Wales as viable options moving forward. It simply can't remain obsessed with 'sellouts' and ignore the elephant in the room, being the sport's stagnating growth in other Australian markets.

It's a tough one, though. Taking Gather Round to a non-traditional football market should happen but to expect the same success off the bat is totally unrealistic. So is it really an improvement?

Where I've got to disagree with Rohan is in regards to the Showdown. It really would be a waste of a marquee match. To me, the same can be said for a Grand Final replay in Round 1. There's just no need to fixture it this way.

Having the Crows play on Thursday evening and the Power suiting up 48 hours later ensured excitement (and crowds) over the course of the weekend, something which is lost if they were to face each other to open the round, as many have suggested.