As Bruce McAvaney steps away from the AFL, we say goodbye to a memorable storyteller, and look to who will narrate the next chapter of our nation’s game. (Image source: ABC News

BY MICHELLE WAKIM | @MichelleWakim

Commentators are storytellers. They write the script to a narrative unfolding in real-time. They thread meaning and knowledge into their work. The best use language, tone, and charisma to construct an entire world around an event.

Commentary is an art, but its artistic masters are few and far between.

In the sporting world, the majority of fans rely on commentators to generate game-day atmosphere, as most don’t have the privilege of attending games on a weekly basis. For many viewers, a sporting match is the highlight of their week. It’s akin to religious practice, their greatest love and without quality storytelling, viewers on the couch at home are granted a sub-par experience.

Last week, the most elite talent in broadcasting Bruce McAvaney, announced he will be stepping away from AFL commentary.

While the 67-year-old South Australian will continue to call the horse-racing and upcoming Olympics, McAvaney and the AFL share a special beginning: McAvaney made it on the big stage in 1990, joining the AFL commentary team in the competition’s inaugural year, when the Victorian Football League (VFL) expanded to become the AFL.

In the 30-odd years since, McAvaney has called more than 1,000 AFL matches, including 20 grand finals. The AFL hasn’t lived a year without Bruce greeting thousands of football fans around the country.

Over his career, McAvaney has covered everything from Tony Lockett’s 1300th career goal in 1999, to the 2016 Grand Final where Western Bulldogs broke a 62-year premiership drought. This grand final is described by McAvaney as “one of the great thrills of [his] life,” as he and Dennis Cometti, the only football commentator to rival Bruce’s accolades, partnered one last time before Cometti’s retirement.

These are two moments from three decades.

These moment disregard McAvaney’s coverage outside of footy: Usain Bolt achieving a “double double” record in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics; the men’s 2012 tennis final between Djokovic and Nadal in the longest match in Australia Open history (5 hours and 53 minutes); Cathy Freeman’s Olympic gold in 2000, where McAvaney exclaimed, “What a moment! What a legend!” – a quote etched in the history books.

Another three moments from a lifetime.

As Bruce hangs up the headphones with the AFL, we celebrate his legacy; but, at the end of this era, we also look to what’s next: who will decorate our great game?   

There has been an ongoing trend amongst the new commentators entering the booth in the AFL: most are past players. This presents shortcomings in two areas: commentary quality and diversity.

In consistently employing past players, the AFL overlook the fact that not everyone who plays football can call football.  

The AFL boys’ club retirees often, but not always, lack the nuance and creativity to enhance the game through language. This is not to say retired footballers don’t know football, but their contributions in the commentary box will rarely compare to broadcasters who have perfected the art of storytelling.

ABC journalist Sam Wilkinson reiterates this point tweeting, “I can’t think of anyone else in the Seven’s AFL booth now that can do what he [McAvaney] did. It’s all overly chummy, former footballers who think screaming at the big moments is the key to a good call”.

Unsurprisingly, members of this boys’ club fit into a narrow demographic, lacking in most markers of diversity.

The AFL can change this. They can welcome in new voices from qualified individuals which will ultimately bring a fresh perspective to the game. Voices of women. Voices of Indigenous Australians. As a journalism student, I study alongside a diverse group of talented, ambitious broadcasters who will soon be knocking on the door of the commentary world.

It’s time to let them in.  

When accepting his Melbourne Press Club Lifetime Achievement Award last year, McAvaney stated, to the room of journalists and broadcasters, “We’re all inspired by words”.

He followed with a quote from The Great Gatsby – a quote about believing in the future that resonated with McAvaney when he first read it 50 years ago.  

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run farther, stretch out our arms farther”.

And so, to the future. There is an opportunity to build onwards and upwards from McAvaney’s legacy which demonstrated the power of unique, educated, and passionate storytelling. It’s time for new narrators who will shape our nation’s sporting rhetoric, in the same McAvaney has.