The AFL has been forced to respond to accusations of exploitation over its grand final entertainment plans after the league put out a call for volunteer dancers to perform at next month’s premiership-decider at the Gabba.
The AFL came under fire from the arts industry over the weekend after sending a request to dance schools in the Brisbane area for “strong performers” aged 15 and above to take part in a mass activation planned for the game – with no financial remuneration.
In a year that has seen the arts industry decimated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the AFL – which itself has not been immune to the financial impacts of the virus – was heavily criticised for what was claimed to be an effort to secure free labour.
“We’ve had such a hard year,” the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Sam Gaskin told The Project on Sunday. “The AFL grand final is known as a big gig for many professional dancers. I feel like it’s a real representation of what we do and don’t value in this country.
“I’m sure the players are being paid. I’m sure the cleaners are being paid. I’m sure the people serving the pies and the beers are being paid. So why on earth would we expect our performers not to be?” he said.
The AFL issued a statement on Sunday night and said that asking volunteers to participate alongside paid professional performers in major events was nothing new. The initiative, it said, was designed to involve community members and amateur dancers.
“As part of most of our major events – including our grand finals – we provide an opportunity for volunteers from the local community to be involved in part of our on-ground activations,” the statement read.
“Having volunteers or community groups involved in on-ground mass activations is something that we and other major sports and major public events have been doing for decades and is in addition to paying professional musicians and singers to provide entertainment on stage.
“With the 2020 AFL grand final being in Queensland for the first time, our executive producers Cochrane Entertainment and our production team have asked local Queensland community and amateur dance clubs and physie movement groups to take part in a mass activation that is in addition to organising paid singers and musicians to perform on stage.”
The AFL said the planned mass activation was never intended to be a performance by professional dancers and that no professional or paid dancers were approached to be involved in the segment.
But the MEAA, in a statement issued on Sunday, said some professional dancers had been contacted, although it accepted that may have been an administrative error and that the AFL had assured them that no professionals would be used in the show.
The MEAA’s statement highlighted that professional dancers often work gig to gig and have not qualified for support from the federal government’s jobkeeper program.
“2020 has been a very difficult year for the industry as dancers have been expected to maintain physical dance skills whilst without work or economic support. When some of them received an email recently asking them to volunteer during the AFL grand final half-time entertainment they were understandably upset and contacted their union,” the statement said.
“The organisers of the half-time show had contacted MEAA and assured the union that only students would be asked to volunteer and no professional dancers would be contacted. Unfortunately some professional dancers in Queensland were contacted.”
On Monday, the league confirmed that Mike Brady would perform Up There Cazaly as part of the grand final pre-game entertainment from the MCG, “as a nod to Victoria” and the flag decider’s traditional home.
Brady’s performance of the famous AFL song will be projected on to screens at the 24 October game at the Gabba, which won hosting rights for this year’s grand final after it became clear the MCG would not be able to given the coronavirus restrictions in place in Victoria.
The AFL will confirm the rest of its entertainment plans for the match in the coming weeks.