Bruce McAvaney: AFL commentary doyen's exit leaves broadcasting at fork in the road | Scott Heinrich

Debate can rage all it likes over whether Bruce McAvaney is Australia’s finest sports commentator, but what is beyond argument is that he is the most loved. While most, if not all, of his contemporaries count their friends on one hand and their enemies on the other, it’s a rare thing to hear a bad word about McAvaney. He just also happens to be an extraordinarily talented broadcaster.

McAvaney and his honeyed tones are not lost to Australian television, but it is for these reasons his decision to stop calling AFL matches is a sad day for the sport of Australian rules football. Sad in the wistful, reflective sense, not the oh-my-god-the-world-is-coming-to-an-end sense.

McAvaney, as he would say, has had a fair crack over a long period of time. The Seven Network, for which he will continue to call horse racing and Olympics, estimates McAvaney has called over 1,000 AFL matches. His commentary bones are so old that when he began calling football for Seven in 1990, the AFL itself was in its very first throes of existence. At Ten, from where McAvaney crossed, he was simply a footy commentator.

Placing a finger on what made McAvaney the doyen of AFL commentary is a difficult task. In some ways he was a paradox. He was the consummate professional with vast reserves of knowledge, yet prone to drooling like a schoolboy when one of his favourite players – Cyril Rioli, anyone? – was turning it on. He was the voice of authority, yet often backended observations with rhetorical questions, as if to seek approval from viewers he would never know was forthcoming.

McAvaney was his own caller. He didn’t trade in comedic one-liners like his long-time co-commentator Dennis Cometti. He wasn’t as dry as Sandy Roberts nor as exaggerated as Cometti’s replacement, Brian Taylor. He was not a shouter like his rugby league counterpart, Ray Warren, but nobody did a climax like him.

As a jack of all trades, McAvaney might have lacked recognition as a singular expert of Australian rules football in the way Richie Benaud commanded absolute reverence in cricket. As masterful as McAvaney was in describing the bedlam of three dozen bodies chasing a Sherrin, you knew it wouldn’t be long before you’d hear his voice on horse racing, tennis, athletics or whatever his hand might turn to next.

The truth is, such was the meticulousness of his preparation, McAvaney is an expert in any field he graced. Moreover, McAvaney is a sports nut, a tragic of all things competition, who lives and loves what he does. And people, from colleagues to armchair diehards, reciprocated the warmth. “It’s just his way of handling people behind the scenes,” Taylor said. “He is just brilliant.” Ask stalwarts at Adelaide’s Angle Park greyhound track, where the budding broadcaster got his start back in the late 1970s, and it is likely they would say the same thing. McAvaney is the quintessential good bloke.

In recent years, McAvaney’s ill health was at odds with his workaholic schedule. Sadly, the cracks were starting to appear. The professionalism was still there, but the natural enthusiasm of a footy fan getting paid to watch footy seemed at times to bleed into affectation. The 67-year-old became increasingly reliant on his commentary staples, filling with rhetoric where spontaneity once lived. You just got the feeling he was running out of things to say. McAvaney might not have become a parody of himself but he was tiring before our very ears.

His decision to do away with AFL commentating places Seven, and Australian sports broadcasting in general, at a fork in the road. The Network has said it will not be rushed into replacing McAvaney as such, instead rotating its suite of A-list commentators through the prime-time fixtures.

But it is likely Seven still has designs on eventually filling the No 1 caller’s role. The obvious contenders are Taylor, James Brayshaw, Luke Darcy, even Hamish McLachlan. Gerard Whateley is coveted at the network and McAvaney’s abdication might well tempt it to revisit its aborted attempt from 2019 to poach him from Crocmedia and Fox Footy.

The ascension of any of those candidates, though, would confirm a like-for-like replacement of sorts: an ageing white man for a middle-aged white man. In 2021, with the prominence of women never greater in Australia’s indigenous sport, we might hope for more. We might also hope sports broadcasting in this country has come a way since the regrettable rise-and-fall of Kelli Underwood as a bona-fide AFL caller a decade ago.

In 2011, after two years of service, Ten dumped Underwood from its callers’ roster. Her exit was met with dismay in some quarters, but broadly she stopped commentating the men’s game to a chorus of sniggers. “The unfortunate thing for Kelli was the audience just isn’t quite ready to hear a woman’s voice,” Eddie McGuire said at the time. “Football is a man’s game,” former colleague Rex Hunt added. “And it’s going to take a very, very long time for a lady to infiltrate the inner sanctum of what is basically a boys’ club.”

McAvaney has undoubtedly inspired many a young AFL commentator, male and female, to pursue their dreams. If part of his legacy was an initiation of gender-based change in the commentary box, it would be a special thing indeed.


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