Almost 55,000 West Coast Eagles fans packed out Optus Stadium last Friday night for the first time since 2019 as the West Australian Government removed all crowd restrictions.
The full crowd capacity was in place for the Fremantle-Hawthorn clash last week, however wet and wild weather from Cyclone Seroja only saw the stadium at half capacity.
Although I went as a fan last year, this time it felt totally different. It felt like everything was back to normal. Sure, there were the QR codes to scan, but otherwise, it felt like nothing had changed.
We barely had enough room on the train as we were all packed like sardines and sent on our merry way to the stadium.
The one thing I was excited about was returning to my allocated seats on level one. I know several people who sit around me, and we chatted away as if there was no disturbance to last season.
Locally brewed mid-strength beer was flowing, the chips were frying and the meat pies still burnt my mouth as usual.
But was Optus Stadium prepared for the 55k eager pundits coming through the door? Perhaps not.
In the lead up, Venus West cried out for staff to fill hundreds of vacant positions at both Optus Stadium and Perth Arena ahead of the Wildcats and West Coast Eagles matches on Friday night.
The lack of preparation and staff resulted in food shortages or lengthy lines, making people miss periods of play.
Although this was a slight dampener, it wasn’t big enough to totally dull the celebratory atmosphere.
This Optus Stadium crowd means far more in the grand scheme of things than we think.
The people of WA had concurred the COVID-19 beast, and we’re world leaders when it comes to handling the virus. It was a reward for us, and many states should follow suit at some stage this week.
Friday night’s game had the highest attendance of any sporting event in the Southern Hemisphere since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a remarkable milestone, not only for WA and Australia to celebrate, but for the world to be inspired by.
Safely having 54,159 fans in one place is a feat many countries are nowhere near achieving. As the AFL gains more attention globally, other countries will use this to motivate their people in their COVID response.
Growing rivals West Coast and Collingwood met once again, the visitors losing by 27 points and giving the home side plenty to cheer about.
Post-match, I reached out to fans on Twitter and invited them to share their experiences.
Many understood the significance and importance of the situation, observing a livelier, more postive atmosphere within the crowd.
They also found the familiarity comforting and had few complaints about the match.
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One West Coast barracker noted the liveliness of the Optus Stadium crowd, taking the stance that WA are leaders in post-COVID sport.
“The atmosphere was definitely a lot more up and about and loud. We bring the best crowd, so it was great to have full capacity back,” she said
“The experience didn’t change much because we are always very loud and involved in the game, but it’ll definitely lead the way for other cities to increase their capacity.”
West Coast diehard Bella Gerreyn loved being back among the blue and gold faithful and footy lovers alike. She also understands the notability of the event
“It was such a surreal experience being surrounded by so many people who share the same amount of love for footy as I do,” she said.
“The passion from fellow Eagles supporters was still as strong, even with half the crowd. But seeing the stadium come alive like it did, always makes the experience more enjoyable.
“I think the increase in crowd in great for exposing other countries to AFL and WA footy, as it’s the biggest turnout the southern hemisphere has seen since COVID. It’s such a big deal.”
Eagles fan Ben Donaldson found the trademark West Coast fan boos welcoming and like a ‘warm hug’. However, he was still apprehensive about the decision being too premature.
“I felt as though the stadium wasn’t ready for it,” he said.
“I nearly lost half a quarter lining up for a drink. Although I feel like being there in the knowledge it could be at full capacity was nice.”
Miguel Sanchez, a well-known figure within West Coast’s fan circles, found crowd increases had little bearing on his experience but loves the feeling of normalcy. However, COVID fears still loom.
“It felt like everything was back to normal! Games last year just felt weird, eerie. This year in general has felt like a normal footy experience, sitting in your own seat, around the same people,” he told The Inner Sanctum.
“I’m sure the AFL will be thrilled that full crowds are back. The test for everyone will be if there’s a break-out anywhere.
“Going back into lockdown will be a real culture shock and they’ll be very keen to avoid the hubs if they can. But it feels like everything is getting back to normal, touch wood.”
On the other side of the city, the Wildcats welcomed back 16,000 Red Army members at RAC Arena.
Congratulations WA! We should be incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved.
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