FEMALE FOOTY is back – but how many of the first-season fans are still on board and where is the game heading, asks chief writer RON REED:
THE WEEK THAT WAS: IS ANYONE – other than those with a deeply vested interest in this highly-ambitious project – really surprised that the second season of female footy has attracted such an underwhelming reception, with a massive drop in TV ratings and a standard of play so unentertaining in at least one instance that the AFL has been forced to take the drastic step of lecturing coaches on their tactics?
I’m not. First time around, unless you were intimately involved, the attraction was in the novelty value rather than the quality of the spectacle, which was mostly on the wrong side of disappointing. It would appear that the novelty has worn off quickly – which was entirely predictable – and that the quality has not noticeably improved. Of course, like all new enterprises – especially those involving skill and athleticism – it is certain to get better over time, but how much better and over how much time? These are crucial questions because there will be a limit to how long the extremely generous support from the media will last if too few are watching, listening or reading about it. And without that leg-up, any dreams of the game achieving mainstream status are delusional.
Even now, the media coverage might be a mixed blessing. It is so over-hyped and uncritical that there is a distinct impression of being force-fed and a great many people – they’re not fools – object to that and find it a turn-off. To some extent, this happens because of the time frame with February and March a relative flat spot for major sport in Melbourne – the Test cricket and tennis are over and the footy proper has not begun – but it’s still a bit of a beat-up. If evidence emerges that it has a counter-productive element, how ironic would that be given the long, long campaign waged by women in every sporting sphere for a more equal share of publicity.
THE AFL, with their massive communications department and seemingly bottomless pits of money, are experts at wringing every last drop of promotional exposure out of everything they do, as we are about to discover with another new “baby,” the X game. It will be interesting to see what effect that has on the women’s air-time and column inches once it gets going and whether the League can sustain two such left-field products at the same time – and which way people vote with their feet. Also, there are authentic questions about where their priorities should lie given how some football communities – notably northern Tasmania, home of many champions – are struggling to keep their heads above water.
To say the least, the level of support for the girls’ game is mixed – it doesn’t take much of an inspection of social media to see that it has its strong supporters, it has luke-warm but uncommitted sympathisers waiting and willing to be convinced and it has plenty (perhaps a majority) who are just openly derisive and who will never come on board. For what it’s worth, I’m afraid I must admit to being no fan – I’d rather watch the blokes play at suburban level in my local parks, which I often do. Quite simply, it’s better footy. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying that there is no place for the distaff version, or that the explosion in women’s sport generally is not a very good thing. It is tremendous to see and long overdue. Girls are fully entitled to play footy or any other game and it is undeniable that many thousands more of them are now playing this and other sports, and that can only be a major positive.
But I have said and written from the start of this revolution that with so many “new” sports for girls – footy, cricket, soccer and rugby, competing with the more traditional netball, basketball, swimming, athletics and so on – the talent is going to be thinly spread and each of them will have to find their own level, whether that is the professional mainstream or amateur community sport or some middle ground.
The AFLW cannot expect to be exempt from that and has a lot to do to make sure it survives on the right side of the dividing line.
NOBODY GETS to play cricket – or anything else – at a professional level forever, but Brad Hodge had a very good crack at it. He was five weeks past his 43rd birthday when he was forced to announce his retirement a few days ago, on the advice – the orders, really – of doctors who had just removed his appendix, which had burst. His departure was met with warm applause and genuine goodwill, and not just in Australia or his home town, Melbourne.
But to the end, there was a perception that he was, somehow, not quite as successful as he could and should have been. It is encapsulated by his profile on the Cricinfo.com website, which begins: “Brad Hodge will go down as one of the unluckiest nearly-men in Australian cricket.” There’s nothing inaccurate about that because the gifted right-handed batsman definitely should have played more than his six Tests, in which he averaged 55.88 largely because of an unbeaten double century against South Africa in Perth 12 years ago. There were a handful of chances in that knock but even so his axing seemed harsh, with just one more opportunity presenting itself. He also played only 25 one-day internationals, not many for a player who loved white ball cricket.
Like many before him and perhaps a few since Hodge might have been born into the wrong era. When he was at his peak for the Victorian Bushrangers – he is the state’s highest-ever first-class run-getter with 10,474 at the very good average of 45.34 with 29 hundreds, and the fifth highest from any state, with another 6,000 or so runs in other first-class arenas – the Australian team was loaded with all-time great Test players such as the Waughs, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and plenty of others. But in another sense he might have come along at just the right time.
That’s because Hodge was still batting very well when Twenty20 cricket exploded into being a decade or so ago and he took to it like the proverbial duck to water and has milked it for all it has been worth, which in his case is an undisclosed amount certain to be in the multiple millions. He has been a gun for hire all over the world as T20 leagues have sprouted almost everywhere the game is played, all of them highly lucrative. He has played: Australia (15 T20Is), Adelaide Strikers, Auckland, Banashira Cricket Dundee, Barisal Burners, Durham, Gemini Arabians, Guyana Amazon Warriors, Kochi Tuskers Kerala, Kolkata Knight Riders, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Melbourne Renegades, Melbourne Stars, Northern Districts, Peshawar Zalmi, Rajasthan Royals, St Kitts and Nevis patriots, St Lucia Stars, Sylhet Super Stars, Victoria and Wellington. And that’s not to mention Melbourne Cricket Club and, these days, his local park team, Sandringham East, for which he has kept his eye in over the past couple of summers when professional duties permit.
He has also moved into coaching in the Indian premier League, with Gujurat Lions for the past two years and Kings XI Punjab for the next three. Hodge never really tried to hide his disappointment at not getting the go he deserved in the baggy green cap, but he didn’t whinge either, he just gritted his teeth and kept churning out runs for Victoria until it became obvious that it was all over at that level. He has been popular everywhere he has gone, nowhere more so than in the Big Bash league, where he has played for three franchises and is regularly asked by Channel 10 to wear the on-field mic – a job he handles with easy aplomb. It is easy to imagine him moving into TV commentary full-time at some point down the track – he’ll certainly have a lot to talk about if he does.
Hodge is not the only fan favourite to reach the end of the road mid-season. West Australian spinner Brad Hogg, also 43, has not formally retired but having been axed from the Melbourne Renegades for the last part of the Big Bash it is obvious that he has nowhere left to go now. He also deserves an ovation on the way out. And NSW left-arm pace bowler Doug Bollinger, 36, has called it a day after a career that included 12 Tests, 39 one-dayers and nine T20Is. He took 121 international wickets across the three formats and in 2010 he was named in the ICC teams of the year at both Test and ODI level. He also took three hat-tricks at domestic level, two of them in the Sheffield Shield and one in a domestic one-dayer. He was the only bowler ever to do that twice in Shield cricket until NSW team-mate Mitchell Starc upstaged him earlier this summer by taking two in the same match. Bollinger was known as Doug The Rug when he wore a hairpiece for several years but eventually discarded it, preferring to be known instead for his big-hearted competitiveness. In his last Test, against England in Adelaide, in 2012 he dismissed their captain Andrew Strauss with his third delivery of the match, only to finish with 1-130 off 29 overs. He never played another Test.
PHIL Liggett greatly enjoys his five or six weeks in Australia every year, commentating on the summer of cycling. But the world famous voice of the sport wasted no time getting to the airport the day after the last event, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, and who could blame him? He has spent only 10 days at home in England since the second week of October, the rest either travelling to bike races or promoting animal welfare in southern Africa, where he has a second home.
As he has done the rounds of the Australian road racing championships in Ballarat, the Tour Down Under in Adelaide, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road race in the Geelong area and the JHST in various parts of Victoria, his presence has prompted some surprised reactions. That’s because there is a widespread belief that he has retired, when in fact he and his long-time sidekick Paul Sherwin are simply no longer seen on Australian TV, meaning SBS, during the Tour de France, which is staple viewing for many sports fans in this country. They have been replaced by Melbourne cycling expert Matt Keenan and former gun rider Robbie McEwen.
Liggett and Sherwin continue to be the voices of Le Tour in America and elsewhere for the NBC network. The hugely knowledgeable Keenan and the popular, insightful McEwen were an instant success story last year, but that’s not to say that the two older hands – both former riders – have not been missed. Or that they’re not missing it themselves. “There have been tens of thousands of complaints from here, Canada, New Zealand and Britain,” Liggett said. “But none about Matthew,” he adds firmly. Speaking during the race stopover in Warrnambool as he accepted a free breakfast roll from the local Lions Club’s tent in return for a selfie with the cooks, he added: “I’ve had 20 people already this morning asking where I’ve been and it’s the same everywhere I go. I’m flattered. I look in the mirror and wonder what all these people see in me.”
He speaks without a hint of rancour. There are no hard feelings between him and Keenan, who are a mutual admiration society if anything. “I discovered Matt and it was only a matter of time before he took over,” he said. “But I can’t help feeling sad. He is different from me. I speak to the people, he speaks to the enthusiast.”
At 74, he hasn’t quite arrived at the end of the race just yet. NBC has offered him an open-ended contract to continue which either party can shut down with a year’s notice, which he says has never been offered to any other sports commentator. And Channel 7 Australia has signed him up for the Tokyo Olympics. “So I have work until 2020, although I have told them I won’t hold them to the contract if they decide they don’t want to continue with it. I still enjoy it but I will miss it when the time comes.”
He will continue to work on behalf of rhinos in South Africa, much as about-to-retire cricketer Kevin Pietersen does. Liggett is involved in a project to bring the endangered beasts to Australia and breed them here. He has also been appointed an ambassador to the Koala Centre of Excellence. The much-loved marsupials are dying out on the eastern seaboard, he says. “The world is in strife because of the loss of animals.”
SPORTSMAN OF THE WEEK
HE calls himself he Colombian kangaroo because he is a fan favourite in both his own country and Australia, and cyclist Esteban Chaves enhanced his profile even more with a powerful win in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour – his trademark smile in place the whole way. He is possibly the best asset Australia’s only World Tour team, Mitchelton-Scott, has and its best chance of winning one of the three Grand Tours.
WINNER OF THE WEEK
GLENN Maxwell might be Australia’s most controversial – and hard-done-by – cricketer but he is now well and truly back in the good books after dominating the first two matches of the T20 series with unbeaten innings of 40 and 103. Hopefully he can keep it up through the second half of the Sheffield Shield season.
LOSER OF THE WEEK
WOMEN’S footy has suddenly acquired an image problem after just one round of its second season and the girls – and their coaches – are under pressure to lift their games. Without wishing to be unduly negative, they have a big job in front of them to convert the many sceptics.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.