THE WEEK THAT WAS: Footy as you’ve never seen it before has arrived – but do you want to see it again? The AFL has a big sales job ahead, says chief writer RON REED
AT FIRST glance, AFLX looked less like a jazzed up version of footy and more like a watered-down one, with an almost total absence of the great features of the real game – high marks, tough tackling, ruckwork and one-on-one contests between great players, of which there were hardly any. At second glance, it looked the same. At the end of all seven games on night one in Adelaide, that was still the case. The games were identical, and made to look all the more so because of the relative anonymity of at least half the players. You could have turned off the TV at any stage confident you were not going to miss anything you had not already seen – and judging by the social media feedback, that’s exactly what a lot of people did.
So, does that mean it was a failure – or doomed to become one? It’s a bit early to be making definitive calls on that because history insists that whenever new sports are invented or old ones reimagined, as is the case here, they are always a work in progress for a greater or lesser period of time. Women’s footy is a very obvious case in point. Some thrive, some don’t.
The original pioneer of this now relentless search for something new, faster, shorter and more exciting was probably one-day cricket nearly half a century ago and it struggled to capture anyone’s imagination for several years before it copied soccer’s hugely-successful World Cup and became a staple which still endures, even though it has probably been overtaken by an even more whizz-bang product, Twenty20 cricket. Many sports have been down this road and few have enjoyed as much success as cricket has. Interestingly, in the biggest sports market in the world, the USA, the trend hasn’t really taken off, with gridiron football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey all apparently seeing little need to fix what is not broken or to risk distracting or diluting fan engagement.
The X-game is another manifestation of the AFL’s rampant enthusiasm for spreading its gospel as far and wide as possible, which has been a major strategic plank ever since South Melbourne was shunted off to Sydney in the early eighties and the VFL became a national competition soon afterwards. International expansion – pioneered by former umpire and media entrepreneur, the late Harry Bietzel – has been a dream for even longer, and is now up and running to a small degree with matches in China having replaced a failed foray into New Zealand. This is the context in which AFLX’s future almost certainly lies. It is structured to appeal to markets in countries where it will be easier to find suitable venues than for the real game, and if it cannot do that then the point of its existence at all may become debatable.
That, though, is some distance away yet. Meanwhile, the league has to sell it to its own constituency, just as it is also trying to do with the girl’s game – simultaneously – and to a lesser extent with the international rules against Ireland. The extra-curricular program, to which you could probably add the pre-season competition, is growing legs at a rate of knots. Its no wonder the AFL, which back in the good old days of the VFL operated on maybe a dozen or 20 staff, now has something like 600 employees. Those four sideshows have something else in common – they are all played in spring or summer, or the cricket season in other words. Unsurprisingly, Cricket Australia is arcing up about this constant and increasing intrusion and it’s consequential dilution of the extremely valuable media attention that is the lifeblood of both sports and most other ones for that matter. There seems certain to be more cricket programmed next summer as this battle takes on a sharper edge, perhaps to the point of becoming a bit of a sport in itself.
At this embryonic stage, it is unclear whether even the 18 clubs are prepared to take X-footy seriously. Their selection policies so far would suggest not very. It may be a case of them all watching each other to see what the collective view is, but what is certain is that the AFL, having taken the plunge to set it up at all, will take a dim view if apathy or disdain set in. Given that it’s all over in a single weekend, however, that might be difficult to detect. How people vote with their feet or their remotes will be a better guide to the chances of it going from X-game to ex-game.
Predictably enough, the early feedback has been mixed, with negativity appearing to outweigh positivity by a clear margin. That’s been the case with women’s footy too, as far as I can tell, but X-footy, I would suggest, is likely to have more appeal than the women simply because the players are bigger, stronger, faster and just plain better. But the game itself has plenty of room for improvement, which League bosses Gill McLachlan and Steven Hocking were quick to acknowledge. In some ways it resembles basketball a little too much, starting with a tip-off rather than a ball-up. At least it is free of the maul-like congestion that is a blight on AFL proper but it is also a bit too bruise-free to satisfy most fans. And because there is so much space for only 10 players to run into short passing and uncontested marking is even more of a norm than usual, rendering the big mark more or less obsolete. Something needs to be done about that, otherwise it would be unrepresentative of the real thing when it is trotted out as a marketing tool overseas.
Much was made of the so called zoopers, which are goals kicked from beyond a 40m arc and which attract 10 points rather than six. Zooper? That sounds like Warnie’s latest mystery ball – except that anybody can do this. Kicking goals from 50m out is definitely a worthwhile skill but any suburban or bush footballer is capable of slotting them from 10m closer in – there’s nothing special about that. Perhaps they should consider adding the extra points to goals kicked from an overhead (high) mark.
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.