Over the past three decades the Australian Football League has charted a relentless course to national sporting pre-eminence.

The inevitable consequence is that, at times, the competition can seem as romantic as a Tinder liaison in a dark laneway.

The changes and innovations required to gain a major share of live and multi-platform viewing audiences, media rights revenue, commercial sponsorship and government grants have not only altered the way the game is consumed but the way it is played.

Traditional clubs have been homogenised and new clubs created to the cookie-cutter requirements necessary to ensure commercial viability — or, in the case of GWS and Gold Coast, to break even in the distant future.

Thus the geographical and cultural differences that once defined clubs and fans have been diminished.

Coaches unable to buy success due to the restraints of the draft/salary cap system have resorted to ever more sophisticated tactics to gain a winning edge.

Most recently this has turned the game into an ugly arm-wrestle where dour "defensive pressure" is lauded in the absence of attacking spirit and scoring power.

Constant upbeat message clashes with defensive game

At the same time a competition that has noticeably declined in aesthetic appeal is the subject of relentless 24/7 news cycle that spins on the self-perpetuating notion that "our game has never been better".

Josh Kennedy of the Swans gets a handball away despite pressure from Collingwood's Brodie Grundy.

The key to propagating this myth is to ignore the ugly packs and crunch the numbers. Thus games are no longer rated on artistic merit but analysed like spreadsheets.

Sometimes by "experts" whose ability to interpret data is not nearly as sophisticated as the figures they are attempting to pull apart.

External Link: Greg Champion tweet: The AFL and original VFL club songs are sacred. the fans are imprinted on the sound of those originals. They've lived with them and sung with them for 40-50 years. Of all the screwy ideas…

Accordingly, fantasy football competitions designed to attract website clicks are given more space in some sports sections than the games themselves, complete with breathless analysis of the virtual contests and competitors.

And just in case you felt there was not tradition that could not be violated in the name of "progress", on the eve of this season the AFL announced it had recorded new versions of the beloved club songs belted out by triumphant fans at the end of games.

This, the subsequent outrage suggested, was a step too far: "You can take our standing room and our full-strength beer. But you will never take our banjo solos!"

No doubt this nostalgic backlash will have prompted a bemused eye-roll at AFL headquarters where it has long been assumed duffel-coat wearing traditionalists are out of touch with the games commercial imperatives.

AFL chief Gillon McLachlan speaks at a media conference in Melbourne in July 2017.

Yes, even in a week when AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan was forced to undertake an emergency trip to Tasmania to investigate why the game is on life support in one of its great heartlands. (A clue: you forgot to put a team there!)

For all that, if the quality of the AFL's core product really has declined and its soul has been sub-leased, why does the competition continue to attract crowds, club memberships and viewing figures that are the envy of every other major sport in the country?

You could consider the sheer penetration and slavish loyalty of the AFL's saturation media coverage.

The game's marketing that has been, quite literally, Zooper Dooper. Then there is demographic shift and the subsequent change in consumer demand — particularly among younger supporters who have little point of comparison.

But, in the past two years, both because of and despite the AFL's efforts, the competition has added a vital ingredient.

One that seemed to have been permanently removed from the recipe: Old fashioned romance.

Fairytale flags the answer to AFL conspiracy theories

Western Bulldogs players react after winning AFL grand final against Sydney Swans at MCG in 2016.

The wildly unlikely drought-breaking premierships of the Western Bulldogs and Richmond debunked every disgruntled notion and dark conspiracy theory harboured by the baked-on fans of success-starved clubs who claimed the AFL's football-nomics were stacked against them.

The Bulldogs won the grand final that seemed likely to vindicate Lance Franklin's multi-million-dollar move to the Sydney Swans. Richmond won at about the time the draft-stacked Greater Western Sydney Giants were supposed to dominate the competition.

Notionally, success for the two Sydney teams might have been — and might still be — more commercially valuable.

But in retaining the sense of hope, optimism and romance required to keep fans of clubs in an 18-team competition fully engaged until their turn comes, money could not buy the Bulldogs and Tigers flags.

External Link: AFL tweet: Get hyped!

The AFL can take some credit for these romantic tales. The now virtually uncompromised draft/salary cap system means there are no more super teams like Hawthorn of the 1980s/90s or the Brisbane Lions of the early Noughties.

In a more volatile competition, a team that enters September fit, in-form and well-drilled has as much chance as any.

So rather than pondering the possibilities of two or three clearly outstanding teams this season, we cast a wide net when considering the possibilities. In the case of Melbourne (last premiership 1964) and, less likely, St Kilda (1966), we wonder whether there will be another grand final fairytale.

That the sepia-toned triumphs of the Bulldogs and Tigers came at the same time as the AFL introduced its women's competition was coincidental, but fortuitous.

Old Footscray and then Richmond won premierships. Meanwhile, thousands of potential spectators are fretting that they might not gain admission to a packed Princes Park on Saturday afternoon to watch the Dogs and Brisbane play in the AFLW grand final.

You can argue that in its quest for market dominance the AFL has lost touch with its roots and compromised its aesthetic appeal. But, as the huge crowd that watched the Tigers fly their premiership flag last night will tell you, the possibilities are still intoxicating.

Original Article

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)