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The most important question about AFLX remains unanswered: Why bother?

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert


153 Have your say

    In case you missed it, the AFL joins the global trend of sporting leagues experimenting with their chosen sports tomorrow. Unlike other sports, the AFL hasn’t articulated a compelling case for it.

    Buyer beware, AFLX has all the hallmarks of a Stratton Oakmont pump and dump.

    A glitzy launch? Yep. The league bought in a pair of acrobats, a ‘Zooper Girl’ and man dressed as a Sherrin to its official launch at Etihad Stadium last Tuesday.

    It also introduced ‘Zooper goals’ (ten points are awarded if a goal is kicked on the full from beyond 40 metres), zing goal posts, and a silver ball that is totally not a rip off of a 1992 Coca-Cola commercial.

    Gaudy projections of growth and adoption? Yep. The AFL is already talking up the internationalisation of AFLX, despite not yet playing the game with professional athletes at home. It also thinks the game will be a hit in the western suburbs of Sydney for some reason.

    A sponsor with a single-minded objective to expand its empire, some may say at the neglect of what has come before? Yep. Football in Tasmania is really struggling, and according to Western Bulldogs club president Peter Gordon, the AFL has redirected funds that were available for last year’s AFLW competition to the venture.

    Gil McLachlan isn’t Jordan Belfort. There are genuine reasons for the league to pursue an alternative version of the domestic code. The problem is it’s not clear which one the AFL has at the core of its new project.

    That could doom the game before the first silver ball is tossed into the air.

    All in the timing
    Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: this is a horrendous time for the AFL to unveil its new-look game.

    Of all the times on the calendar that were available – say, from the end of August through to the week before Richmond takes on Carlton in Round 1 – a three-day sojourn as the pre-season ramps up and right in the middle of the AFLW season is among the worst of the options.

    It robs the AFLW of a marquee Friday night spot in its third round, funnily enough the first of the season where it would not be competing with cricket for viewer eyeballs. The competition has been under pressure in its first two rounds, and may simply fade into the tapestry this weekend as AFLX comes to pass.

    The last game of the first evening begins just after 9pm local time, on a school night in the City of Churches. Beginning on a Thursday night may rob the tournament opener of a significant crowd, hurting the atmosphere HQ is so keen to generate.

    There’s been little by way of information about projected crowd, but at the time of filing I could still purchase a tranche of ten tickets to Hindmarsh Stadium without any issues.

    AFL club members were also forwarded an offer from AFL House on Monday afternoon, with $10 tickets to the three events available.

    Most critical though is the fact AFLX is happening just six weeks from the AFL season proper.

    AFLX has replaced one of the usual preseason competition games for each team, a development which is more likely to signal a move to two organised preseason games for each team than the advent of a new way to kick off the season. Most clubs have suggested two actual practice games is plenty in recent times – one to play the younger guys, and another to roll out a stronger line up. In that respect, AFLX is unlikely to be hugely disruptive.

    The Roar got in touch with four club officials in high performance, list management and opposition analysis roles over the past few weeks, to talk on background about how their club was approaching the tournament. Most echoed this view, giving a sense that AFLX won’t change a lot by way of preseason programs.

    The clubs appear to be looking at AFLX through a lens of what they can get out of it, acknowledging that it’s happening whether they are enthused or not.

    Staff mentioned it was a good opportunity for testing out player skills, their decision making, and one-on-one game. Others would be using it mostly to scout opposition players they haven’t seen before.

    However, there was an overwhelming sense of apathy. Of ‘why now’. The personnel I spoke to were also worried about the potential for injury, but more specifically about the kind of load the league was putting on players six weeks out from the season, relative to a regular preseason campaign.

    Is it any wonder then that the West Coast Eagles named a team with an average of six AFL games played? Or that Nat Fyfe pulled out faster than a snowboarder that felt a gust of wind in South Korea once he saw what his competitors were doing? Or that the clubs successfully lobbied the AFL to increase squad sizes from an initial 10 to 14 and finally to 20?


    AAP Image/Julian Smith

    It’s all in the timing. And like the rest of the tournament, it seems the AFL’s rationale isn’t why now, but why not now.

    Some colour and shape was first given in the second half of last season, when Crocmedia’s Damien Barrett revealed the league was looking to hold the tournament in the middle of the pre-finals bye week. It would have (appropriately) involved ten teams, and been played with the best of the also-rans of last season.

    That didn’t come to pass, with too little time from leak to planned debut. It seems a more appropriate spot on the calendar than at the pointy end of the preseason.

    In future, expect AFLX to be a fixture in the AFL’s calendar, played as a means of ending the football year in December. This weekend’s experiment will be a one off.

    For now, we play tomorrow.

    The nuts and bolts
    What can we expect to see? According to AFL House, a 342 per cent increase in scoring, if scoring is scaled to the game time available.

    Based on the average game length and points scored from last year, that would suggest the average AFLX score will be 49 to 50 points a side – or 100 points in total.

    All things being equal, that score will take 14-15 shots to achieve, excluding Zooper goals (which are likely to be a sizeable contributor to scoring), or 30 shots on goal in the whole game. That’s a lot of shots on goal in such a condensed amount of time, suggesting the early trials of the format have seen the ball travel from end to end, basketball style.

    Other reports have suggested there’s not a lot of tackling, and so many fewer stoppages. The club trial footage I’ve seen has backed up this expectation – I can’t remember seeing a slowdown in play at any stage in the West Coast Eagles’ AFLX trial game, for example.

    There will be plenty of kicking, particularly laterally in order to open up attacking lanes through the middle of the ground. Teams that roll out line ups chock full of quality kicks will be the most successful. On-the-ground pace will also be important, albeit less so as ball control is paramount. Teams will only move the ball forward with handballs when they create an overlap, or they are counterattacking from an opposition turnover.

    Turnovers will be one of the most critical statistics, if not the most critical. It is a different way to view the contested side of the game; winning the ball when it is in dispute is always going to be important, but avoiding putting the ball in dispute is even more critical.

    The geometry of the field will assert its influence on the playing style, too. A typical Australian football field is oval shaped, where AFLX is to be played on a rectangular pitch. This means there will be no points on the ground which are both narrower and wider than the average point on the ground – it’s straight lines all the way.

    It will be difficult for teams to create attacking angles with kicks that travel forwards, as there won’t be a lot of space on the ground to go both forwards and sideways at the same time.

    Grounds are also significantly smaller. The MCG has a surface area of 20,233 square metres in Australian rules football configuration, while most other grounds are around 16,500 square metres (Kardinia Park is a little different: 15,354 square metres). Documents produced by the AFL suggest a field of between 100 and 120 metres long and 60-70 metres wide: 6000 square metres in the smallest configuration to 8400 square metres in the largest.

    The game leans against this reduction in space by reducing the number of players on the field: 36 down to 14. The AFL has been keen to point out that the reduction is a key to quickening up the game. However, the number of square metres per player on the smallest configuration (100 x 60 metres) is 428.6 – less than all but Kardinia Park (426.5 square metres per player). Indeed, there is 31 per cent more space per player in an Australian rules game at the MCG than in the smallest AFLX configuration.

    As ABC’s James Coventry pointed out earlier this week, the last time Australian football was played on a rectangular field was when the game was at its most congested and scrappy – in the 1800s and early 1900s.

    It’s not clear what dimensions the AFL will select for these first games – albeit a ‘preferred measurement’ of 105 x 68 metres has popped up on a few pieces of promotional material. All three venues (Hindmarsh Stadium, Etihad Stadium and the Sydney Football Stadium) are capable of hosting the maximum playing field of 120 x 70 metres, which would yield exactly 600 square metres of space per player. One would assume the league will experiment with configurations.

    AFLX’s rules will also play a role in quickening the pace of play. The last-touch rule will incentivise players to play within a narrower version of what we’d consider to be the centre corridor, unless there is an opening in the defence. Players will run straight lines and have a bias for moving to the middle of the ground. No mark for kicking backwards may influence the play, but few kicks that travel backwards require a mark in today’s game.

    Finally, the 2-3-2 starting position configuration (two players from each team required to be inside each 40-metre arc) will mean a centre break at the start of each half will probably lead to a score. It’s not clear if the starting position configuration is a requirement after each goal (when the ball is returned via kick in), but it is assumed not to be the case.

    At face value, the pace of play will be as quick as the league has promised. Whether the scoring flows when fully professional footballers are in play, rather than the semi-professionals that have mostly trialled the game thus far, is an unknown and influential factor.

    The biggest question: why?
    As I write this, I must say, I am feeling equal parts excited, intrigued and sceptical.

    The public reaction has been less favourable. Social media is not an appropriate barometer, but if it was, the league would be dealing with a hurricane of negativity.

    Part of this is probably the usual anti-AFL cynicism, which I am guilty of indulging in too frequently. Part of it comes back to the timing. Part of it comes down to the way the league has marketed its new concept, neatly surmised in this missive.

    It comes back to the question we posed at the start of this article: why is the AFL doing this? Plenty of observations and assumptions have been offered across the media – by the AFL itself, and by the many analysts and writers who are curious about the concept.

    The AFL clearly has a lofty goal for the concept, given it is already talking about international AFLX competitions. That is apparently the motivation for the soccer ground configuration; the game can be played more readily in cities and countries which prefer the round-ball code. We saw this come to the fore when the AFL was looking for a ground to play its China game last year – an oval of requisite size and quality was like the Holy Grail.

    Closer to home, AFLX has been written up as the AFL’s answer to the ‘T20-fication’ of sport. That’s not quite right. A typical AFL game goes for just under three hours from start to finish – a similar time to each of the AFLX round robins slated for this weekend. It simply doesn’t face the same attention span challenge as longer form cricket. Instead, I prefer to see it as a rugby sevens approach to Australian football; carnival atmosphere, short games, a ‘victor’ at the end of play.

    But then, the AFL is layering on the ‘crowd engagement’ thicker than the powder at PyeongChang. There are the aforementioned acrobats and crowd performers, DJs, roaming on-ground MCs, and plenty more that is designed to… well I don’t really know. But, it will surely move the eyes of the punters at the ground away from the on-field action.

    Others have posited AFLX is about creating a game that is more ready for a digital audience; a smaller field with fewer players makes it easier to watch on small screens. That’s fine, but have you watched the way Channel Seven and Foxtel broadcast games now? It might as well be a soccer field.

    Is AFLX just an experiment by an administration with idle hands? Possibly. The AFL doesn’t like to be caught on the hop when it comes to global sporting trends – that alone is enough to prod them into action.

    Why. The why is important, particularly if the AFL really wants to make something of the concept. As time goes on, McLachlan and his executive will have to define this, articulate it to the fans, and prosecute it to their best. Otherwise, AFLX risks denting the reputation of the league in the eyes of its fans.

    For now though, I am ready and willing to give AFLX a chance. I am also very pleased the West Coast Eagles have sent a team of unknowns to Adelaide.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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    The Crowd Says (153)

    • February 14th 2018 @ 9:00am
      Mattician6x6 said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:00am | ! Report

      The reason to watch aflx as a wce man is the team selected, most of us were crying out for youth and speed last year and we finally get to see it in action bar the few games some of these boys weren’t injured for last season.

    • February 14th 2018 @ 9:17am
      Brian said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:17am | ! Report

      The international aspect is bogus but it could become useful for amateur play. Kind of like Indoor Soccer. Lots of people play Indoor Soccer because its quicker and easier to organise then 90 minute 11 a side soccer. AFLX could become the amatuer way to increase participation numbers. As an example Burnie just pulled out of the TFL due to lack of numbers but if they only had to 11 on the field they could probably have stayed.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 10:01am
        Slane said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:01am | ! Report

        Hit the nail on the head.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 10:18am
        I ate pies said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        They already have that – it’s call AFL 9’s

        • February 14th 2018 @ 12:41pm
          Brian said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:41pm | ! Report

          The AFL 9s is non contact. AFLX is more of a resemblance to the TV product. I have not seen it so maybe it will flop like the Lightning Premeirship

    • February 14th 2018 @ 9:27am
      AD said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:27am | ! Report

      I’m really looking forward to not watching this. I made sure to find it in the TV guide and put a big circle around it to make sure I don’t forget to stay right the hell away from 7Two at the time. I’m just champing at the bit to get home on Thursday and Friday nights this week and do something other than watch AFLX.

      Honestly, AFL – we can’t have State of Origin, but we can have this? Who even asked for this?

      Kudos to clubs like West Cost and Adelaide that are treating this farcical concept with the contempt it deserves.

      • Roar Guru

        February 14th 2018 @ 9:33am
        Cat said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:33am | ! Report

        I’m sure you’ll be here after it happens to tell us all how crap and how much it sucked from your grand total of 0 experience with it.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 9:41am
        Christo the Daddyo said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:41am | ! Report

        Pretty juvenile comment don’t you think AD? While you might not like it (although how you’ve come to this opinion BEFORE a single game has been played is truly remarkable), maybe others will. Why would you object to people enjoying something you don’t? Seems a bit self-obsessed to me…

        • February 14th 2018 @ 9:45am
          truetigerfan said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:45am | ! Report

          Your (our) opinions are just as selfish as his. He may well represent the consensus, or maybe not.

          • February 14th 2018 @ 11:15am
            Christo the Daddyo said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:15am | ! Report

            But I don’t have an opinion on it. As there hasn’t been one single game of it played it, I can’t. I’m just pointing out the ridiculousness of criticising something without seeing/experiencing it first. Once you have, if you then decide you don’t like it, no problem.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 10:30am
        Mattician6x6 said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:30am | ! Report

        Wce aren’t treating it with contempt, they are treating it correctly. Doesn’t it make sense to send your youth to this thing? Use it as an exercise in showing the young fellas the preparation and routine needed for a team that travels every 2nd week? Travelling extreme distance to play a demanding professional sport is going to be an experience these boys have yet to have so using a concept like aflx to expose them to this demand is common sense not contempt.

      • February 15th 2018 @ 1:03pm
        Nick Symonds said | February 15th 2018 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

        “Honestly, AFL – we can’t have State of Origin, but we can have this?”

        AFLX State of Origin?

    • February 14th 2018 @ 9:57am
      Tom M said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:57am | ! Report

      This whole concept seems like a farce. Cannot believe some of the teams clubs will be playing. West Coast and Adelaide are the only two clubs with any brains. Imagine the uproar if say Steele Sidebottom got injured… Season would be over before it even starts.

      • Roar Guru

        February 14th 2018 @ 10:02am
        Cat said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:02am | ! Report

        Imagine if the don’t play AFLX and instead were on the training track and Sidebottom got injured … OMG the outrage … cancel all training immediately.

        • February 14th 2018 @ 10:10am
          Tom M said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:10am | ! Report

          Id rather it be that way 100x over. This is a made up game that nobody wants or needs. It has no purpose other than an experiment.

          • Roar Guru

            February 14th 2018 @ 10:14am
            Dalgety Carrington said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:14am | ! Report

            I often feel it’s worse if they wrap someone up in cotton wool and they get injured anyway.

          • Roar Guru

            February 14th 2018 @ 10:19am
            Cat said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:19am | ! Report

            Same result, just different amount of faux outrage and hand wringing. Players get hurt … it sucks … but it is a part of sports.

    • February 14th 2018 @ 10:02am
      McNaulty said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:02am | ! Report

      I think womens AFL should be played under the AFLX format.

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2018 @ 10:12am
      Dalgety Carrington said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:12am | ! Report

      Have other sports articulated compelling cases for their alternative formats? I must’ve missed it.

      I’m actually quite curious to see how it goes and will keep a pretty open mind for a while as most new things can take a while to hit the straps.

      • Roar Guru

        February 14th 2018 @ 10:27am
        Cat said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:27am | ! Report

        I have reservations about the concept, mainly that it is going to be pretty limited in the types of players it will suit. However, I intend to watch it and see how it goes with as open a mind as I can. If nothing else it is my first chance to see some of my clubs draftees play in the hoops. Can’t ask for much more than that at this time of year. If the season had been delayed to play this, I’d be upset, but the rage from some quarters over this is just utterly stupid. Watch it or don’t. Not a big deal.

        • Roar Guru

          February 14th 2018 @ 10:37am
          AdelaideDocker said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:37am | ! Report

          Encapsulated my thoughts beautifully, Cat.

          I’m also intending to watch tomorrow night, and was actually thinking about heading along given I’m so close to Hindmarsh. Stars never aligned, though, so I’ll be home and more than willing to give it a shot. Freo’s also sending quite a few youngsters over to SA, so I’m excited to watch them play.

          All this hysteria from some people is just odd. It’s not impacting any part of the season, it’s not expensive, it isn’t going to give every one of their players an ACL injury and it isn’t going to irreparably damage the game.

          • Roar Guru

            February 14th 2018 @ 10:49am
            Cat said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:49am | ! Report

            I wish my side had been fixtured to play in Melbourne, I’d have gone without a doubt. Need a chance to test out my new flag lol

            • Roar Guru

              February 14th 2018 @ 10:51am
              AdelaideDocker said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:51am | ! Report

              Should’ve come over to Adelaide, again!

              I’m joking, I know it’s hard to travel, especially midweek.

          • February 14th 2018 @ 10:55am
            Mattician6x6 said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:55am | ! Report

            AD- and the chance for freo to add to the trophy cabinet must be in your thinking 😉 hehehe

            • Roar Guru

              February 14th 2018 @ 11:00am
              AdelaideDocker said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:00am | ! Report

              You know it! If only they’d scheduled a mini-derby in the midst of the action; that would have been good to watch!

              • February 14th 2018 @ 11:08am
                Mattician6x6 said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:08am | ! Report

                It would be for sure.
                I’m looking fwd to tomorrow, I’ve paid nothing towards this, I get to see some footy of sorts and wce young fellas get a run.
                Some of the reactions are like Gabriel has blown his trumpet and the rapture is upon us.
                Aussie rules participation rates across all age groups have been a concern for some time, if this exposes ppl to a concept that has been around for awhile but few have seen and thus leads to greater participation in sport it’s a good thing. But maybe that’s too big picture stuff for some.