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.
— ABC Grandstand (@abcgrandstand) February 6, 2018
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.
— Ryan Buckland (@RyanBuckland7) February 12, 2018
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?
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.
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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.
When I see ads for #AFLX claim that it’s a “faster, more exciting version of footy” – I start to wonder just how much faith the AFL has in its own product.
— Dan Ranson (@danranson_) February 12, 2018
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 (@RyanBuckland7) February 12, 2018