Hardwick also apologised to Sydney Stack for giving the young star a spray for being late to training
The punchline to every current joke about the AFL can be boiled down to memes involving a bemused Gillon McLachlan alongside circus performers at that infamous AFLX 2018 launch.
In some ways it’s fair game, as in one photoshoot it appeared that all things that we true believers hold so dear were being mocked. Not true of course, but that’s the narrative of the social media slandering that followed.
It became a stick to beat the AFL with over any perceived injustice – insert neglected cause (AFLW, junior footy, country footy etc) before “…but instead they’ve spent a fortune on AFLX”. An easy but understandable pile-on.
So at the risk of losing all credibility in the Twitterverse, and at the risk of alienating a small but loyal band of footy romantics that listen to a podcast I’m involved with, I want to make a confession: I’m all chips in for AFLX.
I’m sorry, just hear me out.
So strip back the marketing palava for a second, what is AFLX?
In essence, it’s a tool to legitimise a condensed format of the game.
Yes, it might sell a few tickets, it might draw eyeballs to TVs, but they are happy by-products of creating a smaller game of footy which brings about new possibilities.
Often this means the often-ridiculed international dream or the often-reviled northern states push. The thing is that kids picking up a footy for the first time whether they’re in Traralgon, Tamworth or Thailand will be attracted by the same things.
A condensed game has fewer players, smaller grounds, less time and more scoring. It helps.
Currently, you need 18 players to have a junior footy team that competes properly.
That’s fine in urban and populated areas full of generational football fans.
It’s not so good in other places. As a comparison, basketball teams need five kids to get started and only goes for 40 minutes.
Fish Creek Football Club has garnered publicity in recent times as a lightning rod for the problems in country footy, and while they have their issues with AFL interference, something like AFLX can help.
Currently Fish Creek can’t field a team at Under 10, 12 and 14s level, instead they share in a combined team with other clubs some distance away. It’s acknowledged that this is a significant issue for country clubs, but also metropolitan clubs in ageing areas. How do Fish Creek keep those kids through to Under 18 level when they aren’t there from the start?
If a format like AFLX was legitimised and marketed well to kids, Fish Creek would likely have the numbers to field teams in this format.
It’s the same at many smaller country clubs where you see netball teams right down the age groups but combined regional football teams – this is simply due to the number needed to play netball versus football.
The same principle applies to clubs that would dearly love to start a junior girls team, but do not have the numbers. We’re often told great stories of clubs that have grown their girls team numbers spectacularly over the last few years – but there are many more that can’t because of a lack of numbers.
The reverse applies for thriving areas. If you’re in a high socioeconomic, highly educated demographic with great wholesome kids that love playing sport, you’re likely in an inner suburb and your club is overflowing with sides.
They aren’t making more footy ground in landlocked inner suburbs so you cannot grow. This means you’re not growing where the population is growing.
So it’s in footy’s interests to find a way for it to grow – AFLX is the way it could grow as its better use of physical space (multiple games on a field) and more adaptable to non-footy spaces.
And of course, there are the simple practicalities of giving a kid a better experience.
Dinosaurs reigned down with indignation when Cricket Australia introduced new junior formats for beginners that *gasp* allowed kids to bat more than one ball an innings if they went out, and *shock horror* gave kids an even number of balls to bat and bowl. Clearly, it was to blame for every cricket ill.
But no, it’s an unqualified success as more kids get a better experience, and are more likely to keep playing.
AFLX has that ability for footy; fewer players, smaller ground, more kids get more touches of the ball, kick more goals and go home with more smiles.
But it’s not just feelgood kumbaya around a campfire stuff – if you get more opportunities to touch the ball in a match, you’ll become a better player. The argument cricket traditionalists make about holding back talent is irrelevant in AFLX.
Remember those cricket dinosaurs are also involved in footy, and greatly modified forms of the game have not made it through those barriers before. AFLX is marketing directly to the kids on this one, skipping the dinosaurs – perhaps the criticism is music to their ears.
Having the best of the best play it for one night makes it real for kids.
I don’t like the circus, I don’t know what a bolt or a dolt or a flyer or whatever else means, and I’d prefer this was promoted and marketed around a grassroots club theme.
But I know that eight- or ten-a-side junior footy makes sense. And I know that whatever AFLX costs cannot be redirected by the AFL into moving people into areas that people are moving out of.
I’m also told the Bolts versus The Dolts appeals to nine-year-olds, which would explain why it doesn’t speak to me at all.
It may not have been clearly communicated but AFLX exists to ensure the future of junior footy. This includes girls’ footy, boys’ footy, country footy, overseas and in the heartland – the whole box and dice.
Watch or don’t watch it – but look a little deeper as to why it’s here.