I should start by saying that I’m a fan of the NRL first and only a casual fan of AFL, so all of this is from a relative outsider’s perspective, but since part of the reason for the existence of the AFLX is to convert people like me, I feel I’m in a good position to comment.
When I was a kid some representatives came to my school and I ended up signing up for AFL Auskick. A modified version of the game played on a smaller field was the perfect way to get kids like me playing the game in my small Queensland town that only had grounds for the rugby codes and soccer. I aged out of it and ended up playing rugby league, and I support the 13-man game to this day, but those few years with an Aussie Rules ball in my hands back in the early 2000s – along with the Lions winning grand final after grand final – are why I still have a fluctuating interest in the AFL after all these years.
When I first heard about the AFLX, I thought it was genius. I listened to the guys on NRL360 talk about the danger it presented to the NRL and grassroots rugby league, but I was excited. The biggest threat to the NRL is its own complacency – that’s an article for another time – not the AFL. Not only would the competition with rugby league be good, but I might also get some cool footy to watch.
Unfortunately, after what I just sat through, I don’t think rugby league has anything to worry about. Obviously there would be growing pains after the first year, but the second edition felt like a step backwards. Developing a rectangular version of the game and playing it over one night only at an oval stadium in Melbourne is just pointless. The 23,000 that showed up this year would fit right in across town at AAMI Park, a stadium actually designed for this kind of sport.
For better or worse, this is the format to make a push up here in Queensland and New South Wales, but it can’t do anything if it’s not even here. The all star-ish nature of the teams is a step in the right direction from last year as it gives people the opportunity to see the best players the sport has to offer regardless of the form of the local team – if there even is one or if they support them.
Here in Queensland, for example, the Lions and the Suns aren’t exactly a shining advertisement for the AFL, but bringing the best of the best here? A lot of people would leave their homes for that. I’d go to Suncorp Stadium for that. I know interstate crowds weren’t that great last year, but it was a start, and with a few improvements to the products it would only have grown from there.
The biggest problem, though, isn’t that the game isn’t here; it’s what has become of the game itself. The reason I’m in favour of a smaller teams on a rectangular field is that I firmly believe that size of the ground or the teams doesn’t matter; you play wherever you can with whoever you can. Auskick is miles apart from the AFL in terms of gameplay, but it’s still fundamentally football. Losing a grand final by 17 points because the other team’s ‘Gatorade game changer’ kicked a 20-point goal is not. If the intention is to get sports fans who aren’t necessarily AFL fans to care, this kind of stuff is not the way to do it.
As I said, this is perfect to move into other areas, but however you modify the game, it still has to be football that you’re bringing, not a circus.
On one side we have the argument that football is perfect as it is and doesn’t need to be modified. On the other side, the AFLX apparently has to have all the crazy rules to justify its own existence. The truth and reality is somewhere in the middle. Footy can be played wherever there is some grass, from the MCG to my backyard, 18 on 18 or three on three, but you don’t need to set up a circus tent in the process.