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365 days of AFL can dull senses, alienate fans

HAS the 2012 AFL season actually finished yet? Has 2013 already begun? Who really knows any more?

This has been some sort of October and November if you demand a steady diet of football news with your cornflakes, whether it's about the game or the sundry political and financial machinations surrounding it.

There's been a trade period that seemed to drag on for eons. The constantly unfolding dramas surrounding the Kurt Tippett saga and the Melbourne tanking investigation. A significant policy backflip by the AFL on Chris Judd and the whole issue of third-party contract deals. And the odd player drama such as Jason Gram's ex-communication from St Kilda.

On Thursday, the caravan moves to the Gold Coast, with the national draft sending the cream of this year's junior talent to one AFL home or another, so the discussion at least shifts back towards players rather than player-managers.

That's timely for the AFL. Because so tangled has the Tippett web become, so complex the issues surrounding third-party deals that clearly have the clubs, and fans, confused, and so seemingly unwilling the likes of AFL operations manager Adrian Anderson to enlighten them in the case of Judd, that it will be a relief to have some football reads that don't require a masters degree in business to decipher.

You wonder, too, whether the AFL might about now be starting to reconsider an apparently deliberate strategy of keeping its name in the headlines 365 days a year. If not, it should be.


Of course, when it decided to begin the end-season trade and free agency period just two days after the grand final and string it out for four weeks, or to drip feed game by game some of the highlights of the 2013 fixture, it had little idea of the other dramas about to unfold.

But there's been so little pause for breath, let alone the time and space for reflection, that finding some context to the previous seven or so months of on-field action has been nigh on impossible.

Colleague Caroline Wilson noted in these pages on Tuesday that "suddenly, the thrilling Sydney-Hawthorn grand final seems but a nostalgic memory". I agree, except for the "suddenly" bit. Indeed, I can't remember a grand final consigned to the dustbin of history as quickly, and certainly as undeservedly.

And that's a bit of a tragedy, really. Yes, I'm a footy tragic, but I've watched a replay of the last quarter again at least half-a-dozen times now and it still makes the hairs on my neck stand to attention.

There's been plenty of close grand finals and several famous comebacks among them, but I can't think of one other premiership decider in which the pendulum of dominance swung as many times as it did in the Swans-Hawks epic. Yet how long did we have to talk about it, to dissect the key moments, celebrate what even by grand final day in many corners seemed an unlikely Sydney premiership, simply just to bask in the glow of the perfect denouement to eight or nine months' worth of slog? By my reckoning, all of 36 hours.

By the time the Swans had finished their lap of honour, it was early Saturday evening. By first light of Monday, the big story had become St Kilda star Brendon Goddard's decision to quit the club join Essendon. And thus began another news cycle.

Grand finals spawn many stories within the story, some which given the enormity of the result itself sometimes can't be fully appreciated until the dust of the season has settled at least a little. In 2012, two months on, it's still swirling around like a crazy windstorm, in part due to a climate of the AFL's own making.

There seems to be a popular consensus that four weeks is too long a time for the trade/free agency period, generating more idle speculation and publicity surrounding players who would often be lucky to command a tiny percentage of those headlines were the season on and they were struggling to even get a game.

And surely if that time is to be reduced, it should come off the front end, leaving at least a week's gap between the official end of an AFL season and the commencement of the haggling over the next, allowing at least some sort of full stop and just a small pause for consideration.

Football hasn't yet lurched towards the dangerous territory some other sports such as cricket, tennis or golf now occupy, where some meaningless form of competition goes on practically 365 days a year, devaluing the more important stuff. But in terms of conveying an image of perennial controversy and debate off the field that never lets up, and makes yesterday's news seem more and more like last week's, it's rapidly getting there.

The AFL wanted to dominate headlines the year though and deprive its sporting competitors of oxygen. It's done so pretty effectively, but when the cost comes at the expense of appropriate reflection on a wonderful season, and more specifically, one of the greatest climaxes to a football season we've seen, you have to ask: Is it really worth it? Not for mine.


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