Has the AFL lost its mojo?

Has the AFL lost its mojo? Photo: Pat Scala

The topic here last week was the grievous one of rugby league’s Jordan McLean hearing. A source of legal opinion, for what appeared was Hayden Opie, the founding father and Director of Studies at the University of Melbourne’s Sports Law Program.

Opie’s opinion is employed on a different issue today and is from an earlier time. It’s one that doesn’t involve personal tragedy but is of considerable import to followers of another football code.

In the early 1990s, an article Opie had written on the future of Australian football was published in the sports’ pages of The Age. He argued that the Australian game, played only at what Paul Keating described as the arse-end of the earth, would soon be facing a major assault from international sports via pay-TV. The indigenous code’s future, Opie opined, was far from assured.

By way of parallel, he compared our boutique game with a corner hamburger store facing an onslaught from the multi-nationals. The best hope of survival lay not with imitation but with product differentiation via the preservation of unique character.

Keep the slice of beetroot, the onions and the crusty roll; don’t fall for the pickled gherkin, yellow cheese and soft, sweetened bread. Play the big boys on their terms and they’ll swallow you whole.

The point was made in last Tuesday’s Age that more people went to a soccer match in Melbourne last Saturday night than to the one AFL game played in this city the same day. Back when Hayden Opie wrote his provocative article, such an outcome was unthinkable.

During the past week, a mate told me over dinner he hasn’t been going to the footy and hasn’t even watched much on TV so far this season. He’s been going to the soccer and enjoying it. He’s a sample size of one, but he feels the indigenous game has lost its mojo.

The strands of evidence above are a minute sample but they serve as a reminder that the times-are-a-changing. And there are no guarantees for a sport lacking critical global mass in a crowded market.

So what should footy be doing to shore up its long-term prospects?

Well, I’ve always thought the product differentiation idea makes absolute sense. Yet, long driven by coaches constantly seeking to learn from other invasion games, football AFL-style has for two decades been unmistakeably headed in the opposite direction.

“Zones”, “possession game”, “gang-tackling”, and “kicking-for-touch” aren’t just commentators’ expressions. That they have become part of the lexicon is indicative that the game is exhibiting the methods and strategies of other codes of football and other sports. As for interchange rotations, AFL games now vastly out-rotate basketball, where as many sit on the bench as are engaged at any time in the action.

As a general comment, surely anyone who cares about the Australian game wants it to look less, not more, like the rugby codes. Yet we now have gang-tackling as art form, and the proliferation of ugly packs as a result. Which is precisely why umpires should be paying more, not fewer, free-kicks for illegal contact. They are there if the will and courage exist to identify them.

The mindless argument that it’s good for the game if umpires put the whistle away simply doesn’t stand up. Isn’t it better to see play halted by pack-discouraging free-kicks than to watch endless ugly mauls terminated only when the umpire surrenders with a “ball-up”? Too logical by half, it seems.

Coaches preach non-interventionist umpiring partly because they are constantly on the emotional edge and don’t like being annoyed. But it’s also because minimal free-kick counts help facilitate “stoppage football”. And players are trained for this as it increases the coaches’ control. Those whose players are best at it regularly seek to create field bounces and throw-ins because this plays to their strength.

Not only do these tactics stop the game, they do it via the creation of ugly packs. The capacity to achieve this is aided and abetted by interchange rotations. This syndrome, at its worst, is a prostitution of what Australian football ought to be. The coaches plot to stop the flow. Compliant administration and officialdom allows them to do it.

Perversely, umpires award what often look to be ridiculous free-kicks for “deliberate out-of-bounds”. They are prepared to punish the suspicious stoppage in one context, but not within the context of packs in which there are endless incidents of high contact and pushes from behind.

If none of this changes - or all teams become as skilled as Hawthorn and Geelong - ultimately there will have to be fewer than 18 players-per-team on the ground. While the size of the MCG is one aspect of football that has remained constant, 22-man teams of scientifically conditioned athletes have, in relative terms, drastically reduced its area.

The way to restore the “real” playing area is to reduce the number of athletes involved, thus raising the aerobic bar. Such a break from tradition would help foster the most fundamental tradition of all: a game of continuous contests between individuals spread across the ground.