JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Pride before football?

THESE are heady days for AFL football, the competition thriving, basking in the glow of numbers the size of which not all that long ago it would scarcely have dared dream. There's a lot to be proud about.

There's a new TV rights deal about to kick in, one that has fetched the league a cool $1.253 billion, a whopping 60 per cent increase on the last broadcasting rights booty.

There's the crowds. No fewer than 6.5 million people, a record, poured through the turnstiles in season 2011, albeit with an extra team and an extra 11 games. Club memberships continue to soar, Collingwood having broken the 70,000 barrier, and total club membership exceeding 600,000 for the first time.

Then there's the size of the competition. What was a 12-team football league based in one state 25 years ago has grown by 50 per cent and another four states, an 18th team, Greater Western Sydney, about to join the fray after the inception of Gold Coast this year.

As the competition has grown, so has the game's exposure, AFL coverage having long since reached the point of saturation in the mainstream electronic and print media, and now a recurring obsession on social media.

The AFL, run astutely under the watch of chief executive Andrew Demetriou for the past decade, surely can't get a lot bigger than it is now. Perhaps that in itself makes now a good time for the league to reflect, to take stock and take care.

The AFL and its officials need to avoid seeing the pride in achievement crossing that fine line towards hubris and swelled heads.

The league knows its most recent child could also prove its most problematic, and ever since the birth of GWS has made no secret of its intent to provide whatever's necessary to make it work.

But at times, there has been too much evangelism and chest thumping not enough public recognition of the size of that task. Particularly when any football fan 30 or older with memory of the not one but several near-deaths of the Sydney Swans has a well-honed sense of cynicism about new teams up north.

Others may feel similarly about the AFL's turning of its back on Tasmania. The AFL set its course and stuck to it, but the fly-ins by Hawthorn and now North Melbourne are a poor substitute.

This is a time in the AFL when the historical roots that have underpinned the game's emotional health have been eroded significantly. Football's greatest fear would be too many teams that not enough people care about. While supporting the newborn, the AFL must always be mindful it pays as much attention to the older kids, providing sufficient amounts of comfort in familiarity, acknowledged recently in a 2012 draw that has more than its share of traditional club battles.

It's a delicate balancing act and excess pride could play a part in tipping the balance in the wrong direction. This much is clear in the AFL's image - which, in the case of Demetriou, isn't always easy to judge. There has been a reflexiveness about the football public towards the AFL's bosses ever since they started booing Allen Aylett on grand final days back in the early '80s.

All Demetriou's recent predecessors presided over significant changes in the game as well. The former North Melbourne and Hawthorn wingman, however, has a more obvious passion for and an intimate knowledge of the contemporary brand than any of them. It's often a significant strength. But not always.

From the ''you know you're in trouble when …'' files came outgoing Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett's recent labelling of Demetriou as ''a control freak, no question about that''.

There's barely an area of the game you won't find Demetriou prepared to wade into boots and all with a strong opinion and even a dismissive air towards alternative points of view. Yet the AFL's handling of the game overall has been more sensitive.

Aylett earned the wrath of the punters for attempting to move the grand final to VFL Park. Ross Oakley forever earned the ire of Footscray fans, then later Fitzroy, with the era of attempted mergers. Wayne Jackson jettisoned Waverley for Docklands. The closest Demetriou has come to attracting that level of angst is with the bid to push North Melbourne to the Gold Coast during 2007.

That sensitivity to criticism is perhaps best typified by the AFL's increasing role as a community organisation through a heavy involvement in welfare and education codes and programs. That is rightly the source of much pride, the ground-breaking racial vilification and drug codes still leading the way in organised sport.

That, however, can also prove a double-edged sword. There are now guidelines, codes of conduct and education programs for the responsible use of alcohol, for gambling, and respect for women. It's made the AFL an active player in debate around areas where it previously had little cause for concern, and caused some problems when it comes to consistency of that purpose.

That was noted in its relative early silence when player manager Ricky Nixon's career went up in flames early this year, a messy and difficult business in which the league couldn't be seen to win. The cross-purposes have reared their heads again in the debate about gambling reform, the battle between potential revenue and principle at its most stark.

They're the sort of moral issues the AFL would do better to present as difficult challenges on a playing field constantly changing, and which it can't always control, than the all-seeing, all-knowing power that can solve social problems with the stroke of a pen and the issuing of a glib press release.

Likewise no amount of planning and foresight can guarantee the long-term success of the clubs, and the AFL can't afford to come off as blindly dismissive of the inevitable obstacles as they present themselves.

Elite football is as big as it's ever going to get, but in terms of massive changes over a relatively short period to a game steeped in emotional and historic capital, it's also in an unusually delicate position.

Pride will play an important part in its response. But so will a little more humility.

Are there other sports you think are held back by their pride? Is the AFL really a humble organisation? Join the debate by emailing sundaysport@theage.com.au or tweet us @sundayagesport

Featured advertisers