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AFLX-Plained - The Method Behind The Madness?

We must aim high and start sowing the seeds for a 9-a-side version of Aussie Rules to become an Olympic sport.
— AFL International chief executive, Brian Clarke

Three years ago, AFL International introduced to the football world, and more importantly the world in general, it’s new brainchild, Footy 9s. Through doing so, they proclaimed the wisdom that the AFL needs to develop a shortened format of the game, played on a rectangular oval, with less participants, for the game to grow beyond the Australian shores. A bit has happened since then.

Last week, the inaugural World 9s tournament was held at Albert Park at Lakeside Stadium that featured teams from countries such as New Zealand, Italy, South Africa, Ireland, Switzerland, Chile, and Malta alongside Team Harmony. The tournament signified the launch of AFL International’s twenty-year strategy (2020-2040) to further expand the game around the globe. The remarkable twenty-year strategy has an extraordinary aim for Aussie Rules at its core, but we will get to that. AFL International, the self-appointed guardians of the game outside of Australia, currently has no official relationship with the national keepers of the code, the AFL. However, that has not stopped the organisation from setting the game’s agenda inside Australia.

Footy 9s was unquestionably the AFL’s inspiration for the football abomination or revolutionary masterstroke, set to take place at Docklands Stadium on Friday night; AFLX. The AFL has heard the message of AFL International, an organisation that boasts football royalty such as Ron Barassi and Allen Aylett on its board, that Australian Football must develop a hybrid version of the game for it to undergo any meaningful expansion overseas. If it was not for some misbehaving AFL executives, AFLX would have launched back in 2017, in the pre-finals bye weekend, just one year after Footy 9s was conceived. Instead, AFLX tentatively burst onto the AFL scenes last year bearing a striking resemblance to Footy 9s, albeit a version Zooperly turbocharged on commercialism. Still it was no Gatorade gamechanger. AFLX was far from an original concept.

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For those unfamiliar with Footy 9s, it is very similar to AFLX. It is played on a rectangular field, with two shortened halves and, as the name suggests, contains only nine players on each side. AFLX on the other hand, goes one better, and has eight players per side, potentially to disassociate itself from the original concept. Footy 9s was also unique due to the implementation of three distinctive zones at centre bounces (the forward, midfield and defensive zones). This was also used by AFLX and has effectively been introduced to the traditional form of the game through the new 6-6-6 rule.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Footy 9s and the traditional form of Australian Football is that Footy 9s contains an extremely limited amount of physicality. The purpose of this is to better encourage new grassroots participants to adopt the game throughout Asia and Europe. However, the lack of physicality has also been a prevalent criticism of AFLX and this does not seem like it is going to change in the second reincarnation on Friday night, with Fremantle, and more importantly Flyers captain, Nathan Fyfe declaring, “There won't be a lot of contact. I won't be telling my team to be tackling, going back with the flight of the ball, or even doing those really hard, long chase-outs.”

While, some are critical of AFLX’s lack of physicality, I can guarantee that they will be far more blowback if a big-name player (if there is any left) is seriously injured in the tournament. Not that this is exactly rational. I am struggling to see the significant difference between a player getting injured at training or in the JLT Community Series compared to AFLX. I suppose many are arguing that training and pre-season games are directly linked to improving a player’s performance. But AFLX counts as a form of training, surely?

It is certainly more beneficial than agreeing to sign up, only to pull out after realising a four-day weekend was in jeopardy. If there is one thing we have learnt from the pre-season long weekends are lethal for AFL player when you consider the raft of activities that could cause injuries, from water skiing, play fighting, to opening a packet of food with a knife…

But as is the case with almost all discussions about AFLX – I’m getting sidetracked. Let’s zoom out again.

What is the AFL trying to achieve with this? Besides Port Adelaide using AFLX as a means of teaching the game in schools throughout Shanghai, the AFL is not going to the grassroots in the hope of seeing the next generation of kids play AFLX. In fact, it’s not interested in going to the grassroots at all – in Australia or throughout the world. Which completely juxtaposes Footy 9s’ objectives. However, that has not stopped AFLX from promoting and marketing almost exclusively to kids.

So, what’s the deal here?

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AFLX is a broadcast product. In its essence, that is what it is trying to achieve. It is trying to produce a shortened version of the game that can engage with in an overseas audience, specifically Asian and millennial markets. It is filling the gaps of Footy 9s which is the exact opposite.

Oh, how did that Footy 9s tournament go on the weekend, by the way? No one knows. Footy 9s is not a product for consumers it’s a game for participants. There was next to no coverage of the concept. The trick the AFL must pull out of its sleeve is to bring these two creations together.

As part of its plan towards 2040, AFL International is seeking to turn Footy 9s into an Olympic sport, in a similar vein to Rugby 7s. That is a monumental mission that would put Australian Rules Football, via a shortened edition, onto the global stage.

Come 2040, the world will be playing Footy 9s and watching AFLX, or more likely, a few old AFL fans might half remember some crazy concept they tried back in the day, and what a huge waste of time that was. If that is the worst-case scenario, I think that’s a risk the game can afford to take, for an opportunity to think big and reach the stars.

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