The hustle and bustle of the AFL premiership season has returned, and has reduced its radical off-spring AFLX to nothing more than a hazy – and crazy – pre-season memory. However, the concept is still at the forefront of the most powerful minds in the game. So much so that it’s future was a significant part of the AFL’s all-encompassing competition committee’s March meeting on the eve of the season. A meeting that I can only assume very much resembles that of The Simpsons’ “Stonecutters.”
Who changes our precious rules? Who treats the fans like they are fools? We do! We do!
The AFL’s next move with AFLX is its most significant yet, and will shape its future direction. Whether the AFL is able to successfully spruik ownership of an AFLX franchise to one of the billionaires they are courting, will clearly be crucial to its decision making.
Despite criticism of the neutral franchises, the AFL is positioning itself to persist with AFLX teams that are independent of club and state loyalties in order to attract a market beyond Australian shores. A Big Bash League inspired, summer time competition of privately owned franchises is a goal that has been at the hallmark of the AFLX strategy since its origins.
The aggressiveness with which they procure an international audience in year three will have to be a core element of the current mapping out of vision AFLX. The AFL has previously explored the opportunity to stage an AFLX tournament in Asia, which had the backing of AFL CEO Gillion McLachlan.
McLachlan told Melbourne radio station 3AW last year that "I'd like to see us have a crack at it in November somewhere into Asia, we've got venue availability, new audiences are closer to the game … it's just a bit easier for new people to consume.”
Hong Kong was the location that the AFL explored, but did not follow through with in 2018. However, this year’s AFLX extravaganza was far more successful than last year’s trial run, mainly because it was closer to what the AFL was trying to create with the use of the four franchise teams. Perhaps the success may give the league more confidence in taking the plunge into uncharted – and foreign – waters next time around.
An interesting aspect for the AFL to consider is the branding surrounding the four franchise teams. Do they persist with “Rampage”, “Flyers”, “Bolts” and the highly popular “Deadly”? Is the fact that they are too closely aligned to their respective captains, who may or may not be involved again, enough to force a change? If not, do they persist with the original captains of Jack Riewoldt, Nat Fyfe, Patrick Dangerfield and Eddie Betts? Would that be beneficial in establishing a brand for the otherwise bland teams? Or should the AFL look to separate the captains and the teams to ensure the players are not expecting a slice of the pie when push comes to shove in private ownership negotiations?
A change of captains may freshen up the concept and will obviously be inevitable over time due to eventual retirements or injuries. But Riewoldt, Fyfe, Dangerfield and Betts’ star statuses and injection of enthusiasm and personality were central to AFLX’s success this year, so replacing them may prove difficult.
What other candidates are there?
Lance Franklin is the ideal successor to take over the leadership at Team Deadly, though the legendary forward rejected all overtures from the AFL to be involved in the concept this year. He did not even respond to Eddie Betts’ text messages! Clearly, the money will need to be significant for the $10 million man to commit, but he would be a massive booster to the tournament if he signed on as a skipper. Franklin may not have a particularly charismatic personality or be half the media talent Eddie Betts is, but Buddy’s brand is so big he does not even have to speak.
For the other teams, Alex Rance would have been a solid contender considering he nearly stole the show last year when he rolled up in a suit and skateboard. But an ACL rules him out for at least next year’s tournament if it remains in the pre-season. Max Gawn is another who is more than capable of adding a bit of personality into a capacity role, as is Nic Nat on likeability alone.
AFLX is a universe away for footy fanatics, now that the real stuff has rolled around. But for those who run the game, that strange blue X lingers beyond February.
But where will it land?
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