July 26, 2012

Why AFL’s All-Star answer to ARL’s Origin will fail; and an alternative that can succeed

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The AFL Players Association have booked a meeting at AFL HQ to push for a pre-season All-Star game. CEO Matt Finnis claims the proposal has universal support from the players, no doubt starstruck by the NRL’s Origin spotlight. Given its history of following the lead of US sports, I can see the AFL jumping on board and adding an American-style exhibition match to their already crowded calendar. 

 They shouldn’t bother.

 A flossy, bruise-free AFL All-Star game is guaranteed to be a fizzer with fans. Most will find it about as meaningful as a trip to the Big Pineapple; a hollow, plastic pit-stop on the road to round one of the ‘real footy’ season.

 An AFL showpiece match that brings together the game’s best players can work. But it has to be built on strong brands – the things supporters have a gut feel for. The problem with American-style All-Star games is that the players are herded into teams too amorphous to hold any meaning. Strong brands are always focused. They belong to us because they define us in specific ways. Who does an ‘East’ or ‘West’ All-Star team belong to? Who roots for a conference?

 We support the teams that represent us. They play for our country, our state or our city. In the tribal culture of AFL football your team represents the family into which you’re born and with whom you share the weekly ritual of watching the game. Instead of playing for us, All-Star teams smack of celebrity athletes playing for themselves in a half-paced training match.


It doesn’t work in America

 Why bring the All-Star format to Australia when it’s on the nose in the country that pioneered it?

 Forbes reports  that NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB All-Star TV ratings have been slipping since 2000. Despite raising the stakes by putting World Series home field advantage on the line, baseball’s recent All-Star outing attracted the lowest ever TV audience for the event since the Nielsen ratings began tracking it in 1972 (the previous low was last season). Media consumption habits have changed a lot in the past decade, but as this data shows  there is a steady trend of diminishing interest over the past 30 years.

 Even the players are tuning out. The NFL was so stung by criticism of the pinball scores run up in their end of season Pro Bowl that they dropped it from next season’s schedule, only to begrudgingly reinstate it after the players pinky-promised to ‘try harder’. Contact sports rely on physical intensity for their credibility. When bodies aren’t on the line, even the brutal NFL becomes spandex-panted pantomime.


Basketball is perhaps the sport most ready-made for an All-Star game, as jaw-dropping showmanship can compensate for a lack of do-or-die intensity. But even the NBA’s All-Star weekend feels tired. The problem is best embodied by the dunk contest. The sparkling spontaneity that once made it a must-see is gone, replaced by tediously overblown look-at-me routines.

 Interest in All-Star games will continue to wane because the social meaning of sport has changed, particularly in larger-than-life America. Sport is no longer just entertainment. It’s a mistake to think of spectators as passive theatre-goers indulging in a distraction from their daily lives. It’s much deeper than that. Sport isn’t a game. It’s not even a business. It’s an invitation to be part of history.


Winning matters

 Most people’s lives will never be publicly remarkable. The one opportunity everyone has to feel the transcendence of history is through sports, be it by following a champion team or a hometown hero-come-world-beater.  History belongs to winners. Sport needs a meaningful outcome for it to feel real. It needs a swelling sense of victory and the agony of defeat for it to be worth recording. Look at how Foxtel are promoting their Olympics coverage: “See every gold medal live”. It’s not about the Olympic spirit or feeling good to be an Aussie. It’s about being swept in the glorious awe of triumph.

 All-Star Games are an anachronism dating back to an era when history was made on the front page of the newspaper, not the back page. Sport is no longer a pastime reserved for our leisure hours. It’s become so big it overwhelms us. Quaint athletic contests no longer hold our attention.

All-Star games fail because the victories mean little. Nothing is proven by the result. If the AFL wants to create an annual exhibition match that means something it has to be a test of greatness. Winning has to count. This can only happen when the competing teams are brands that supporters have a stake in.


The AFL should know better

 The AFL has had enough experience with fuzzy All-Star teams to know they don’t gel with fans. In 2008 a resurrected Victorian State of Origin side played a composite Dream Team in what was billed the Hall of Fame Tribute match. On paper it appeared a success, with 69,294 filling the stands. The Vics were back in town, just like the old days.

But something strange happened in the dying half of the game’s final quarter; something I’ve never seen at an AFL match before or since. A Mexican wave ringed laps of the MCG. It spelled exactly the same thing it does in limited-overs cricket ­­- boredom. The game hadn’t fully engaged the crowd because the result had nothing at stake. What did beating the All-Star Dream Team mean? Did it give you bragging rights? Over whom? Had the Dream Team represented something of time honoured importance to the code’s culture the result would have mattered. But it didn’t.

 Origin’s not the answer

The introduction of  The Allies into the AFL’s patchy State of Origin series in the early 1990s was a particularly miserable example of a made-up All-Star team floundering for credibility. Who would think of putting Queenslanders and New South Welshmen in the same side? Obviously no one born north of the Murray.

The inclusion of The Allies was probably the moment where AFL Origin football jumped the shark. But it was already too unwieldly to work.Victoria and South Australia had a rivalry as fierce as any. But Western Australia had to be accommodated as well, meaning there was always a third wheel. Even with three teams, great players – indeed perhaps the greatest of all in Wayne Carey ­- couldn’t get a guernsey due to the freakish misfortune of not being born in a ‘football state’.  

 The return of Origin won’t work in the AFL. It works brilliantly in the NRL because the game’s best players are by and large concentrated into two states. Two great teams playing a compact three-game series means you’re guaranteed a result. It’s this, the drama of making history, which propels Origin into a compelling narrative. But it has its drawbacks. As I’ve argued previously , the cult of Origin is making the Telstra Premiership look second rate. Rugby league was flying when first grade was “simply the best” – not simply second best.

An AFL pre-season game can’t be Origin, and it definitely should never be international rules. How can fans find meaning in a messy Frankenstein of a game that no one in the world actually plays? Putting international rules on a pedestal actually undermines the AFL’s whole ‘Australia’s Game’ brand position. If Aussie rules is so great, why do we make its best players aspire to play Gaelic footy? 

 To have a meaningful exhibition game the AFL has to go its own way and try something that’s both brand new and deeply traditional. That might seem illogical, but football can be a funny game…

 It’s all about the club

 Branding isn’t about making up meaning. It’s about plucking at what’s already deeply meaningful to us.

What’s deeply meaningful to an AFL fan? The club. In a sport where lifting the premiership cup is the greatest honor of all, there is no stronger bond than to the team you barrack for season after season. It is a devotion as pure as any in world sport.

Players play for their club jumper. But there is also the proud tradition of the All Australians, an end of year team selected from the best in the land. With no other countries to play it’s an honor in name only, but one that the players respect and covet. Fans too understand its solemn significance.

AFL fans love their clubs and we all identify with being Australian. So why not combine the two? Have the reigning premiers play the All Australians; the champion team taking on the team of champions.

What’s the better story; an East vs West All-Star game or Collingwood vs Australia?

 Something like this occurred in 1972 when a touring Carlton side played a composite VFL team in a series of sketchy exhibition games played abroad. If a club vs country pre-season game is to work in 2012 then the premiership club has to be intimately involved. Play it at their home ground. Give them the gate. Start the game with a ceremonial unfurling of the premiership flag, a ritual usually reserved for the first home game of the season proper. The flag’s symbolism is important ­– tonight it all starts again. Footy’s back – for real.

 A club vs country match is similar to the NRL’s Indigenous All-Stars match in that it’s pegged by a team with an intensely felt identity. A racially representative Indigenous team will always be taken seriously because their pride is felt so deeply. A footy club might not be quite as profound, but for many people they’re a vital part of their daily fabric and social kinship. They matter.

 The result of a club vs country match might not mean the world, but it is a test of a premiership team’s greatness. Can they back it up against the best? That’s what makes it worth talking about. For the integrity of the match the premiership team must play together as a unit, so any members with All Australian honours would represent their club first. Vacancies in the All Australian team could be filled via an interactive ballot.

 Club vs country may not work out. Ground availability and other logistics may make it difficult to do right. Players might find a reason not to buy into it. But with some canny promotion it’s got a chance to take off because it’s based on the game’s most fundamental of brands. You can’t brand meaning out of thin air, which is why arbitrary All-Star teams just won’t cut it.


One Comment

  1. Daryl Adair
    Daryl Adair

    Anthony, a very thoughtful article. It is ironic, indeed, that ARL State of Origin “works” because there are only two (very passionate) rugby league states in binary competition. Imagine, if it had to include the other states, or even NZ? It functions because of a two-way very partisan focus. A bit like Rangers and Celtic in Scottish football (whoops, shouldn’t have mentioned that one, now in demise!).

    I seem to recall that the State of Origin concept actually started in the pre-AFL era. A big problem (before that) was without the concept of players representing their origin state, Victoria was able to include non-Victorian stars like Alex Jesaulenko and Malcolm Blight (I remember, too well, Jezza kicking ten against the Croweaters at Adelaide Oval). So it was eventually conceded that State of Origin made things fairer. Suddenly SA and WA were taking it up to the Vics and, for several years (to the chagrin of Teddy Whitten).

    I’m not sure which came first – rugby league or Aussie Rules state of origin. But as the AFL emerged and the game went truly national, suddenly the importance of state vs state was diminished. Meanwhile, rugby league (aside from short-term experiments in the Super League era) has never really lived up to its name of being the NATIONAL rugby league. If it did, my guess is that State of Origin RL would need to be seriously revamped, and may face the same problems of focus that the AFL found. By the way, I agree with you about the “cult of origin”. The season peaks during those games then, until the NRL finals, meanders along without any blockbusters akin to a Collingwood vs Essendon game at the G.

    If there is to be an Indigenous All Stars game as a prelude to the AFL season, I think it should not be used as a branding exercise AGAINST rugby league. Instead, my suggestion is that it should be held on the Gold Coast on the day after the NRL game (both would sell out). This could double the profile of the Indigenous sport-for-development causes that are supposed to be underpinning these matches. And the Gold Coast economy and community would get double the benefit. It would also mean a larger cohort of Indigenous people gathered in the Gold Coast – together – with the two biggest sporting codes in the country working in tandem to assist the Learn, Earn, Legend process, which is after all a Commonwealth Government initiative:

    This may sound completely fanciful, but check out this recent cross-promotion of League and AFL on the Gold Coast:

    Whether there is sufficient goodwill between the NRL and the AFL to make such an idea happen, who knows. But I think if you asked Indigenous footballers in both codes they would more often than not support the proposal. And isn’t it supposed to be about THEM?

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