2018 has been another year of roaring commercial success for the AFL. In March, it announced that its revenues for 2017 were at Aus$650.6m (€402m), the highest revenue ever recorded by the AFL.
The 2017 figures were in part driven by record overall attendance records of 7.3m, a figure that has already been beaten this season.
In fact, in 2018, the average attendance at an AFL game (there are 207 games each season in 23 regular league rounds, followed by a finals series) is 36,380. In comparison, the average crowd attendance for the Premier League in 2017/2018 was 38,297.
Domestically, the AFL is the dominant code in Australia.
The AFL’s average crowd attendance is more than twice that of its nearest rival, the National Rugby League, whose crowd average for the past two seasons is roughly 15,500 which is only 500 fewer than attended the Australian Rugby Union team’s last Test game against Argentina on the Gold Coast on September 15.
Given these attendances, as underwritten by an Australian record Aus$2.5bn (€1.5bn) broadcasting deal (2017-2022), you would imagine that the AFL would be very secure or even complacent about its game. It is not.
This season was barely two months old when commentators were bemoaning the fact scoring averages in games were at their lowest in 50 years.
In June, the head of Channel 7, Tim Worner, the principal terrestrial TV contributor to the AFL’s current broadcasting deal (from which 60% of the AFL’s revenue is drawn), was quoted as saying that game lacked goals and “beauty”.
When a goal is scored in AFL, the terrestrial broadcaster usually goes to a quick ad break before the restart and so Worner demanded: “I want more goals ... That’s the most valuable 30 seconds of screen real estate in Australian television.”
It is a comment that encapsulates modern professional sport in one.
Worner also urged the AFL to consider rule changes that might “decongest” the game.
Citing the words of legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, he reminded the AFL that ultimately those who coach from the sidelines and the rule makers in the committee rooms should “get out of the way and let the players play”.
The AFL did not need the urging of a TV executive to audit the state of its game. For a number of seasons, the feeling at executive level in the AFL was that a combination of increasingly sophisticated coaches (many of whom go to the NFL during off-season), data analytics (playing stats to player biometrics) and enhanced player fitness was leading to football by spreadsheet.
Led by its head of football operations and games analyst, the AFL have a sophisticated and prompt means of making rule changes to it games.
Proposals are thoroughly researched and trialled. This year, rule changes were trialled in the second tier VFL competition and hours of videos from hundreds of games under existing rules were dissected.
Proposals are then debated by a laws of the game committee consisting of a cross section of the AFL and including current coaches and players. The AFL (executive) committee have the final but immediate say on whether the changes are to be adopted.
Current rule changes under consideration include fewer players on the pitch, reducing the number of interchanges teams can make during a game and introducing restart zones and a larger goal area.
The first rule change is an obvious one to free up space but is most unlikely to be adopted.
The second major rule suggestion relates to the fact that frequent roll on/off substitutes allows AFL coaches to have game plan that looks a bit like an NFL playbook.
Players can go on an all-out sprint for a short period of time and then be brought off or a marquee forward can, every three-four minutes, face a refreshed opponent.
The theory is that fewer interchanges will result in players tiring and the game becoming more open.
There is also a recognition within the AFL that coaches’ technical knowledge constantly outgrows the rules of the game and thus the rules must be adjusted frequently to stay ahead of tactical innovations, particularly defensive alignments.
The third rule change is that at restarts player will have to line out in a traditional 6-6-6 formation within the three key zones on the pitch.
Fourthly, the AFL is to experiment with extending the goal square which means that when a kick out is taken (as with a goalkeeper in the GAA) a direct kick can reach the opposition’s defensive zone and place the team in possession on attack straight away and into a zone where there are just six backs on six forwards.
Almost of greater importance than the above proposals and the process that produced them was the decision by the AFL in 2014 to publish a charter of the game to advise and guide its various rules committees.
In other words, the AFL decided that before it debated what type of rule changes it wanted to see implemented, it must first decide what kind of game it wanted to see played.
The 2014 AFL Laws of the Game Charter is premised on three key principles: That AFL should be maintained as a physically tough and contested game with appropriate consideration to player health and safety; that continuous and free-flowing football is encouraged ahead of repetitive short passages of play; and that, although the laws of the game balance offensive and defensive aspects of play, an attacking style of game is encouraged.
By way of comparison, this summer the GAA’s Standing Playing Rules Committee (PRC) asked counties for suggestions on possible rule changes for both hurling and football.
The PRC’s approach smacks of a “what do ye think yerselves lads” attitude to fundamental rule change. It would clearly have been far better for the PRC to first make their own proposals based on some research or even trials. There is a huge amount of information freely available. Every senior inter-county match is now videoed, as are most serious club games.
Interviewing innovative coaches recently involved in the inter-county game — Donie Buckley recently moved on from Mayo, Niall Moyna at DCU, Aidan O’Rourke from Armagh, John Evans at Wicklow or Éamonn Fitzmaurice of Kerry would likely yield some invaluable information.
Moreover, might it be best for the PRC to initiate a GAA-wide debate on what type of game (let’s concentrate on football) we want. This debate might once and for all banish some of the shibboleths surrounding the game, some of which come from our leading pundits who seem to want Gaelic football to return to the physicality of the 1980s.
And yet speaking to the contemporary player about, say, the 1988 All-Ireland is about as relevant now as the 1958 All-Ireland was then. Equally, criticising the coaches of Fermanagh and Carlow for playing defensive football in this year’s championship, after 130 years of little success playing otherwise, completely misses the point. If the rules of Gaelic football sustain defensive football, change the rules (and/or tier the championships).
Whatever rule changes are ultimately suggested for consideration by Congress early next year, they should be the product of good research and not the anecdotal if good intentioned musings of a hurriedly arranged ad hoc county committee responding to an equally ad hoc request by a central committee, the PRC, who seem to be in “we have to be seen to be doing something” mode.
Finally, one of the most interesting recent interviews on the state of Gaelic football was given to the Off the Ball show by Ireland’s answer to Vince Lombardi, Mick O’Dwyer.
When asked about football this year, Micko’s response was to say that hurling is the greater game and that football had to strive to come up to its standards.
The South Kerry sage has spoken for the GAA public; it is now time for the GAA’s Playing Rules Committee to act on our behalf.