If the business world has taught us anything it is that market leading companies must do at least three things to stay successful; have a strategy, reinvent and revise their product when necessary and watch and occasionally learn from their competitors.
There can be no reasonable doubt that in this country, the AFL is the market leader, in terms of participation, money, viewership and media coverage. For all the talk of a limited global presence compared to soccer or even the rugby codes, it rules the Australian sporting landscape.
So it is worth looking at how the AFL manages its product as a market leader.
Market leading companies are fallible, and get the attention that warrants close dissection of their actions and errors when they occur. There are famous examples from businesses internationally (new Coke) and locally (a repackaged Vegemite and cheese brand) that leading companies make mistakes with their products and there are also a myriad of examples of expansion into new markets or acquisitions that go wrong.
So the AFL is not on its own when it comes to tripping up now and then.
But it is unusual that when, faced with such a dominant product and such strong brand loyalty, you would mess with the core product so much.
The AFL is a brand, as is Apple or McDonalds. Both those companies improve and expand what they sell, but rarely do they stray too far from messing around with the core that has made them the monoliths they now are.
There’s no doubt that sports evolve and adapt to new rules or tactics. Imagine someone watching their first game of AFL since the mid-70s or even 80s and it would be amazing for them to see how the game would have changed over that time.
In the same way, imagine a person who last watched cricket during a Test Match in the 70s now tuning into the IPL.
Change is good and evolution creates innovation, which should be celebrated.
So it is strange that the AFL would seek to amend the rules of the game with the frequency that it does, when there’s rarely a compelling reason to do so.
The changes to the rules on rushed behinds were purely an aesthetic reaction to Hawthorn’s actions in the ’08 GF. However, it failed to see that Hawthorn were willing to donate or voluntarily give points to their opposition, about two goals worth, in what was surely to be a close game.
In similar fashion, the sliding rule is solely the result of Gary Rowan’s (albeit horrific) leg break. This is one of many rules designed to make the game ‘attractive’, although it unclear to whom exactly, if the clubs and supporters dislike them so much.
Reduced kick in times after a point, having to bounce whilst running more frequently, and reduction of body contact at ruck contests all seem to be about making something that is a contact game where you compete at speed for a ball that moves unpredictably, more pretty.
There are always legitimate reasons to address issues when they arise and amend the rules and in some cases, the league should be applauded for improving the safety of players from deliberate acts. Any spectator who feels the game is soft should volunteer to stand still whilst tackled by a Franklin or Hodge. Those who seek the good old days should also then accept Rhys-Shaw like broken jaws and Dipper’s high elbows to the head, as the norm.
The AFL could do worse than to look at other sports in the way they have gone about tweaking with their game to improve it. Instead of messing with a scoring system that has proven perfectly fine for 100 years by introducing a pre-season super goal worth 9 points, try focusing on changes to improve things.
About 15 years ago, field hockey, frustrated by low scoring games and defensive tactics, abolished the offside rule, which was the same as soccer. It followed changes made to removing the starting bully for a soccer style possession start, and amended other rules to improve speed and game image.
It was feared that abolishing offside would lead to score blowouts (and probably a lack of interest in being a goal keeper). On the contrary, games are faster, more tactical and always alive for scoring opportunities, whilst encouraging strong defence.
In a similar fashion, hockey has introduced a play- on rule in recent years after winning a free hit, introduced advantage rules, and also removed some aspects of the game that were severely impacting player safety.
These were done to improve the game, made after careful reviews of matches around the world and introduced sensibly and with patience. In nearly all cases, these rules have been accepted by players and fans, and the skill is now in using these rules to your advantage, before the opposition catches up.
The AFL could be seen to have the goose that laid the golden egg. It feels it can coexist with soccer in the major markets it owns, has seen off basketball from being a major competitor, watches as cricket does its best to self-destruct managing three different versions of the same sport and probably barely conceals its amusement at Rugby League’s amateurish and boorish player and club behaviour.
Apple were brave enough to significantly change or delay products close to their planned release or realise that some features once released were of a poorer quality than people expected from a strong brand.
Arrogance isn’t limited to AFL when it comes to protection of its product or unwillingness to be flexible. And it is safe to say that for all the head in hands and bewilderment we go through with rule changes, we’ll continue to turn up year after year.
However, some hubris wouldn’t go astray in the way the AFL is managing itself. Market leaders do well by reinvention and self-awareness, by review and improvements. The AFL should do more of this, listen to those who love their product and manage their sport accordingly.