Slippery slopes, domino effects and why fans switch off at half-time

 

 

Recently, the AFL explored the option of shortening half-time breaks to “reduce the overall length of games to keep fans and TV audiences engaged”. This could’ve been dismissed as a hasty thought bubble if not for the AFL’s history of unilateral tinkering: such as, ground rationalisation, shrinking the Sherrin and an endless list of rule changes.

 

Arguably the most significant alteration made to the modern game was the reduction of quarters from 25 to 20 minutes. At the time, the AFL justified this move by citing player welfare and match length, though it had never previously shown interest in such matters. I suspected the AFL simply wanted to make the game a neater package for television broadcasters, as evidenced by the for-TV pre-season comp in existence at the time. Contradicting this quarter-shortening, though, the AFL had actually increased the length of matches by pausing a game’s restart, following a goal, to accommodate 30 second television ads, and this gave an inkling of where it’s priorities were heading.

 

While time-on adjustments meant quarters weren’t always reduced by five minutes, the shorter duration of play contributed to a trend of recruiting players who were athletes first and footballers second which, in turn, quickened the pace of the game leading to collisions and injuries among lighter-bodied players, creating the need for additional rule changes.

 

Furthermore, the speed factor helped coaches implement negative tactics like flooding which, in turn, also made matches less compelling, and is one of the main reasons television viewers aren’t tuning in for second halves now but, instead, inspired ill-considered notions that perhaps we should shorten half-time breaks. Some might say this was a slippery slope going full circle, or reveals the unintentional absurdity underlying neo-liberal trends. Worryingly, there is a push from influential football figures to further reduce match playing time.

 

Though, to suggest the game is faster is a half-truth. Footballers and passages of play are quicker, but matches are frequently bogged down by the aforementioned flooding, and tempo and possession sideways-backwards football, not to mention a technical umpiring trend that began making inroads at a similar junction in time to those coaching tactics.

 

As an example: players in Team ‘A’ kick the ball back-and-forth among each other denying the opposition possession and then, when finally forced to kick to a contest with Team ‘B’, the umpire blows a whistle for minor contact, which stops the match and restarts kick-to-kick.

 

Exacerbating TV viewing annoyance, due to the lulls in play, commentators have time on their hands to digress into anecdotal territory once the preserve of cricket broadcasting, but more self-indulgently and, because they aren’t paying attention, are too quick to simply agree with adjudications regardless of merit.

 

The networks contributed further distractions by miking umps which, apart from doing them a disservice, impacts on the television spectacle by reducing crowd atmosphere and making officiators loudly heard when most fans would prefer they only be seen, and as infrequently as possible.

 

It’s little wonder footy viewers are seemingly more drawn to washing dishes in the kitchen at half-time, and never return, or become sidetracked by grass growing on the front lawn, even when it’s night, or that ‘Peter Wants A Princess’ makes for better viewing on another channel. Half-time length has nothing to do with it.

 

That’s not to say footy today can’t still be appealing, and occasionally brilliant, but it isn’t as consistently great as it could or used to be and too often resembles a bruise-free exhibition match.

 

Prior to last year’s Grand Final, Channel 7 televised a replay of the ’89 stanza – it was riveting from start to finish (despite the fact I knew my team wouldn’t get the chocolates). The recent State of Origin match between Victoria and the All Stars was another reminder of footy at its best. (I watched it in a Bangkok bar, and an Englishman among us commented it was like the game he first became enthralled by.) This ‘exhibition’ clash met traditional expectations because the coaches weren’t preoccupied by seasons or ‘four points’.

 

However, if I had a working VCR I could pluck just about any tape from my collection covering the late 80s to early 2000s and find the game on display captivating. Matches don’t have to be high-scoring to be enjoyable, though, it’s more about intent.

 

So, what’s the solution? Do we need spirit-of-the-game police, or a charter for coaches and umpires? Could coaches be fined for bringing the game into disrepute as a forward-moving spectacle? While imposing free-spirit might be an oxymoron, the AFL could put coaches on more notice to address negative play (amendments introduced last year had little impact). Rule changes are often implemented to deal with coaching strategies and have the AFL tail-chasing, but it should make a stand that pursues in favour of the fan and the game’s entertaining reputation.

 

Am I the only one who finds it galling when retired coaches that were part of the problem enter the media and start mouthing platitudes about how to improve the game?

 

Coaches just want to win whatever the cost. That’s what most club supporters want, too. Do the ends justify the means? If the end result is that fans overall are switching off then it doesn’t, because eventually there could be nothing to play for, especially in these days of multiple entertainment options.

 

In fairness, the AFL has to balance many competing interests, including perceived public standards, but just as democracy needs rescuing from the clutches of politicians, Aussie Rules needs to be reclaimed and delivered to the grass roots – or at least to pay them far more heed in what is meant to be the people’s game.

 

A cultural cringe (copying overseas trends) and money are changing the fundamental nature of the sport. The constant references to ‘brand’ emphasise the degree to which it has become a business, but, in this commercial metaphor, the majority of shareholders, the fans, get no vote.

 

As we approach another season, and as a priority, the AFL should consider a worthier notion – a supporters’ representative to be a voice in all future decision-making. This representative could be elected by full members of competing clubs, including AFL members (or occupy a position akin to an ombudsman with power to intercede on agreed criteria?).

 

The first post I ever wrote for the Almanac proposed a petition for such a concept – it was rather clumsily compiled. However, I still believe the central idea of a supporters’ representative to have merit. I realise the AFLFA has since formed, though it’s a lobby group rather than a direct voice (and seemingly more focused on pricing and fixtures?), but perhaps it could also be involved in such a role. Given how much the game depends on fans, and how much we fork out each year more representation isn’t too much to ask.

 

It could help restore integrity to the game as a contested, attacking spectacle, and do away with plans to shorten half-time breaks because administrators are out of touch with reality.

 

In any case, if the AFL is serious about addressing factors alienating the footy audience, it needs to better understand the root causes and have the commitment to act on them.

 

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Comments

  1. Paul, you make several very good points here. We all lament the crass commercialisation of what was a great game but is now merely a ‘product’. It only makes it worse when changes are introduced under the guise of ‘player welfare’ and ‘fan engagement’. Spew! We can only hope that the so-called ‘entertainment package’ aspect doesn’t descend to the depths so well expounded earlier this week by Jan Courtin in her piece about the Women’s T20 World Cup final.

  2. Paul Spinks says

    Thanks, Ian:

    There are also other factors not outlined in my post contributing to a diminishing in the game as a spectacle – the improvement in skill levels makes it easier to chip-kick and maintain possession, for instance – though when those skills are used as an attacking weapon the game is great again.

    But ownership is one way to help address many of the blights and vested interests. Interestingly, today’s Age article about potential venue lockouts due to Corona included a perspective from the Players’ Association, but nothing from the Fans’ Association. This is fairly common, but don’t know if it’s because journos aren’t seeking the AFLFA view or it isn’t a loud enough voice.

    Have been absent, so will read up on Jan’s piece.

  3. Paul
    I really enjoyed reading your piece I remember as a young bloke being told you had to stay strong over 100 minutes of football when did the rule change?
    I agree about the games actually getting longer due to the commercial imperative not what the fans want – i.e. more ads and longer breaks between quarters
    I too watched the state of origin( the other week ) game albeit on YouTube after the fact in remote artic Canada and marvelled at the free flowing nature of it the skills on display and the fact that it was good to watch.
    I lament that sport is now crying foul given the current situation that if they have to play behind closed doors at least they wont lose the TV revenue – look at the state of the NRL right now as I type this comment but what about the fans ???
    the entertainment factor is already there – its a great game – let the game and its fans speak for it self – finally a word on coaches – I agree with your premise but they are on a hiding to nothing – they coach to an inch of the rules and yet you are right they have been the first to decry when coaches are trying to take advantage of a rule change particularly an ex Tiger who took the eagles and magpies to a flag or two.
    I remember the most embarrassing point like that (when the rules were not in the spirit of the game) was when Richmond were front of Adelaide by 4 points with just a under minute to go at the then Telstra dome or Colonial or what it Docklands or what ever it was called at the time and Joel Bowden deliberately walked through a behind at least twice in a row( if not three times to deny Adelaide the ball and hence preserve a rare Tigers victory – Wallace was smashed in the press but he was playing to the rules
    yet as a fan it wasn’t a good look. great food for thought

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