Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Finally the AFL season can start

This offseason has probably been the most dramatic in recent AFL history. And, not a moment too soon, the break ends tonight as Carlton take on Richmond at the MCG. Thank goodness - because as car-crashingly enthralling as reading about the "St Kilda Schoolgirl" and her ... err ... exploits has been, it will be blessed and welcome relief to jam match coverage in amongst the tabloid-style back pages to which we've become so accustomed.

The offseason of 2010-11 for the AFL really started over twelve months ago when it became apparent that "Little Gary" would not sign a contract extension with Geelong, meaning he would effectively become a restricted free agent at the end of season 2010. Since then, AFL off-field shenanigans have included (in no particular order) Mark Thompson's lie-induced burnout; Ablett's inevitable re-enactment of the LeBron James masterpiece "Leaving Cleveland"; Brendan Fevola's self-destruction; Nick Riewoldt's wang; Zac Dawson's disco biscuits; the creation of a new franchise; a Collingwood premiership and subsequent uprising of the Magpie army; the gutting of the National Rugby League as Israel Folau and Greg Inglis changed (or threatened to change) codes; James Hird's Second Coming as Essendon coach; further rumours about stars leaving their clubs for what amounts to GWS slush-funds; Ricky Nixon's precipitous fall from grace and finally, thankfully, nothing at all about Port Adelaide or Fremantle.

Andrew Demetriou must surely be relieved that Melbourne, a town notorious for it's blanket coverage of AFL-related issues, will finally have actual deliverable content to space out the negative headlines. Aside from the form of Ricky Ponting - and how many words can you print daily on that? - the scarcity of sport worth speaking about has left Melbourne newspapers with little else on which to speculate throughout the Summer. Had the ignoble misadventures of Ricky Nixon, Sam Gilbert, Fevola and the horribly overpromoted Melbourne schoolgirl occurred in the Summer of 2007 amidst a 5 - 0 Ashes victory, the Melbourne Victory's phenomenal second season and the retirements of Warne, Langer, Martyn and McGrath, the AFL's offseason of new frontiers may well have garnered only a fraction of the attention it did this year.

The spotlight thrown on this off-field malarkey was only intensified by Australia's performance in The Ashes and waning public interest in cricket. As most sport becomes fully and painfully professional, they lose much of the larrikinism and fun which attracted the mug punter to them in the first place. Faced with the choice between a team full of bullies, pouters and bores or following the World Game (with very little television coverage), Joe Public decided it was best simply to re-invest in the coming Aussie Rules season. The league revelled in the exposure, initially falling victim to the old adage that any publicity is good publicity. This theory was recently discounted somewhat in The Economist; the AFL was only to learn how wrong that statement can be in February as first Brendan Fevola, then Ricky Nixon committed professional seppuku.

The AFL plays the politics of sports much better than any other code in Australia. No other competition in the nation felt obliged to have its say on the bidding process save the AFL, yet Demetriou managed to sound both condescending and patronising to football's governing body all at once. The failed FFA bid for the 2022 football World Cup meant only more airtime and column inches. The League invited - and loved - the attention, yet as the summer wore on it became obvious that those at League headquarters couldn't wait for the season to begin. The stream of life malapropisms committed by AFL brethren had made life in the public eye nigh-on unbearable. What were once a player's endearing foibles now appear glaring character weaknesses. Football's never been played by saints - but now media coverage and the blogosphere mean for better coverage. What was once left uncovered rarely remains so now.

Finally, the season is upon us. Now perhaps we can get around to covering what really matters: the game itself.

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