The AFL recently announced that it will cease running the AFLX tournament after two years of experimenting with it as a preseason competition. To many fans, this was an expected development and a welcome one at that. But what does it mean for the hybrid sport and its future?
When AFLX was first announced, many people were skeptical. Hardcore, traditional footy fans would frequently decry the idea of the sport being played on a rectangular field, with different rules and less excitement than watching the "real deal" during the premiership season. Who would want to play footy on a soccer field anyway?
Other fans were more open-minded to the idea, and footy fans outside of Australia believed it to be a good way to grow the game in big countries that lack high-quality cricket ovals, such as China or the US. Still others tuned it out altogether, preferring to bring back State of Origin or continue the International Rules Series.
Optimists pointed to the success and relative longevity of Twenty20 cricket or rugby sevens: formats that are fast-paced and visually stimulating, but still keep the heart and soul of their respective sports. Frankly, with AFLX, I didn't particularly feel like it improved upon the format of regular Aussie rules -- apart from the fact that it's easier to play with smaller numbers and less congestion on a smaller field.
Skeptics would say that it was a failed marketing gimmick from the get-go and clubs bemoaned the fact that it left its players open to injury. A lack of enthusiasm from the clubs and players, plus diminishing returns on the financial side of things, led the AFL to close the door on the tournament. I don't think that State of Origin should automatically replace it, but there's certainly room for something different as long the AFL administration takes it seriously.
Personally, my experiences with metro footy in Southern California have led me to believe that it's the most effective way to bring Americans into the game. With a 9-on-9 game in an informal preseason setting, it can really help relax rookies' nerves and help their development. I joined the LA Dragons halfway through the 2016 season and didn't have the benefit of learning the game slowly. Therefore, my first preseason and metro competition the following year was invaluable. As for AFLX, I played it at the inaugural Rob Dollar Cup in 2018, but didn't really care for it that much (for the record, event organizers have since changed it to a metro footy tournament). As far as recruiting and retaining American players, I believe that metro footy is a great and effective way to bring new players along slowly and getting them used to the pace of the game.
Should AFLX die an unmourned death? Perhaps, but I would welcome anything that can spread the word about Aussie rules worldwide. What type of format is takes is relatively insignificant, as long as the skills and passion are there.
From channel surfing one day to a professional AFLW contract only a year or so later, such is the story of Danielle Marshall from the Arizona Hawks. A fabulous story of how quickly the women's game is spreading around the world and how these opportunities are available right now here in the USA. With so much talent here in the USA across all sports, this story wasn't surprising, maybe a little it would be a woman first though, however we believe it wont be the last.
Sure there are others players that have made a go of it in Australia as Americans, but none till Danielle Marshall have actually come through a USAFL club environment first.
Congratulations to Dani and the Arizona Hawks.