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.
It was a clear, warm day in Westminster, Colorado earlier this month as the USAFL's Central Regionals Championship rolled into town. The usual suspects -- the Austin Crows -- took home the goods at this year's Centrals, but the rest of the day was filled with some exciting games and surprising finishes.
The action started at 9 AM, with two D2 matches played concurrently. The hosting Denver Bulldogs' reserves squad overcome an inaccurate day in front of goal (4.11.35) to start off with a nice win over the Oklahoma Footy Club, while the Nashville Kangaroos scored an upset win over D2 stalwart Chicago.
Up next at 10 AM, the Bulldogs' D1 side, led by Lachie Fleet and Anthony Grippa, took on the Minnesota Freeze, who were coming off a nice showing at the 80/35 Tournament in Des Moines back in June. But the Doggies were too strong and used their home ground to their advantage, winning by a score of 12.9.81 to 3.5.23 to start Centrals off on a high note. Unfortunately for Denver, their run would end at the hands of the Crows, who methodically sent the Dogs packing, 8.8.56 to 3.2.20.
The newly-rebranded Dallas Dingoes (formerly the Magpies) started their day off at 11:30, combining with several Ohio Valley players for Centrals. The Dingoes started off hot, taking down Oklahoma by six goals. On the adjacent oval, the Roos of Nashville slugged it out in a defensive battle with the Houston Lonestars, with the former taking out the latter by only four points.
After the kids' clinic at noon, Centrals resumed at 1 PM with a comprehensive thrashing of Minnesota at the hands of Austin. The Crows were just too good and too fast for the Freeze, winning in a shutout. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs continued their strong form with a hard-fought win over the Dingoes, 7.2.44 to 2.2.14.
As the afternoon crawled on and the weather began to turn, the Chicago Swans squeezed out another victory, defeating the Dingoes on the back of a strong defensive performance. In the final for D2 Pool A, the Lonestars battled Oklahoma in yet another close finish, taking home a 1-2 record for the tourney.
Concurrently, the Doggies' reserves battled it out with the Roos in what turned out to be an old-school chess match of a D2 title. Ultimately, the Kangas were within striking distance every step of the way, but Denver escaped with a 3.1.19 to 2.2.14 victory.
As for the women's tourney, it was a small, but quality, sample of what we can expect at Nationals. There's plenty of rising talent in the women's game, as exemplified by the creation of a North/South rivalry specifically for Centrals. In addition to the hosting Lady Bulldogs, the North/South contingency had women from Texas, Nashville, Chicago, Minnesota and others. The teams had a round-robin style tourney, with games scattered throughout the day, in addition to a women's clinic in the morning.
While the Lady Bulldogs opened the day with a win over South, overall, they had a tough time. Both North and South were hungry to upset the Doggies on their home turf, and they responded with two impressive wins apiece before the day was over. The South was largely composed of members of the Texas Heat, who have been looking stronger at each tournament they've attended since their debut last season.
Austin Crows - D1 Men's Champions
Denver Bulldogs reserves - D2 Men's Champions
North (Minnesota Freeze/Chicago Swans/Des Moines Roosters/Ohio Valley River Rats) - Women's Champions
Austin Crows - 3-0
Denver Bulldogs - 1-1
Minnesota Freeze - 1-2
D2 Ladder (Pool A)
Chicago Swans/Wisconsin Wombats - 2-1
Nashville Kangaroos/Wisconsin Wombats/Arizona Hawks - 1-2
Houston Lonestars - 1-2
D2 Ladder (Pool B)
Denver Bulldogs - 3-0
Dallas Dingoes/Ohio Valley River Rats - 1-2
Oklahoma FC - 0-3
North (Minnesota Freeze/Chicago Swans/Des Moines Roosters/Ohio Valley River Rats) - 3-0
Denver Lady Bulldogs (Red) - 1-1
South (Texas Heat/Nashville Kangaroos) - 1-2
Denver Lady Bulldogs (Blue) - 0-2
Headlines were made in the AFL community recently when Greater Western Sydney CEO David Matthews spoke openly about the Giants potentially playing a match for premiership points in the United States. In comments made to The Age, Matthews admitted that he had been in related talks with both the AFL itself and Tourism Australia to see if such a game would be feasible.
"Our preference would be a premiership game,” Matthews stated. “That said, like a lot of clubs, we're in discussions with the AFL about their aspirations for AFLX."
"The USA is an attractive prospect based on their love of sport, connection to Australia and their status as a significant trading partner," said the AFL’s David Stevenson.
If a match were played in the USA, it would have to be in a large city such as Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. The obvious lack of American cricket ovals would likely be the biggest obstacle. As recently as 2006, the AFL staged a preseason match between Sydney and North Melbourne in LA (at the UCLA intramural sports field), but it drew lackluster numbers. Other American cities that have hosted AFL or VFL matches in the past include San Francisco, Portland and Miami.
There is certainly enough grassroots enthusiasm in the US for a footy match to be played, both among Americans in the USAFL and in the Aussie expat community. Even AFL legends such as former Essendon and GWS coach Kevin Sheedy have thrown their support behind the idea. In addition, the Australian ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, has been a key patron of the USAFL for many years. With that being said, the logistical challenges would be great and the AFL might quickly soften on the concept if it isn’t done the right way.
The history of the AFL staging international matches has been mixed. Back in 2013, the St Kilda Football Club first pioneered the idea of taking premiership matches overseas -- specifically an Anzac Day match at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. The idea only lasted three years and was eventually put on hiatus due to dwindling crowd numbers and a lack of stadium availability. The Saints’ board hasn’t given up on its NZ dreams though, talking to officials in Auckland about potentially staging a game there as recently as 2016.
The more notable international match in recent seasons has come from Port Adelaide, which “hosts” the annual Shanghai clash. First played in 2017 against the Gold Coast Suns, Port has managed to get valuable exposure in China, one of the biggest markets for sports, but the games still haven’t always drawn the expected attendance figures, earning criticism from some corners of the Aussie media.
One positive that the USAFL can draw from the China experiment is that fact that AFL Asia has benefited from being able to host curtain-raiser matches before the Port game. If a game were to be played for premiership points on US soil, the USAFL would surely take advantage and attempt to organize a tournament accordingly. Similarly to China, the pleasant American summer weather would be a draw as well.
Again, the elephant in the room is the absence of quality cricket ovals. The only American oval recognized by the International Cricket Council is the Central Broward Regional Park (CBRP) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The USAFL used the complex for the 2015 49th Parallel Cup (the clash between the US and Canadian national teams) and it was purposely built to host cricket matches. With a capacity of 20,000, it could draw a quality crowd for, say, an AFL preseason match. Given that the AFL has proven somewhat cautious about international expansion in the past, a preseason game would be a good way to test the American waters. Many Aussie expats and US fans alike would be keen to make the trip to Florida to watch. However, flights from Australia itself would be dauntingly expensive and the AFL itself has implied that a West Coast-based game would be preferable.
Apart from the CBRP, most of the American ovals are either privately-owned and difficult to book, not large enough to support a crowd of thousands, lack high-quality turf, or all of the above. If the CBRP isn’t available, the best option would be to commission a baseball stadium or gridiron field and turn it into an AFL oval for one day.
New York could be an option, as they have both Gaelic fields and college intramural complexes that could be temporarily converted. Having lived in LA previously, I know that there’s no shortage of quality fields, but the ability to actually schedule a match there would be challenging. Stadiums such as the Rose Bowl and the LA Coliseum would probably be skeptical unless they could guarantee a solid crowd, and it’s highly unlikely that Dodger Stadium would allow anything non-baseball related to be played there over the summer.
One tantalizing option could be Hawai’i. Aloha Stadium, best known for hosting the NFL’s Pro Bowl, seats 50,000 people and is going to be redeveloped in the next few years. Flights would be much cheaper from Australia to Hawai’i (as opposed to the mainland US) and the local media would probably be enthusiastic about it. In addition, a game in Hawai’i could also serve as an opportunity to showcase AFL in the rugby-crazy Pacific.
Wherever the location is, I just hope that the AFL Commission gives the project its due diligence. A game staged in America could be a massive boon for the sport on both sides of the Pacific, but I just hope that the AFL is willing to listen and give full support. The bottom line is that there’s more than enough enthusiasm from all parties to make the event a success. We’ll just have to see where it goes.