Anthony Costa sports branding

Anthony Costa

Sports Identity & Design

The name of the game: why A.F.L. is not O.K.

April 15, 2018
The Australian Football League logo

This is an edited version of an essay I wrote in March 2012. Extracts appeared in Rohan Connolly’s 2012 Age article ’Name of the game is up in the air in NSW’. I decided to upload it again in light of recent tensions between the AFL, local football clubs and the women’s football community over the game’s identity.

For twenty years the AFL has been rebranding Australian rules football as 'AFL'.

They've been remarkably successful at shoe-horning the sport into their new lingo. The media now use AFL as the blanket term for every level of the game. The code is taught in schools as AFL. Elite coaches, players and commentators have all joined the chorus of AFL-speak.

But is 'AFL' the best way to brand Aussie rules? Does reducing a whole sport to three tiny letters serve the good of the game? And is something important being lost in the abbreviation?

Aussie rules calling itself AFL would be like be like Australian soccer calling itself 'FFA’ or ‘FIFA’.

A banal, bureaucratic abbreviation would never ignite the same passion that the word 'football' evokes amongst round ball loyalists. For many, the game's dignity rests on its ownership of the 'football' title.

Why do people feel so strongly about 'football'? Because it's a word.

Words are deeply moving. What's in a name? If branding is your business, then the answer is 'everything'.

Words prickle our emotions and cling like burrs on our consciousness. They're where we store our memories, our sense of who we are and who we want to be. Take away our words and our identity ceases to be.

Words are incredibly powerful. So why neuter them into meaningless acronyms?

Such abbreviation runs totally contrary to principles of brand positioning.

Put simply, positioning assumes that the best way to get into someone's head is to latch onto what's already there. People naturally think that their beliefs are right. Otherwise, why would they waste their time believing in them?

People think in words. Positioning is about finding the words that make you fit in with people's world view, and then asserting ownership of those words.

A good positioning statement instantly explains what you are and what makes you so special. It should be something that sounds so matter-of-fact that it’s absorbed without being contested.

Australian rules football has at its fingertips a fantastic position:

The Australian Game.

As an indigenous code, Australian football has a tremendously strong claim to a compelling position based on national identity.

'Australia' is an overwhelmingly positive word in the minds of most Australians. So much of what we idealise is wrapped up in it - nostalgia, sunshine, fairness, family.

Our politicians love appealing to 'Australian values'. They know that it’s a sure-fire way to control debate and censure criticism. Who can possibly argue against the Australian way of life? That would be downright “un-Australian”.

Our national symbols seem to be becoming a more prominent part of our lives. Interestingly it's the young who seem to be more patriotic than ever before.

So why isn't the AFL using 'Aussie rules' instead of AFL to reinforce a position as ‘Our Game'?

Acronyms just don't cut through. They carry none of the meaning or emotion required to forge a brand position.


The world is filled with a jumble of sterile acronyms. None of them tell us much about anything. Marketing experts Al Reis and Jack Trout, who pioneered the concept of positioning in the 70s, have spent forty years exposing how inept they are at forging memorable brand positions.

Wouldn't it make sense to appeal to Australian rules' “Australian-ness” when promoting the sport in NSW and QLD? 'Aussie rules' sounds relaxed, knockabout and home-spun, whereas ‘AFL’ is a corporate creation - an alarmingly intrusive threat to traditional pastimes such as rugby league.

Not only is 'Aussie rules' the best way to position the game in Australia, but it also resonates internationally as well.

Talk to most American about AFL and they'll stare at you blankly (or more likely think you're talking about either the Arena Football League, the old American Football League or industrial relations.)

Say the name Aussie rules though and there's a chance you'll get a twinkling of recognition. Isn't that the crazy game ESPN used to show in the 80s?

What football do they play in Australia? 'Aussie rules' would seem like the obvious answer. A few years ago during a tour of Australia Snoop Dogg talked about attending an Aussie rules game and watching real men play real football. In reality he'd just been to see the Rabbitohs as a guest of Russell Crowe. That's the power of positioning. When your brand is built on a premise that seems intuitively self-evident it's hard to shake it from people's heads.

So why is the AFL so stubborn in its use of ‘AFL’ over ‘Aussie rules’? Critics would say it’s about money and authority. The AFL would argue that it’s about clarity and channeling eyeballs to the game’s elite arena.

I think that promoting ‘AFL’ over ‘Aussie rules’ puts the cart before the horse. How you think about a game actually predates any direct experience you have with it.

Get into people's heads, then get them to the game. Naturalise the sport as 'the Australian game' and you ease some of the resistance to the AFL in emerging markets.

Interestingly, the AFL-produced 2012 membership ads for the Lions, Swans, Giants and Suns all end with the 'Australia's Game' tag line. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph yesterday Andrew Demitriou stated, "We're the Australian game. That's going to be our branding."

Brand positions only becomes meaningful when a message is constant, coherent and consistent. For the ‘Australia's Game’ message to stick it needs to be reinforced on a day-to-day basis. Calling the game ‘Aussie rules’ strengthens this core position. Calling it AFL does not.

Marketing slogans come and go, but if you want to build an entrenched brand position in people's minds then you must be completely committed to it. You’ve got to hammer it home every chance you get. 'Australia's Game' could become an unshakable brand position. But it won’t mean anything unless the AFL takes a step back and puts ‘Australia’ out in front.

Follow Anthony @costasports

Image via ABC

Anthony Costa

Anthony Costa is a designer specialising in sports branding. Anthony has appeared on Fox Sports News , 1116 SEN, ABC Radio and is an Australian Sports Commission Media Awards finalist. His work has been featured in The Age, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and Sports Business Insider Australia.

Follow @CostaSports


Free email updates

Chalkline Designs

Gameday graphics & sports logo design blog

A few words with Todd Radom
Munich 1972
Kookaburra has balls
Claws Up! Baltimore Claws Snapback