Anthony Costa sports branding

Anthony Costa

Sports Identity & Design

Will AFLX take over the world?

February 22, 2019

Don’t like AFLX? Feeling a bit Malcolm Blight about tonight?

Criticise the concept and you’re told ‘it’s not for you’. It’s about the kids, and taking the game to the world (most of which won’t be tuning in either).

There’s been lots of pie in the sky talk about Aussie rules in a rectangle. The Olympics, a Hong Kong tournament and privately owned franchises have all been flagged. Does all this expansion talk stack up? Can AFLX really be Aussie rules’ ticket to the world? I’m not so sure. Using AFLX to spearhead global growth could even be counterproductive in some markets.

Ball in the USA

No country is alike. Expansion into new foreign markets always faces different cultural and economic obstacles.

Instead of guessing about AFLX’s broad international appeal, let’s focus on a specific country where Australian football has already been shoehorned to fit smaller playing fields.

VFL footy of ESPN was part of America’s 80s Aussie flirtation. In 1997 the USAFL was formed, a national league that by 2018 had grown to include almost 2000 players and 42 teams. US clubs have adapted to a lack of suitable playing fields by developing their own modified ‘Metro Footy’ rules. AFLX rules have also been trialled by some teams. These small-scale formats are a practical necessity.

Despite adapting footy to make it more accessible to Americans, the USAFL’s growth has stagnated over the past decade. The AFL appears reluctant to help support the grassroots USAFL with increased direct investment.

Australian football is a marginal sport in America that is kept alive be torch-bearing volunteers. The USAFL’s greatest problem isn’t a lack of playing fields, it’s a lack of promotion. Having a good product isn’t enough. You need to give people a reason to want it.     

If you build it, will they care?

Demand isn’t a function of accessibility. Just because you could readily consume something doesn’t mean you will.

Just because there’s an AFL video game doesn’t mean kids will drop FIFA to play it

Just because you’ve been handed twelve free tickets to tonight’s AFLX event doesn’t mean you’ll actually go.

Historically, the VFL and AFL’s promotions into foreign markets have been sporadic. Without consistent follow-up the game as struggled to build a coherent and compelling brand position. In Football Ltd, Garry Linnell tells of how VFL arrogance estranged the league from its international broadcast partners. Across the US, UK, Canada, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand and the Middle East exhibition games and pre-season hit-outs have been scratched together one year and dropped the next. The American college combines were killed off just as Mason Cox flexed in an AFL Final. The AFL has travelled like a tourist, souveniring some playing talent here and a funding grant there. It hasn’t dug in and immersed in a territory long enough to learn the lay of the land and build familiarity and acceptance.

All the ALFX talk is about rules and the size of the playing field. What’s more important is whether the AFL can fit Aussie rules into the heads of people who have little concept of it. Nothing new can be grasped unless context comes before content. The point was well made by US sports columnist T.M. Shine who in 1989 wrote this on the Hawthorn v Essendon exhibition match played at Miami’s Joe Robbie stadium (for the record the field was configured as a diamond, not a rectangle):

They’re used to 80,000 showing up at home, but in America we don’t like to feel stupid. And even though they promoted this with a tailgate party and promises that the guys were going to kill each other, they forgot that we can’t follow the game and for some reason that bothers us. We don’t like to be ignorant, especially when it comes to sports.

In America the USAFL could help build long-term community links through grassroots engagement and knitting the game into the nuances of American life. From time to time Aussie rules still pops up in mainstream American sports and popular culture. A small, responsive and modestly resourced media team could do wonders joining these dots and following up promotional opportunities on a full time basis. There’s brand capital for the AFL build on, but the US doesn’t seem to be on its map.

You can’t sell without story. Unless it is properly contextualised I can’t see AFLX being any less alien to a foreign audience than full-scale Australian football. Whether the game has enough meat to maintain interest is another matter.

Diet Footy

Plenty of others have pointed out that last year’s AFLX showcase lacked the “ooh-ah” athletic exclamation points that make footy exciting. There were few bumps, screamers or physical one-percenters. The pulp has been drained to make football more palatable. But by making the game more generic you risk making it less engaging.

In today’s YouTube clip culture sports rely on highlight reels more than ever. Will tonight’s light run-around deliver a single shareable moment?

Around the world, what pulls sports fans through the gate? Storied teams. Historic rivalries. Big games with something meaningful to win. We are lured to sport by its larger than life drama. The AFLX sideshow hasn’t demonstrated it can deliver any of this.

Modified rules can help overcome practical restrictions that prevent participation in some markets. But surely you initiate new fans by exposing them to your sport in its most elite and explosive form. Don’t diminish the spectacle or the significance.

As Kevin Sheedy once said, “We’ve got rock’n roll and we’ve got to sell it to the world’. Why turn Acca Dacca into Rick Astley? 

It’s the Charter, it’s the vibe

The AFL has signalled interest in privately owned pro AFLX teams and an international events circuit. This makes it more than just a modified rulebook designed to increase recreational participation in foreign markets. It becomes a whole new sport.

Line extension always brings the risk of diluting your brand’s identity and cannibalising demand for your core product. Is the AFL creating a tool to compliment Australian football’s international growth or a potential competitor? Aussie rules is already confused with rugby in much of the world. Does AFLX add a layer of complexity that makes Aussie rules even harder to explain?

Delivering world class sporting events is expensive. If the AFL attracts private investors to push AFLX globally, what obligation will it have to bankroll the venture’s profitability? Will revenue be diverted from Australian football to keep AFLX franchises afloat?

The AFL introduced the Laws of the Game Charter to safeguard the unique and essential characteristics of Australian rules football. AFLX, like AFLW, shows how easily the AFL can ignore the Charter and do whatever it likes just by repackaging footy under a new brand name.

This is why AFLX has drawn such heated backlash in the heartland. Its objectives and limitations haven’t been clearly defined, which feeds the popular perception that the AFL just make up the rules as they go along. There’s been too many colourful thought balloons drifting off in different directions. Fans feel frustrated and powerless because they see the game they love being turned into a plastic plaything. When you preach that footy is religion don’t be surprised if the plebs expect the game to be held sacred.

In 2014 ex-AFL marketing manager Colin McLeod cautioned the league for embarking on too much experimentation without giving fans sufficient reasons for change: “you can’t just try new things for the sake of trying new things”. And what if things don’t work? Every misplaced investment carries an opportunity cost. What could the budget of tonight’s AFLX escapades achieve in the US? NSW? Queensland? Tasmania? Or regional Victoria?

Think of the children

Modified sports are an important development tool for all codes and the basic AFLX concept has value. Tonight’s Marvel Stadium showcase has morphed into a superhero themed footy concert for kids. Increasing the involvement of children seems like a safe priority for any sporting league.

The question is how far do you take it? Is there enough hard data to say that T20-ing a sport will increase its audience in future years? A longitudinal study into how children engage with spectator sport over time and how their involvement influences future spending would be illuminating. When we are socialised into the adult world we start spending money on adult things. Do maturing adults maintain interest in sports that are overtly targeted to kids? Do kid-centric events like AFLX increase a family’s AFL consumption, or does it shift demand from the code’s other offerings?

AFLX promises family fun. But affordable fun is everywhere nowadays. You probably need to offer a more targeted benefit for people to buy into what you do. And don’t confuse fun with making your product look tacky and try hard. Starting a game with rock-paper-scissors tells the adults in the room (the ones who buy the tickets and TV sets) that you’re not for real. Sport fans still want to see a legitimate contest, not World Series Cosplay.

X marks the spot

It’s easier to break into a new market when you’ve already got a foot in the door.

If you want to attract a global fan base to Australian football start with markets like the US where you have some brand awareness and existing assets in the field. Playing footy on a rectangular pitch won’t in itself make the game more meaningful. The code needs to be given context, and this can only be created through coherent and culturally nuanced messaging. It’s a long-term play that relies on maintaining a consistent presence.

It’s hard to see what the AFL will learn tonight about the global viability of AFLX. The AFL is playing in its own stadium to its own people with its own star talent. It’s teaming up with billion dollar broadcast partners to deliver national prime time exposure. So how will AFLW go in a foreign market where you have none of these entrenched brand assets to piggyback on?

That’s not to say tonight will be a total flop. While the crowd figure could be rubbery the TV audience might well cover the project’s outlay. It’s like the NFL’s Pro Bowl – the game no one cares about but everyone watches because NFL football is the dominant sporting drama and America’s habitually hooked.

In the end tonight’s AFLX is a made for TV product. What tickets haven’t been handed out were sold at a heavy discount. It’s the AFL’s way of dropping a marker into the February sporting calendar and pushing back against cricket’s plan to drive the BBL deeper into the year.

With the future of broadcasting uncertain the AFL is looking to expand its revenue streams, both at home and abroad. Tonight’s AFLX offers a bit of everything – T20, the NRL’s Indigenous All-Stars and sevens rugby all spring to mind. We’ll see it all adds up to anything.


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


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