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The AFLX Is The Greatest Farce In Professional Sport

The AFL is trying to jam an oval-shaped masterpiece into a rectangle-shaped hole.

Announced officially on Monday, the second season of AFLX, in which our national sport is squeezed into a square field with seven-a-side battling it out over two 10-minute halves, is somehow worse than the tournament nobody asked for in 2017.

I’m baffled by its existence and am none too sure how we got to this point. It’s been like smashing the AFL to pieces and trying to glue it back together. Only the AFL wasn’t broken in the first place and the person trying to glue it back together is actually a horse.

Let’s try and make sense of this.

In year two, the controversial, fast-paced AFLX is being completely revamped. Last year, in the inaugural competition, each team fielded their own squads. This year, only four teams will compete, captained by three greats of the game -- Patrick Dangerfield, Eddie Betts and Nathan Fyfe -- and Mr. Brightside, Jack Riewoldt. They will select 14 players each, from a pool of 100, to join them in the preseason event as if they’re about to play a scratch match on the oval, during lunch, at high school.

Proof that AFLX is for the birds. Image: Getty.

The games will be played at Melbourne’s Docklands stadium, which recently had a name change, scrapping its longtime moniker of Etihad Stadium. The Walt Disney Company grabbed those rights, so Etihad is now Marvel Stadium and yes, that is the same Marvel that’s responsible for Iron Man, Thor and Black Panther. The Marvel. One of the biggest brands in the world.

The stadium name change will no doubt please commentators like Brian Taylor about the endless possibilities it opens up for commentary (“Oh boy wowee, he’s absolutely hulked that down field, hasn’t he Bruce?” “Excelsior, Brian! Excelsior!”) but it’s also obvious the AFL, which owns the stadium, sees it as a way to bring younger fans into the fold.

However, the partnership with Disney doesn’t extend to the AFLX series -- yet the AFL seems intent on making you believe it does anyway.

No one kicks a behind like me. Image: Marvel Studios.

The League has opted to run with a “superhero” theme for the 2019 AFLX tournament, dishing out superhero-esque logos to four teams with the naming conventions of a 1960s Spider-Man villain: The Rampage, The Deadlys, The Bolts and The Flyers. The AFL even states that the four team captains will “showcase their remarkable skills, super powers and entertaining playing styles”.

Wait… Super powers?

But that’s not all. The AFL is also running with an “Enter The Battle Dome” catchphrase that seriously makes “Welcome to Thunderdome” seem like a genuinely historic moment in cinema.

Is the AFL running a football tournament or trying to leverage itself as an extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It feels like the AFL has co-opted the brand power of one of the world’s biggest companies, trying to align their own crazy ideas with the unstoppable machine that is the MCU -- and the fans can see right through it. Just look at the tweet the AFL posted Sunday night, announcing the arrival of the AFLX series. The replies are a medley of disappointment, bewilderment and disgust. I feel bad for the social media team.

Never mind the women of the AFLW, real heroes that have quit their day jobs trying to make it as professional sports stars with the types of wages I earned as an unreliable casual stacking shelves at a supermarket once a fortnight. It’s a galling obliviousness that sees the players in the one-night-only AFLX competition collectively take home more than an AFLW team gets to outlay over an entire eight-week season.

And what of the support for the most confronting issue the AFL is currently tackling -- the mental wellbeing of its players? The AFL Player’s Association will contribute almost one million dollars in 2019 to supporting players through a variety of initiatives. While the AFL experiments on gimmicky superhero tournaments to grow the game, players are struggling with the emotional toll that elite sport takes on them.

It shows that the AFL is not willing to listen to the people who show up every week and watch the games, buy the merch and memberships and sink hard-earneds into their teams. Throughout 2018, the League wrestled with the idea that the game was somehow failing, that it needed a change up to keep people interested -- higher scoring, free-flowing football seemed to be the answer.

In reality, we got trials for extended goal squares and six -man zones -- with no true indication this will really help. Now, the game continues to push forward with an idea that was lambasted in 2018 by aligning it with comic book heroics and generic marketing slogans. Enter the Battle Dome? I hope there’s an emergency exit.

Maybe they're watching it on their phones. Image: Getty.

So what can we take out of next year’s AFLX tournament? Well… Uh…

Eddie Betts is going to captain an Indigenous-only team, which is good. I guess some star players are back in action early? Uh… Maybe Marvel Stadium will play Iron Man at half time?

Last year, the AFL called AFLX “an experiment”. As a scientist, I can tell you this: The experiment failed. Repeating it is brave, but making a few cosmetic changes doesn’t help if the basis of your experiment was terrible to begin with.

Just like my five-year-old niece has shown me -- there’s absolutely no way to jam an oval shaped peg into a rectangle shaped hole, no matter how hard you try. It’s time the AFL took all of its AFLX blocks and packed them away.