Embracing The Theatre of Sport Could Transform The AFL into a Global Game

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Sport is theatre: From gladiators fighting inside the walls of the Colosseum to the Philadelphia Eagles toppling the New England Patriot’s dynasty in Super Bowl 52. Mankind has always craved watching physically gifted individuals entertain us with feats of supreme athleticism. We’ve supported the single minded focus of countless young men and women in developing sporting skillsets to near God-like perfection. Across the board these skills of catching, running, kicking and throwing balls of all shapes and sizes objectively hold no value outside of the value that we (as a society) have given them. However, over time, we’ve applied so much value to these seemingly benign skills, that in 2018, there are dozens of Athletes all over the world currently being paid in excess of $100m over the course of a 5 year deal. That’s how much we love watching what the world’s best athletes are capable of, but in truth, it goes much deeper than that.

The truth is that we love the story of sport just as much, if not more than the physical act itself. There is no simpler and more perfect metaphor for mankind’s pursuit of destiny than the stories found in sport. The NBA understands this and in someways is almost tailor-made for producing legendary storylines every single year. Since the league’s very first superstar, George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to 5 National Championships, The NBA has always championed the profiles of it’s marquee players. Every year the game featuring the league’s best players, voted on by the coaches, players and fans is called the All-Star game. Beyond All Stars, are a handful of players throughout the league that have earned the title of Superstar and when a player’s legacy is all said and done, the ultimate dream (outside of winning an NBA championship) is to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall-Of-Fame, while your name hangs in the rafters of your team’s arena, forevermore.

The NBA has always had one eye on eternity and basketball immortality.

But what is it about the NBA that makes it such a perfect environment for folk lore style heroes and epic sports narratives? The answer has a lot of layers, but one of the less obvious parts of the equation is that basketball is an intimate game. An official NBA sized court is measured to be 28.7m long and 15.2m wide. The intimacy of the playing arena means that as a spectator watching at home we’re never too far from the action. Players are easy to recognise and their faces are nearly always on display. The sheer ability to see the faces, expressions and personalities of each player, plays a huge role in our ability to connect and form relationships with their on court personas. Likewise, basketball is played with only ten men on the court at any one point in time, which narrows our focus and allows us to bond with a small group that we can easily commit to memory and even know by name.

Alternatives, like Hockey or the NFL suffer because the helmets worn by the players also impede our ability to see and connect with their faces. Australian sports like AFL or Rugby, played on much bigger fields also suffer from this lack of intimacy along with the added peril of having much larger teams. All of this is to say; when we connect with an individual sportsperson, they transcend the status of player and they become a character in a story. A hero or a villain. A conquerer or the resistance in a battle to reign supreme. With the pace of scoring in the NBA and the moments in between baskets we’re constantly being fed information about the personalities and characteristics of each player, as well as what role they play in the grander narrative of the league.

The NBA is a star driven league. Part of what makes basketball so unique is that one player can hold so much influence over a game. Unlike sports with bigger teams, that have more complicated team structures and require more players to do their job to avoid breaking down, there are times in a basketball game where one player can lift an entire team on his shoulders. A single player can catch fire and win the game by scoring 15 or more points in a row. Players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neil, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry are transcendent superstars that have defined eras of basketball and their personalities almost played as big a role in their legacy as their skills did.

Michael Jordan was the smack talking, ultra competitive, GOAT that brought basketball to the world, whereas in the era that followed, we had Shaq and Kobe, the monstrously dominant big man with an even bigger sense of humour, who played the perfect foil to the ever serious, truly obsessive black mamba, Kobe Bryant. In 2018, the list of superstar talent in the league is as long as it has ever been. Headlined by a David and Goliath style battle between the relatable superstar Stephen Curry vs. the demigod of durability LeBron James.

The throne of the best player in basketball is as heavily contested and talked about as any season of Game of Thrones and it inspires the best players to grind out incredible plays game after game in the hope of etching their name onto the list of all time greats.

For the AFL, having 36 players on the field for the entire game certainly makes it harder for any individual to take over a contest. However, that hasn’t stopped legends like Wayne Carey, James Hird, Chris Judd or Gary Ablett from doing just that in their day. Every one of them had an uncanny ability to sum up a contest and seemingly will their team to victory out of impossible situations. To me, the way up for the AFL is clear. The community that cover the league need to embed the idea of destiny and legacy into the very fabric of the game. They can afford to be visceral and evocative with the language they use to talk about what’s going on around the league. World class sport’s coverage isn’t as much about reporting on events as it is writing the mythology and the folklore of the league’s best players and teams.

Which teams are seeking vengeance in 2018? Which are desperate to live up to their potential and which are chasing redemption from missed opportunities? Who has questions left unanswered about the legacy they’ll leave behind and who is straight up chasing immortality this season? Part of what makes the NBA such an interesting league is that with less restrictions on free agency and greater player movement the perceived value of a player is clearer, as are the players intentions when they move on from a situation.

We know LeBron’s restlessness and desperation to win led him to the Heat in ’09’. Likewise, the James Harden trade will go down in infamy for being one of the greatest missed opportunities by a GM in league history. The point is, the more opportunities there are to put together a contender mid season, the greater the opportunities would be for all time hit or miss stories to emerge. Sure, with mid season trades and more liberal free agent restrictions there would be less loyal one club servants at the end of the day, but the quest for a AFL premiership would be that much more dramatic.

I believe the two main fears that surround the conversation of bringing this type of evolution into our sport’s codes are simple. The first is that we don’t like change. We’re creatures of habit and we like to avoid growing pains where at all possible, when the truth is, the old saying that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has killed more companies and industries than almost any other. Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia and Borders can all attest to that. That mentality failed them in a big way when they failed to craft an appropriate response to disruptive technology. Ruthless as it may be, the AFL’s focus shouldn’t be on satisfying the staunch old timers that are nostalgic and hungry for the good old days. The future success and growth of the league as a global attraction is dependent on capturing the hearts and imaginations of younger fans. The Millennials and beyond.

In my opinion, we don’t need to change too much, the game is in a good state. End to end fast paced football is exciting and the skill level of the league is healthy. We simply need to evolve the way we tell the story of the AFL and cultivate a generation of players that aren’t afraid to inspire their fans. Which is the second fear of most Australian’s. They think that by embracing the theatre of sport it will mess with our ingrained tall poppy syndrome. That if our sportsmen become Americanised they’ll start mouthing off after every game about how they’re “God’s gift to sport”, but if you actually pay attention to American sports you realise that they don’t do that. The biggest difference between American and Australian athletes is that American athletes aren’t afraid to inspire. They aren’t afraid to stand up to be counted. To lead their fans and say “Hey kids, follow me.”

I love the NBA and I love the AFL, but if there were two things I would wish for the latter it would be this: To embrace the theatre of sport, by evolving the narratives we tell in Australian sports journalism and working hard to empower a generation of Australian athletes that believe that they can use their platform for something good. To spread a message, to inspire, to lead and to say follow me. If we could do those two things, we’d evolve the cultural identity of sport in Australia and have the eyes of the world squarely fixed on our game. At least in the non rugby states that is… But hey, nobody’s perfect.

Mike Drysdale

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