How the AFL Forgot That it’s a Spectator Sport

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Debate around the rules of the AFL is not a new discussion, in fact anyone that has followed the sport knows that the rules are constantly changing; evolving with the game as it grows. Most of the time these are small adjustments: a metre between rucks, a time limit on set shots or not waiting for the flags to be waved after a point.

This doesn’t mean that all the rules have been successful however, and many supporters continue to bemoan the changes from the ‘good old days’ for one reason or another. Most of these complaints tend to be unjustified but there is one criticism that the AFL needs to take seriously: rules are becoming hard to see.

At the core of every spectator sport is that it is enjoyable to watch. This revolves around the style and speed of the gameplay, the athletic prowess on display and the excitement of the game. It also relies on the game’s action being able to be followed by spectators, as without this it is merely an athletic display – a performance.

As the AFL has been constantly refining the rules in the search for the perfect balance of speed, athleticism and safety they have forgotten about the visibility of the game. You need only look at the recent rule changes to see the problem.

For the 2017 season the AFL made 3 changes to the rules of the game. These were a change to how high contact is judged when a player intentionally draws contact, a harsher interpretation of deliberate rushed behinds and the outlawing of a 3rd man up being able contest a ruck contest.

Consider the recent interpretation change to deliberate rushed behinds. Introduced in 2009 as a knee-jerk reaction to ugly stalling tactics, this rule has caused constant confusion since its introduction. The AFL changed how it would be umpired this season to improve clarity – only it has failed miserably. By relying on unclear wording such as “immediate pressure” fans and coaches alike are left baffled as to when exactly a player is allowed to rush a behind.

Then there’s the new ruck rules. The change to the ruck has introduced the need for ruckmen to nominate in order to be able to compete in the contest. This nomination process is prone to mistakes, regularly exploited by players and worst of all unclear to spectators.
The AFL seems to have no issue with part of the game being decided verbally between umpires and players often with no indication to spectators. When this leads to a free kick the crowd is left understandably perplexed – did the umpire make a mistake or was there some infringement that could not be seen?

Perhaps the best example of the AFL’s lack of foresight and clarity to the public is with the contact below the knees rule. Show the same footage to 100 neutral fans of a player sliding onto the ball whilst simultaneously getting it kicked out of their hands and you will likely get a 50/50 split for which way the free should be paid. Because the rules offer no priority to kicking in danger or contact below the knees it means no one side is correct either. Whichever decision the umpire makes is technically correct but will always anger the 50% that believes it should go the other way.

What this all amounts to is the AFL losing sight of the importance of spectators being able to follow the game. Currently this is manifesting as anger towards the umpires department but make no mistake – the rules themselves are to blame. And until the AFL recognises the importance of being a spectator sport it will continue to shoot itself in the foot every time it adjusts the rules.

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