Success and progress can be dangerous things in any sport. As the new F1 season got underway in Melbourne last weekend, the sight of 20 identical drivers getting into 20 identical cars and driving 50 practically identical laps looked more like an exercise in corporate branding than a sport.
There are many who worry that AFL is going in the same direction. As the governing body focuses more on spreadsheets of data and TV broadcasting contracts than sporting prowess, is the game suffering as a result?
When economics eclipses art
To many supporters, the most worrying side effect of the AFLâ€™s seemingly unstoppable rise to prominence as Australiaâ€™s number one sporting â€œproductâ€ is not so much the fear of footballers going full Lewis Hamilton. It is more than clubs are losing their traditional identities and characters, to be reshaped and homogenized into AFL units that will create what the spreadsheets and data analysis predicts will be an optimized product.
There is also the enforced economics of the draft system and salary caps. These combine to mean that coaches are unable to simply shop around for success â€“ it sounds positive in theory, but the result is a turgid battle to scrape the slightest advantage over the increasingly like-for-like opposition. Hence the growing trend towards applauding defensive toughness over attacking flair and courage.
So much for the negatives of todayâ€™s AFL. But before we dismiss modern commercialization and the technological age as being bad things for traditional sporting enjoyment, it is worth looking at both sides of the coin. Online coverage has brought the AFL to a larger audience than could have been imagined 20 years ago, and it is slowly but surely gaining a global audience.
This, in turn, has led to an exponential rise in online resources for fans. There is nothing like a small wager to add some drama to a match, and with online bookmaker sites such as Bettingpro providing free AFL betting tips, there is a better scope today for every fan to really get in on the action and put their money where their mouth is.
A more inclusive AFL
Another aspect of AFL that has certainly improved beyond all recognition is the womenâ€™s game. It is already such an intrinsic part of the game that it seems incredible to think AFLW only launched last year. Yet at the weekend, as the Bulldogs beat the Lions in front of a packed crowd, anyone watching for the first time might have assumed that this was the climax to a tournament that had been part of the national agenda for decades.
Ultimately, the magic of sport shines through
In the long run, while a sport has dedicated players and passionate fans, no amount of corporate interference can do it serious harm. The true magic of any sport is in the fairy tale results and the Cinderella stories, and a side effect of the modern AFL structure is that these come thicker and faster than ever before.
When the Western Bulldogs won the grand final in 2016, it almost seemed like an act of defiance against the commercialization of the game. After all, a win for Sydney would probably have been more financially advantageous for the league as a whole.
Yet this win by the underdogs was also a consequence of the modern league structure. Those very same financial constraints mentioned earlier have brought an end to the superteams of the late 20th century that would blow away all opposition. Suddenly, instead of being a two or three horse race, there is a broader range of clubs in with a real chance of success, and fairy tales really can come true. Ultimately, surely that is what the magic of sport is really all about.