Shock, horror! The AFL is proud of its history, again

It's ridiculous to suggest the global pandemic currently shutting down much of the world is anything but an enormous human tragedy.

But it doesn't mean the bizarre manner in which most of us are now being forced to lead our lives isn't without its unexpected bonuses.

As whole populations remain effectively trapped indoors, families are reconnecting in ways which appeared to be habits of the past. Take jigsaw puzzles, for example, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday night labelled "essential supplies".

Everything old in these strange times appears to be new again - even, it seems, in AFL football.

Confronted by the stark reality of no actual games to broadcast, television and radio programmers have suddenly latched on to an exciting 'new' concept called history.

TV networks have been showing endless loops of great old finals and memorable home and away games. Radio stations have been doing contemporary calls of classic clashes like the 1989 Grand Final between Hawthorn and Geelong. Newspapers and websites have been blogging old games as though they were being played right now.

For passionate footy fans with a deep-seated love for the culture and traditions of the game, with more than 125 years of documented history to draw upon, it's been a pleasant surprise. But not without some irony attached.

Football history has been a bit of a sore point for a lot of us tragics in recent years. Mainly because of the frequent and at times almost contemptuous disrespect it's been shown.

It wasn't always the case. As late as the 1990s, TV programs like "Fantastic Footy Flashbacks" were staples of programming. Retrospectives like "That Was The Season The Was" were still given prime time slots. And documentaries like "The Sensational '70s", "The Electrifying '80s" and "The Decade That Delivered" look back at the 1990s were highly anticipated and sold well on video and later DVD.

It was the introduction of live telecasts of games into the cities in which they were played which began to change the landscape, along with a saturation of live coverage and various panel shows.

Of course the demand for currency was going to escalate once every game was broadcast live and in an era where the internet and mobile phones put the news cycle on overdrive, the focus on the here and now all consuming.

As with a lot of things in life, however, expanding markets and wider audiences might also have proved a double-edged sword, the eternal issue the extent to which the appeals to the previously uninterested and very casual observer may cheapen the product and alienate the hard core audience.

And those appeals have, until now, continued to escalate. That suggestion early this year of shortening half-time breaks from 20 to 10 minutes was purely a reaction to TV executives fretting that their numbers were falling away in the second half of lop-sided contests.

As an organisation, the AFL continues to court those still unconverted. It is apparently pursuing a more 'lifestyle' approach to its media interests.

What does that actually mean? In a nutshell, it would seem more focus on the personalities involved in AFL football and their various off-field activities, and less intense concentration on the thing that actually makes them household names in the first place.

What was once a very comprehensive statistical service provided by the AFL's own website has been pared back significantly over the past year or so. There's less written analysis of the game and its trends, and more Instagram videos of players doing trick shots at training or making barbecued onions.

As for football history, well, those of us with a keen interest have regularly been made to feel like we're dinosaurs. That's there's little interest from younger generations in tapping into exactly what made the clubs they follow special. That it's all somehow, a little too 'unsexy'.

There's obvious dangers in promoting the game merely as an alternative form of entertainment and not a much more meaningful allegiance which promotes the sort of tribalism on which football has always thrived.

Supporting a football team can't ever afford to be seen as just like going to the movies or playing a new video game, and younger generations and older ones still unconverted can't be taught to see only current players as celebrities without being imbued with a deeper bond that transcends the here and now.

Otherwise, what actually binds them to the cause once their heroes retire or are traded elsewhere, their club's fortunes turn sour, or if, worse still, there's temporarily actually nothing at all to barrack for?

And it's not like the two aims have to be mutually exclusive or at odds with each other. Sure, sell AFL football of the 2020s as a contemporary, shiny new product.

But why not at the same time sell the craftsmanship, the passion, the deeds and the trials and tribulations of the past which have made that product so special? In short, it's simply selling the shiny new object as a Rolls Royce instead of a flashy sports car.

Instilling that sort of appreciation in the wider public could simultaneously build the sport further and cement those bonds for the long haul. And in these perilous times for a whole code, isn't that idea at least some sort of old-fashioned comfort?

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at