On the crest of a late breaking wave…

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Note: This was written for the esteemable Girls Play Footy website originally

If you missed it, the ABC aired a quite remarkable documentary this week which, on more and more viewing, is one of the great pieces of film-making around the AFL. It was called “Heroes”, and it showcased the footballers from the initial AFLW season – it featured likeable genuine footballers speaking emotively and evocatively about the initial season of the AFLW season, and the kind of highs and lows that any documentary film makers would love. Sarah Perkins shared her genuine emotion about not being drafted, Ellie Blackburn spoke from the heart about the devastating emotion of losing and then having to go to work. The quite brilliant Lily Mithen (my favourite) spoke of her admiration for Daisy Pearce and how during a key game late in the season, they couldn’t watch and her and Pearce had to go and clean the office to pass the time, something all fans can relate to. Finally, the estimable Bec Goddard spoke about how she plotted and planned the Adelaide Crows Premiership. It was a genuinely fascinating documentary, and one well worth watching. After all, this is a season where media want to see access, and here was a documentary with the kind of behind the scenes access and insight that has been talked about all year…

I’ve been deliberately specific about names and scenes in this film for a very obvious reason – the AFL did nothing to promote it. It wasn’t mentioned on the AFL website, it wasn’t promoted by official AFL channels, there was no promotional material for the documentary officially distributed. It was a genuinely strange and bizarre decision – after all, this was official AFL footballers talking about the official AFL product in an ostensibly down week for the AFL (more on that later). And the participants came across sensationally, as we discussed above. Now you could make the argument that as the documentary aired on the ABC, it wasn’t involved with an official AFL televisual partner (7 or Foxtel). However, that argument didn’t count with “Year Of The Dogs” which aired on the ABC back in the day, and received AFL endorsement. Now, times have changed, but this pure promotional gift was passed up by the AFL. From a PR perspective, no one does promotion like the AFL – of all the sporting bodies in the Australian sporting landscape, no one can bludgeon something or someone into the public consciousness quite like the AFL. And it’s not even close. And it is espoused AFL policy that at all times, someone must be speaking about AFL at the expense of other sports. So when such a pure promotion opportunity as “Heroes” slips by, it feels deliberate….

It wasn’t the only issue that was questionable from the AFL – this was a week in which the AFL has taken a pre finals bye, to much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the established cabal of male media doyens. This meant that outside of two games (the EJ Whitten legends game, which was rather diminished in “fun” by the presence of a joshing around Wayne Carey, and the Womens State Of Origin game) there was no other games to promote. So the AFL chose to do…well, very little to promote the game. In terms of the official AFL Twitter feed, the 24 hours leading to the game featured two tweets about the women’s game, one of which was about the footy record. The website featured links hidden away under the sturm und drang of Dustin Martins contract and giving North Melbournes season marks out of 10. For most of the week, the only feature even mentioning the game was an infographic about Bec Goddard. Finally, around Friday, the game began to be mentioned, with a press event with Daisy Pearce and Chelsea Randall that wasn’t particularly well promoted. Even more interestingly, I work in PR, and our firm received the prompt and efficient total of zero press releases around the game – and we receive everything about the AFL. To the point where we got a press release that breathlessly (with biography) informed us that James Brayshaw was returning to commentate the Legends Game. If the prospect of having your football fix filled by Brayshaw saying “Aw come on Bristle!” on a different channel was exciting, fair enough…

Meanwhile, the curtain raiser to the main event was an under 18s State Of Origin game between the Allies and Victoria that was broadcast to….precisely no one. The rights holders showed no imagination in getting the game on air, with Foxtel deciding to air a fourth replay of the Legends game if you didn’t have your fill of the hilarious exchange between Carey and Luke Darcy the first 3 times. The rights holders decided to impose their rights on those wanting to broadcast the games unofficially, but decided not to show the game themselves. It made no sense. During the main broadcast, Gil McClachlan decided in an interview to in a patronising tone almost express surprise that those pesky girls could kick the ball – even if it wasn’t the intended tone, it certainly didn’t come across well. That’s on top of the fact there wasn’t any female umpires on the ground, and every goal was accompanied by horrendous T20 blaring rock music.

Still, at least the game was broadcast, even if it felt like it was airing in a vacuum – the male doyens of professional media, the denizens of taste and decency, more or less decided the game wasn’t even on, leading with several comments along the lines of “there’s no football on this weekend! What are we to do!” – this wasn’t done with qualifiers, it was stated as fact. Not a single mention of the women’s game. Jon Ralph mentioned he would be spending the weekend mowing his lawn. The vanguard of blokiness that is the Sunday Footy Show had a 3 minute panel discussion about how there was no football on this weekend, before moving on to more important matters like the colour of Tony Jones teeth. That was on top of several jocular “what are you doing with no football” or “how to survive the bye week” articles filtered throughout the media landscape. The AFL almost seem to lack the ability to promote the womens game, standing still for the kudos but still not sure the best way to promote the game. They take credit for its success but let an inert passive mainstream media get by with cursory coverage even in a week where apparently nothing else was happening. This is the AFL, not one of the less PR savvy sporting bodies. You’d question where the priorities are or were, if you weren’t so cynical…

In public relations, we talk often about social capital – relationship management is something the AFL is totally conscious about its public perceptions. It monitors its public engagement levels so often, that there’s no PR firm that hasn’t received a phone call from them at some point asking for some form internal measurement to be performed. There is no doubt that it is strangely unlike the AFL to have not one, but two promotional gifts given to them to promote the women’s game. To promote positive role models and build social capital, supporting the womens game. They didn’t really need to do too much heavy lifting – the documentary was made, the game was ready to go, the personalities were in place. And they are becoming more and more comfortable speaking in the media – hell, the star of the game works for the host broadcaster. It’s not a difficult sell. After all, we know the AFL have been quick to claim social credit and kudos whenever they can. So for them to abdicate promotional responsibility and leave it to the players Twitter account to do the promotional work was…quite, quite something.

In short, in spite of everything, it was still a success the AFLW State Of Origin game – it showcased more personalities on national television, Lily Mithen got to say “unreal” on national TV, and the social capital built is in the fact that more little girls on the fence got to meet their heroes and that Daisy Pearce is smashing your “girls can’t play football” myth with every single kick of the football. For all the positives, it could always be better. This the AFLs time to shine, September, and the chance to put on a meaningful game to promote AFL with female stars playing a virtual all star game should be treated much better than a cursory, perfunctory novelty game. It is a frustrating missed opportunity, a combination of mainstream media getting distracted by Dustin Martins circus and the AFL being casual about it’s own product. Still, as long as we all know James Brayshaw is commentating, we can all feel good about September right…

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