So much on my mind that I can’t recline…

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Working in public relations becomes a strange curse: it heightens your language awareness, heightens your cynicism, makes you constantly aware of what people are really saying in their advertising messages. Once aware of that, once tuned into the true meaning of marketing, of what is truly being imparted, its hard to go back.

Language matters – we know that. We deal with it every day. A single slip of the tongue can end your career, and it doesn’t have to be as blatant as disparaging Chloe Kim for “comedy”. Tweets can end your career, because the words you type are stripped of nuance and intention.

There are fewer more depressing PR jobs than conducting or facilitating those AFL “awareness” talks, because the sound is bouncing airlessly of the walls, every single word received with a yawn or a stretch. Trying to educate the importance of language, the value of words, immediately begins to start like preaching.

AFLW fans have had a much discussed summer of frustration with their own league, their own product. Not with the players and the game, with the oft discussed lack of support and faith the hierarchy shows it. We’ve touched on the summer of slumber with no marketing support, no advertising, we’ve touched on the memo.

We’ve touched on the weak tepid performance of she who shall not be named. We’ve touched on the fight against AFLX and it’s marketing muscle, that the giant Xs at each AFLX game combined cost more than the AFLW marketing budget, and our constant fight against the 50/50 writers and those who are so determined to intrude on any AFLW conversation by decrying its standard in insulting terms, passively or aggressively.

AFLX of course started this week (more below) and the marketing blitz was fundamentally depressing for AFLW fans. Not least because it started something of a linguistic PR debate: AFLX was somehow the return of “proper footy”, as if proper footy was only played by men. Of course, uttering these words out people determined to tell you why AFLM is proper footy, thus completing the circle.

The heightened consciousness of these words comes at the tail end of a summer of pure frustration. In isolation, saying “proper footy is back!” would be insulting, but something to be shrugged off. Taken in the context of the summer where AFLW returned with a dull marketing thud, the gleeful AFLM commentary that “footy is back!” was poking a wound.

Perpetually offended? Humorless? It’s more nuanced than that. Frustrated? That’s more like it: easy for Dane Swan to say Australia has lost the plot, but lets fight the corner here. It’s easy to dip into a backlash of a Scott Pendlebury tweet between bites of a Vegas dinner, but this blog and its conversations have been conscious around issues that haven’t permeated into the minds of the established AFLM hierarchy of ex players and commentators.

To which, where is AFLW going? What is its marketing plan? Can we say a game is bad without inviting trolls? Can we accept a conversation with outsiders about how an AFLW game is played without putting up barriers? Who is fighting for the league? Who defends its interests? When can it just BE a sport, when we can safely talk about football in normal tones without someone lurching in to point out it’s not as good as their kids Under 10s in trolling content?

And all of this isn’t confirmation bias, at least not at the start of the AFLW process: this isn’t a vague interpretation or jumping at shadows. We’ve been constantly told blatantly that this league isn’t as good as various other sporting endeavours while AFLX shuttles AFLW into the marketing background. All the stories about AFLW in mainstream media has been negative: from bow-legged lady knees to memos to bad games.

It’s a circuitous irony that if there’s no confirmation bias at the start of this process, confirmation bias now exists. AFLW is now firmly stuck fighting strong confirmation bias from both sides, pushing everyone to the most combative margins. The trolls have confirmation from one bad game that everything about it is terrible, while AFLW fans have become strident in response. So into this maelstrom steps Scott Pendlebury with a seemingly benign poll for some Thursday curiosity, and off we went…

And he wasn’t alone causing language debates….

Tim Watson pronounced “it’s 72 hours until footy returns to our screens!”, hosting a news program on the very network that’s showing AFLW for two weeks. Garry Lyon segued from an AFLW comment to saying “now it’s time to discuss AFL proper!”, Fox Footy gave a subtle message with a “The Boys are Back!” campaign, and at the tail end of the frustration, old Pendles blundered in with a poll that asked “who’s excited that is footy is back!” when there had been a football competition running for two weeks already. What was that again….

It’s important to differentiate that Pendlebury isn’t, say, Tyson Edwards or a 50/50 comment writer, not a misogynist at all. However, the backlash to his comments were interesting: where are we after all? Engaged in a perpetual linguistic battle for respect for AFLW that should have died in the 1980s?

We talked last time about the snowball rolling down the hill theory of PR, that sometimes something innocuous starts something you can’t control, a deep cycle of negativity. AFLW has had that in its start to the season. The joy is in the players, the game, the isolation that comes from watching the game. The negativity is everything else: Pendlebury accidentally stumbled into that.

After all, anyone who knows marketing would know that for AFLX a crowd of 10K was considering “promising and realistic”, while 41K for an AFLW game was a crowd that “needed to be monitored”. And if AFLX hasn’t exactly had a blizzard of positive publicity, it at least has people fighting its corner in high places. AFLW doesn’t have that, except it’s cabal of players on social media and alternate media. AFLX was a reminder of priorities, and that’s the nerve Pendlebury and Watson and Lyon et al touched. It’s not a humorless, “learn to have a laugh!” moment, it’s something worth talking about it.

Because if you were wondering, we’ve had a summer of criticism, people not fighting for AFLW, no marketing, no ads, and being marketing subservients to Zooper Goals.

You’ll forgive us being upset hearing “proper footy” is back…

Get em high for this

Part of that frustration of course came from the slow realisation that AFLX wasn’t funny, but a drain on AFLW resources. The Xs costing a fortune was bad enough, but the revelation from Peter Gordon that AFLW had its marketing budget slashed to fund AFLX and it’s fun and zaniness was incredibly depressing.

During the initial broadcast of AFLX, Brian Taylor (spoiler alert, one night removed from debating if a pomegranate is a fruit or a vegetable) suggested in enthusiastic tones that AFLX was “a game women could play!” – there was an uncomfortable realisation in that moment that AFLX could be the solution for AFLWs self imagined woes. Also that it could somehow be the catch-all solution to the growing Victorian issue of lack of space for ovals would be to get women playing AFLX (AFLWX?) and kicking Zooper Goals for fun?

Dream big girls! But as long as you want to kick Zooper Goals?

Daisy Pearce tweeted out that this was an insulting solution, patronising and sexist, saying “suggesting women play AFLX format to solve community grounds shortage is a joke + totally sexist” – it also pushes again the notion that women can’t play (ahem) “proper footy”, can’t be trusted to evolve into players, that there is an impossible standard to forever chase when playing the game.

We need shorter grounds! We need bigger goals! We need zones and memos! We need women to play AFLX! That’ll fix the issues!

Again, to tie make, AFLW has a marketing and perception issue of its own making: when it is palpably shown in PR and advertising and support (lack there of), the negative language continues, leading to conclusions everything needs to be fixed. Nothing is more insulting though than the notion that the solution to “fixing” AFLW is games with improperly imposed gimmicks, DJs and Zooper goals….

Speaking of which…

Tonight alive, let’s describe the inscrutable

It was strange that Brad Scott of all people was a social progressive: “try it, you might like it!” is a dangerous life lesson in some ways, but there was Brad, banging the drum for AFLX in the paper. Give it a try naysayers!

AFLX struck from a PR point of view as a joyless made in the lab experiment: the marketing equivalent of spitballing! Silver balls! Scratch that! Acrobats! Sure why not! Mimes? Um….OK! A DJ! Kids! Beanbags! While not the target demographic, we’ve always found those who scream “THIS IS FUN!” to be the fundamentally least fun.

When it comes to sports though, AFLX has a strange problem: it’s boring. For all the shots of kids mugging for the camera, and jugglers throwing skittles to kids and Brad Johnson smiling and saying “ZOOPER!”, the game is boring. It’s circle work in hell, with added U2 songs and James Brayshaw pondering on commentary what a pomegranate is.

The strangest thing is for all the screaming about FUN and FAST and FUN, the game and the sports itself was……boring? Aside from a glorious bay of St Kilda fans cheering goals, the whole thing resembled something of a day care center, a ball pit or a bouncy castle. A kids experience at Disneyland, where the goals and the steam of a Zooper goal can be ignored for other attractions?

The fundamental joy of sport, of winning, of kicking a goal, melted away. The contest didn’t matter. Is this the way of the future, the way to engage future generations of indifferent sports fans? With sound, noise and fury that signifies nothing? What’s interesting is AFLX is compared to the Big Bash, but the Big Bash still at least signifies some form of winning and losing: it still has a ladder, it still has some meaning.

The biggest takeaway from AFLX from a marketing point of view was this: who is it for? What need does it fill? If the construct is to create a social version of AFL, something to play in the park, that’s surely kick to kick, unless you can find a steam machine and some beanbags? If it’s to address the lack of space and take over the northern states, AFLX didn’t put its best foot forward. It wasn’t fun enough to be inspiring, nor good enough to resonate beyond the sugar hit.

That it suffocated AFLW and pushed it to the marketing margins and will continue to do even in the face of utter rejection is a suffocating and depressing reality. The humor of mocking it falls flat when it’s vacuity is exposed, when the best anyone can say on air is “the kids are loving it!” five seconds after forgetting who won the previous game.

There’s also the uncomfortable marketing reality that the two competitions are somehow intrinsically linked – both treated like summer novelties, both pored over game by game, both seen as summer fill ins. The marketing of AFLW hasn’t resonated with the confidence to differentiate itself from this. The addition of the last touch out of bounds rule to AFLW isn’t dis-similar to AFLX now debating if they don’t have enough stoppages. Both are subject to whimsical changes.

If AFLW DID have a living breathing figure head, she would work out how to promote her own league aside from that – to truly point out the difference in every possible way between a league of inspiring women pursuing a Premiership and a game where the pursuit is a cardboard X and to entertain children for the fleeting 10 seconds they are paying attention before they want another coke or the DJ plays some Bieber…that as inspiring a figure as Erin Phillips has her return of football pushed to the margins so footballers can kick goals endlessly to U2 songs and screeching…

AFLXs legacy as a figure of mockery is only part of the story. It’s joyless space intrusion on the AFLW season is the part that really isn’t funny….

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