Two weeks ago, Hawthorn’s Alastair Clarkson called a game of football he’d just coached a “terrible spectacle”, and asked “what’s happened to our game?”
Former North Melbourne champion turned Fox Sports analyst David King was even more alarmed: “Let’s get our game back.”
Such crisis talk is now an annual feature of the game’s media cycle – often a multi-week festival of soul-searching and self-loathing.
But Clarkson and King were merely expressing a widely held belief: in the last 20 years, the aesthetic of AFL football has changed markedly and maybe irreversibly.
We’re not going back to end-to-end goal fests, when Clarkson’s coaching predecessors like Ron Barassi commanded their men to kick “long bombs to Snake”.
The prevailing view of fans and pundits in recent times is that AFL coaches, their heads full of imported theories and self-serving tactics, have become overwhelmingly negative and ruined the game’s visual appeal, and that administrators, bumbling and reactionary, have failed to keep them in line.
But what if there is an alternative explanation for modern footy’s so-called ugliness, and it’s been staring us in the face since COVID-19 closed football stadiums off to fans?
What if AFL football’s problem is not the football itself, but the way it is filmed and broadcast? What if we’re literally looking at AFL action from the wrong angle?
Scarcely acknowledged in these discussions is the widening gap of understanding that has opened up between those intimately involved in the game at club level — the coaches, assistants and analysts who have access to every available piece of footage filmed on game day — and the average fan and even journalists, who, if they’re not sitting in the stands, are entirely reliant on what’s shown by the Seven Network and Fox Sports.
This week, under the condition of anonymity, I asked AFL coaches and team analysts a simple question: would they be able to understand a game of modern AFL football from the television broadcast alone?
Their blunt answers of “no” gave way to detailed observations that painted a picture of AFL broadcasting as something closer to a coaching fraternity in-joke.
The outline of grievances is simple enough:
- The tactical battle can now only be truly understood with vision from behind the goals, an angle from which the home viewer rarely sees anything other than replays of goals or reportable incidents
- How a team sets up at a stoppage is crucial to the outcome of the contest but a total mystery on TV
- There are too many lingering close-ups that serve no purpose other than to familiarise viewers with players’ haircuts and tattoos, and obscure what is really happening in the game
- When the game slows down and the ball carrier is launching a transition of play, home viewers rarely, if ever, see the options available to him
- Some of these gaps in knowledge could be overcome if commentators explained tactical scenarios or anticipated the decision-making of players, but they rarely offer anything other than a description of what has already occurred.
The solution is a lot harder to figure out.
Even using existing angles, the job of the broadcast director is one of the toughest in the AFL.
It requires high-level technical proficiency, a sound knowledge of the game, and an ability to read and anticipate the play, switching to the right camera at the right time as a frenetic, 36-player contest takes place on a vast playing surface.
By comparison, broadcasting basketball, soccer and rugby league is a breeze.
Frustratingly, even if they’re not being correctly deployed, the most telling camera angles are actually available; they are what coaches and analysts use to decode the outcome of every kick, tackle, mark and contest.
One club analyst, currently stood down due to the COVID-19 austerity measures employed by clubs, thus unable to access the vision available to club staff, put it bluntly:
“I’ve noticed how bad it is more than ever this season.
In recent years, much of the AFL’s response to the modern game’s perceived ugliness has been to tinker with and change the rules, a game of cat and mouse that coaches will always win.
What the league evidently hasn’t considered is the fact that television coverage has failed to move with the times, selling the contest short.
A game of high-speed chess is being filmed as though it’s still aerial ping pong.
One coach put it plainly.
“I cannot pinpoint anything that has really changed in AFL broadcasting in the last two decades to keep pace with the modern game.
How footy was made to fit on the small screen
Now that nine games per round are broadcast in full and live, we take for granted that for the greater portion of football history, the only way of watching an entire game was to be present at the ground.
The first live broadcasts of VFL games occurred in 1957 (albeit only the final quarter of action, and only one game per round), and were one of the great and enduring legacies of Melbourne’s 1956 Olympics and its attendant TV revolution.
In the beginning, only two or three cameras were in place to capture footage; by the early 2000s, most AFL grounds had dedicated spots for 10 to 12 cameras. Now there are more. The pioneers of football broadcasting performed minor miracles.
Alf Potter, a radio technician turned TV wizard, invented many conventions of AFL broadcasting on the fly – as the early TV games were in progress.
He achieved something once thought impossible: the scale and dimensions of football grounds, and the mess of players spread out across them, made Australian football uniquely difficult to capture.
“All the other ball games are pocket-handkerchief games,” Potter explained to journalist Michael Roberts.
“It was the only team game where there was no offside, so the game is not held up anywhere for any reason and the ball could be passed any way.
“They said that the ground was too big and that we would never be able to pinpoint.”
Pinpoint he did.
It was Potter, viewing footy’s aesthetics as something closer to ballet than sport, who decided where the cameras should be placed for the first game.
For the main camera he settled on centre wing, with the sun behind the cameraman’s back; two others focused on the respective forward lines.
Between the 1960s and now, long-shots, aerial vision, close-ups, reverse angles, isolation shots (following individual players), slow-motion replays and on-screen graphics have been added to the producer’s repertoire.
Since the 1980s alone, we’ve seen ground level cameras added in each pocket of the ground (which led to vision of low-angle shots at goal and fingertip touches of the ball on the line), spy cameras on the opposite wing to the main cameras, ‘lipstick’ cameras on the goal posts, remote control sliding cameras, blimp-cams and drones.
For a time, new technologies re-shaped the game (remember it was the threat of ‘trial by video’ that finally cleaned up the game and cleared out the thugs for good). But perhaps the most impressive of them all — the 4K Hawkeye vision of all 36 players now taken from behind the goals at both ends of AFL grounds — is technology from which the home viewer rarely benefits; a live feed of that vision goes into the coach’s boxes on game day but isn’t a feature of the TV product.
The latter scenario baffles current AFL coaches and analysts.
To watch a broadcast now is not to experience a drastically evolved TV product than broadcasts of the 1980s and ’90s.
In 2001, Channel Seven’s former Head of Sport Gordon Bennett told Roberts: “Most of the grounds have still got the original camera positions — for the top shots, anyway — on the wing.”
Indeed, the opening seconds of every football game broadcast in 2020 are framed in the same style Potter used back in 1957: a wide shot from centre wing.
But that was then, when players mostly stayed in their assigned positions, played man-on-man contested football, and the game swept from end to end like circle work.
To state the obvious, AFL football in 2020 is a completely different game.
What has become increasingly apparent is that TV broadcasts no longer provide anything more than basic clues to explain the outcome of each game.
As one AFL team analyst said of Potter’s once-revolutionary centre wing camera: “It’s extremely rare that we even look at vision from there.”
If you watched last Sunday’s broadcast of Fremantle’s 20-point victory over Adelaide at Carrara Stadium — and it certainly wasn’t a spectacle to please nostalgists — the opening four minutes of the game provided ample evidence of the disconnect between what happens on the field in the average game and what viewers can comprehend from the TV coverage.
Let’s look at five passages of play — three you’ll see in any game, two from the Dockers-Crows game specifically.
Scenario one: The centre bounce
From the first seconds of the game, beyond the familiar sight of two ruckmen leaping towards the ball, our understanding of the contest has been compromised.
For 10-20 seconds before the bounce, broadcast directors generally choose tight close-ups of key players taken from side on. Then, just as in 1957, we get Alf Potter’s centre-wing shot of the bounce: a view of only a third of the ground, with only 10-12 of the 36 players visible.
Unfortunately, that is the template for most stoppages throughout the game.
How a team sets up at these points is crucial to the outcome of each contest, and each contest is crucial to the outcome of the game. But it’s often a total mystery to the fan at home.
As one coach put it: “You’ve got more hope of counting a ruckman’s nostril hairs during those zooms than identifying the moving parts of the stoppage.”
Worse is when the stoppage or centre bounce is missed altogether in favour of a close-up of a fuming coach or exhausted midfielder, and a player is already making off with the ball when viewers are taken back to the contest.
Scenario two: A centre clearance from congestion sends the ball forward
When the ball is moving through the centre of the ground, broadcast directors generally switch between two shots from roughly the same location — a wide-angle view of the centre (which is valuable to view the players around the ball carrier, to whom he might handpass) and a tighter close-up, whose potential benefit is showcasing the skill or speed of the ball carrier, and the intensity of the pressure he’s under.
But when a kick of 40 metres distance or more is sent forward, we have no idea where it’s heading, or whether it’s effective, until it arrives at its destination.
Unless a mark is taken inside 50, and the player who marks it takes his full allocation of time to walk back and take the set shot, the matchups, leading patterns and zone defence playing out in the lead-up to the arrival of the ball will never be seen by the home viewer; unless the commentators tell us so, there is no way of telling whether the player who kicked the ball forward chose the right option or not.
Scenario three: After a goal is scored
For many years, broadcasters treated the post-goal period only one way: a 25-second stationary close-up of the goal-kicker sipping from a water bottle and perhaps ribbing his opponent, into which a replay of the goal would be spliced.
In recent times, as rotations have increased markedly, the variation is when the goal-kicker immediately takes himself off the ground, and we get a close-up tracking shot of him running to the interchange bench for his water bottle.
As punctuation, there will often be a tight close-up of one or both coaches, with an accent on the one bashing his fist against the desk.
What home viewers miss during this sequence is the flurry of interchange activity and tactical manoeuvring taking place, almost none of which is mentioned by commentators.
In the 30-45 second gap between the goal being signalled and the resumption of play from the centre bounce, much has occurred but little has been explained.
“The centre bounce formations are crucially important, tactically,” one coach says.
“Especially now with the 6-6-6 rule.”
Sitting at home, the TV viewer can only see one-third of them.
Scenario four: A goal is crumbed from a packed marking contest
Although broadcasters have behind-the-goals vision available for the entire game, it is generally deployed in only two scenarios: for a replay of a goal, or to highlight the difficulty of a set shot.
Ideally, there would be much more behind-the-goals vision used during broadcasts, because it is the best way of understanding a modern AFL contest.
This is why, if you were sitting in the outer during pre-COVID times, you’d often see the coaching staff of non-competing clubs sitting high in the stands at either end of the ground.
A great example of the difficulties faced by broadcast directors was Sam Sturt’s game-opening goal for Fremantle on the weekend.
The forward entry which led to that goal came from the Dockers’ forward flank on the broadcast side of the ground and landed in the forward pocket on that side. From the spillage of a marking contest, Andrew Brayshaw gathered the ball in space, spun out of a tackle and handpassed to Sturt, who snapped an unpressured goal from 15 metres out.
The most revealing angle of this sequence came from a camera in Fremantle’s other forward pocket, showing that three Crows defenders had leapt into the marking contest to spoil only one Fremantle player, Rory Lobb. In failing to punch the ball forward towards the boundary, they were left badly exposed in the space behind contest.
Simultaneous to that, Crows skipper Rory Sloane had failed to get goal-side of Brayshaw, who provided the crucial assist. But we couldn’t see those crucial byplays until we were shown the fourth replay angle available — a fraction of a second before the bounce to restart play.
Figuring any of that out from the original angle was almost impossible.
Scenario five: A defensive mark is taken 30 metres from goal
The very next passage of play provided a familiar sequence of events: Crows on-baller Matt Crouch got the centre clearance, running through the middle and kicking the ball into the hot spot.
Unfortunately for Adelaide, that pass was intercepted by Fremantle defender Luke Ryan.
Although much activity was playing out ahead of Ryan, home viewers couldn’t see far beyond the 50-metre line.
Seconds later Ryan passed the ball towards the far side of the screen, just beyond where the 50-metre line met the boundary. There, his teammate Hayden Young marked the pass.
As Young decided where to kick, the broadcast director chose a tightly cropped close-up.
Young’s pass was shorter still, to a leading Michael Walters, who would receive the ball only a metre or two from where Young originally marked — something that became clear only as Walters hurtled into the frame. Walters spilled the mark, and the ball dribbled over the line.
Whether or not Young had taken the right option, or whether Walters should have led elsewhere, is still unknown to me or anyone else who watched the broadcast; because we watched it from a side-on zoom, we had no idea whether better options lay ahead of Walters, further down the wing.
As a coach put it: “We can’t see what the player is looking at and if the decision they make is right or wrong.
“If he’d switched and kicked backwards, and that had gone wrong, we might criticise that kick without knowing that the opposition outnumbers had stacked down the line. Sometimes the player gets destroyed for doing the right thing.”
Instead, the home viewer must take at face value the commentator’s description of the play.
A way forward
The most perverse element of football’s television problem, coaches say, is that the solution is not more cameras, but strategic use of the two most revealing angles — behind the goals, and the lower wing camera that follows the play from side-on without zooming in.
It is from these angles alone that coaches and analysts decode, process and understand the game.
“I can understand the limitations of the 1980s and 90’s, because the fidelity of the vision was not there,” one coach says.
“But the fidelity is there now, with how good the HD and 4K technology is.
“They just need to zoom out so we can see more players, and where the guy with the ball is kicking, and what the patterns of play are. That’s what we need to see.
“In the end, fans just get used to it and cop it. And it’s disappointing, because you want the game to be shown in a better light.”