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AFL at the Olympics? It’s the X-factor that sells it

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The AFI, which has no official relationship with the AFL, has developed a shortened version of the sport called Footy 9s. It’s a short, sharp, nine-a-side game with two 14-minute halves, played on a rugby field with no point posts. Sound familiar?

On Friday, AFLX will return for a second time at Marvel Stadium, with even more glitz and gimmicks than last year, including the “Gatorade game-changer” – a nominated player whose points are worth double in the last five minutes of the game.

Many have mused that the purpose of these shortened versions is to increase participation in the northern states, combat the lack of ovals in targeted growth markets and export the product to foreign countries.

The idea of a worldwide AFLX or Footy 9s competition where teams from London, Paris, Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo, New York and Melbourne come together requires a vivid imagination. Some won’t even entertain it.

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But the Olympics?

The obvious urge is to rubbish the idea. It just couldn’t happen. After all, nobody outside of the footy-mad states of Australia knows it exists, much less wants to play it. The idea of it being an Olympic sport seems fanciful.

But consider this: “sport climbing” has been introduced for Tokyo’s 2020 Games. It’s a sport where two climbers race each other to the top of a 15-metre wall. It’s a newish sport, with the first organised competition taking place in Italy about 30 years ago.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact organisers of the Paris 2024 Games hotly debated including e-sports as a demonstration sport. Video gaming competitions are becoming a global phenomenon. It’s estimated more than 42 million people worldwide will watch some form of e-sports in 2019. The industry is estimated to be worth more than $1.3 billion.

AFL clubs Adelaide and Essendon have ventured into the e-sports sensation, acquiring professional e-sports teams that compete in the League of Legends.

Eventually, the International Olympic Committee knocked the idea on the head, but left the door ajar for its future inclusion, claiming they “agreed that the Olympic movement should continue to engage with [the e-sports] community”.

So it seems anything’s possible. If you tried to tell someone 50 years ago that video gaming, under the title of e-sports, would be played and watched the world over, they’d be left scratching their heads in confusion.

For them to have envisaged the popularity of it today, they would have first needed to predict the extraordinary technological advancements that have changed the world in recent decades.

As such, they’d likely tell you the idea it could be seriously discussed as becoming an Olympic sport was crazy, stupid and a waste of time. They’d say it would never work.

Which is what many think of AFLX. And we may be right. But never say never.

Sam Duncan is a lecturer in sports media and marketing.

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