A better way to raise the curtain on young talent

footy cardIn terms of AFL merchandising initiatives, footy cards of kids, for kids, copped a fair kicking from the media when first released a couple years ago. A ‘Future Force’ set was again produced last year.

Besides psychological concerns around the pressure on the 100 yet-to-be-drafted youngsters featured, and that only a minority will truly ‘make it’ in any case, the business case for cards with a limited appeal beyond the subjects’ nearest and dearest is difficult to grasp.

Nonetheless, at the time Darren Birch (AFL general manager for commercial operations) reasoned the product was just ‘a natural extension to (their) existing card program’.

Personally, buying a pack of these (for my son) would feel anything but natural.

More attuned to the junior players’ interests, talent identification guru Kevin Sheehan defended the product on the grounds the potential draftees are used to publicity by now, and if not, then here’s a chance to acclimatize.

The AFL is rightly lauded for their pioneering participation and elite pathway programs, so this dubious concept might reasonably be filed away quietly in the bottom drawer with the underwhelming umpire trading cards that linger on (anyone for darts?). But if the AFL and clubs are concerned by the big leap to the big league, then there’s a far more compelling way to shine a light on the kids and grant their underdeveloped bodies a third dimension.

The A-League do it. So too the NRL, Super Rugby and AFL venues outside of Melbourne. It was once intrinsic to the football experience every week, everywhere. That is of course the good old curtain raiser.

There were plausible reasons for its demise in Melbourne, precipitated by the merging of the old reserves competition with the VFL. And ensuring pristine surfaces has been a priority. However, since the advent of grow lights, the trials of Etihad’s turf have been consigned to recent history.

Whilst on the rare occasion Foxtel Cup matches treat fans to a support act, TAC Cup games remain hidden from general view – even more so since the competition decider was booted from the Grand Final pre-match (leaving a lengthy vacuum filled with low budget fluff). Meanwhile, regular season attempts to entertain a diverse demographic with middling rock bands have fallen on deaf ears, sometimes literally. Even half time warrants a D minus when unfathomable ‘adult little league’ games (footy 9’s) have sometimes booted the Auskickers.

Yet, despite the AFL’s desire to have us buy into ‘the journey’ as they turn the trading period and national draft into a never ending event, for rank and file footy fans it’s nothing more than a list of unrecognizable names harboring too many ‘y’s’ and ‘why?’s. To the layperson there’s no apparent journey for Jarryn or Ryley who makes his debut sight unseen. Theatre goers may be ambivalent, but the rusted-ons and the fantasy team collective just might gravitate to a window on tomorrow’s crop. A more enticing pre-game than growing grass and 150 decibel ads might also ease the last minute squeeze at the turnstiles.

Most importantly for the young hopefuls, as a means of adjusting to the ominous coliseum-like atmosphere at the top level, the experience would be priceless.

It’s fair to say Joe Punter, adjusting to significant hikes in ticket prices this season, would welcome a pure football initiative from Headquarters right now. TAC Cup games as curtain raisers won’t make any dollars, but I dare say to the average fan, the clubs, the players and their parents, compared to junior footy cards, they’d make far more sense.

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