Transforming the Pre-Season

Sausage SizzleThere seems to be a general consensus among the footy public that, with the 2012 season fast approaching, the pre-season competition is merely a hindrance. Many would prefer it abolished.

I used to think so – quite strongly, in fact – however I’ve reconsidered. While I maintain many reservations regarding the way it is run, I think the NAB Cup is an absolutely vital part of our game, which, if slightly tweaked, could become an entirely unique and remarkably exceptional part of the AFL calendar.

My fondest memory of the pre-season comes not from a NAB Cup match, but rather a NAB Challenge match that took place in the 2010 pre-season.

It was my final year of school yet, on this particular afternoon, my father picked me up midway through the day. We’d planned a trip to the Gold Coast – not to see the Suns, at this stage they were only just about to become a VFL club – but instead to watch our beloved Lions take on the Hawks.

The match was the first chance for both my father and I to see the club’s many new recruits. While I know just how much that experiment failed for the club, at this stage we were still quite curious.

Now, the game itself was nothing special. Fevola kicked a few from memory, our other recruits seemed in not-too-bad nick, and the rest of the side carried on as normal – not really a match that would stick in your mind.

Yet, due in very little part to what was happening on the field, the afternoon turned into the most memorable of experiences.

For the first time I experienced the community aspect of local footy combined with the stardom of the big league – and it was brilliant.

I’d only seen games at the big stadiums before, making it quite odd to view the heroes of the AFL running around on a suburban footy ground. Even odder, it must be said, was having the unavailable Brisbane players sitting on the hill with the rest of us watching the match.

They’d happily engage in a chat, sign an autograph, or take a photo. They weren’t at all off-limits – instead, they appeared to be enjoying a casual afternoon out.

While this was going on, a bunch of the younger fans had taken to a kick-around on the secondary field that was rapidly growing in numbers – despite the fact the oval was the official car park for the match, and was understandably littered with vehicles. Soon enough, one or two of the Lions’ youngsters had even joined them and was handing over some advice.

Meanwhile, the sausage sizzle was in full swing, strangers were chatting footy together in the long lines for the port-a-loos, and the ground announcer was declaring the winning raffle ticket as some rain clouds formed in the distance and a strong wind blew through the ground.

Surveying this scene as I walked back to Dad with food in hand, I couldn’t help but appreciate the perfection of it.

I hadn’t taken much of an interest in the pre-season competition prior to this, but from that day onwards, it’s been an entirely different story.

I flicked on the TV to watch the opening round of the NAB Cup down in Melbourne the following year, expecting to see a similar environment.

Of course, that wasn’t the case.

Instead, I observed an empty looking stadium, with remarkably disinterested commentators and, in many ways, disinterested players also.

Weeks later, when the season proper began, it was an entirely different story – the ground was packed, the atmosphere electric, and each team giving their absolute all. Because the result mattered.

Whatever way the AFL tries to put it, the NAB Cup – or any preseason competition, for that matter – is irrelevant in terms of what actually happens. It rarely reflects how the season will play out, and wins mean barely a small touch more than nothing to players or fans.

Yet one of my greatest football experiences had come at a pre-season game. Why? For this very reason. The result didn’t matter.

The NAB Cup shouldn’t be played in the major stadiums. It shouldn’t be taken so seriously. It should be treated for what it is – an opportunity for coaches to find out a few things about their side and try a few others.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed by those watching.

Pre-season matches should be just like that afternoon on the Gold Coast. Where the fans are able to see their idols up close, and have a glimpse of their team for the first time in the year.

At the very same time, though, they should be able to walk over and grab a sausage from a bunch of mum and dad’s from the local club – not an overpriced hotdog from an employee who just wants to get paid and get out.

They should have the opportunity to go over and have a kick with a bunch of strangers.

They should be able to experience footy in an entirely different way.

The pre-season is never going to mean anything – not in comparison to what happens afterwards, at least. So why act like it does? Why try and juice something out of it that just isn’t there, while ignoring something unique and rare in the process?

I realise that this is already done in some pre-season matches, yet still we persist with the big stadium games. Why not change it all?

There is a definite place for the pre-season competition in the annual calendar of the AFL. But not in the way it currently exists. It needs to become a competition for the community. Not for the TV coverage, nor the media, but for the fans.

It needs to become just like that afternoon down at Southport, when the wind was strong, the fans and players chatted together, and footy was in the air.

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