Modern AFL commentary is missing the mark

Doyens like Bruce McAvaney have been replaced by self-serving banter. Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images
Doyens like Bruce McAvaney have been replaced by self-serving banter. Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Opinions about football commentary are by their nature subjective. Except perhaps at the moment. Because right now, there seems pretty universal agreement that the standard of AFL commentary is sadly lacking.

It's no longer a discussion about this caller as opposed to that one. It's about a failure to deliver basic information. Too many mistakes. Too much cliquey and alienating "banter". And a seeming reluctance to remember what the role is supposed to be about.

Where do you start? Well, probably with the fact that a lot of games in season 2021 are being called by commentators who are not even in the same state in which those games are being played.

Radio stations have been trying that on for several seasons now, all in the name of cost-cutting. Last year, because of COVID, television broadcasters were forced to do similarly for games outside Victoria, which of course ended up being the vast bulk of them.

It was understandable. Not so understandable is the networks continuing to do so now state borders have largely been opened up. It's about dollars, not health and safety. Worse, they're continuing to do so without levelling with their audience about from where the games are being called.

But the difference is obvious despite the wilful deception. In so many games outside Melbourne, the calls have sounded as flat as a tack, even the normally over-the-top Brian Taylor on Channel 7 finding it hard to manufacture enthusiasm for a game a thousand or so kilometres away from where he's sitting.

At least the play-by-play callers, though, can see most of what they're supposed to be talking about. I stress most. Because there's been several occasions where off-the-ball free kicks paid have rendered the commentators no more informed than you or I sitting in our lounge rooms. How could they be when, like us, they're not privy to what has just happened?

It's the job of the special comments man which has been rendered most useless by this new fashion of the "remote match call".

In Australian football, more than any other sport, played on a larger field and with more participants per side, the "specials" guys should be concentrating on what's ahead of or behind play. Watching how a key forward slipped away from his opponent, noting the defensive set-ups teams are using behind where the ball is.

And that is an impossible task if you can't see more than a couple of metres of territory either side of the player with the ball in hand.

Some of the issues more and more of the football public find so frustrating, though, were around long before the pandemic struck.

And they're about the sort of self-indulgent by-play many of the commentators often seem pre-occupied by, like we're all worshipping at the temple of their celebrity, and grateful for any completely trivial insight into their allegedly fascinating lives.

It's "theatre" apparently, part of the push towards marketing the game as an alternative form of entertainment rather than a sport in which people passionately follow teams rather than individuals.

I've been told many times by insiders that these sorts of directives about cross-promotion and making the callers as much a part of the action as the players themselves are imposed from on high. I've never understood why. Does all that hamming it up really attract even a single extra viewer? If it's the talk they're tuning in for, they'd be just as well served headed to a radio.

The only purpose it ever appears to serve, if unintentionally, is annoying the hell out of the rusted-on fans who the networks know have no alternative if they want to actually watch a game.

What it leads to, however, is commentators talking about themselves and each other instead of the game unfolding in front of them. Quite apart from their own idiosyncrasies.

Like Luke Darcy, a Triple M radio stalwart, continually lapsing into the dialogue you'd expect to hear from the guy driving the "Black Thunder" prize van on the breakfast show in the 1980s. There are lines about the boundary riders being "all over it" (read finding out news on injuries), this star or that "tearing it to shreds" (playing well) or players "getting around him" (congratulating a teammate).

Co-caller James Brayshaw seems inordinately obsessed with which private school Player X hails from, though there never appears nearly the same level of interest when that player has come from the local high school or suburban football club.

Watch any game from 20 years ago and you realise just how dramatic the change has been.

Most of all, you can't miss the fact that as the likes of professional sports callers like Dennis Cometti and Bruce McAvaney give it away, they are inevitably replaced by former players far shorter on calling experience - the cult of celebrity apparently more value than professionalism. Watch any game from 20 years ago and you realise just how dramatic the change has been. The big moments were always handled superbly, reverentially, and helped create the sense of occasion.

Nowadays, the most memorable thing about the description of those moments is just as likely to be the decibel level at which they were shouted as much as what was happening. And now, it seems, we can't count even on them being described by people who are actually there.

This story Modern AFL commentary is missing the mark first appeared on The Canberra Times.