Thursday, 26 November 2015

One is the loneliest number - Draft night 2015 reviewed

If you ignore every advance in the field of entertainment since the introduction of talking pictures there’s nothing more exciting than a sporting draft.
Other than a brief, farcical attempt by hapless Rugby Leaguists to join in the fun 25 years ago the AFL has stood alone as the only national sporting competition in this country willing to subject its best and brightest young talents to a grim, dystopian future at the lowliest of clubs.
The only country to ever successfully turn this modern day slave market into a televised extravaganza is the United States, and considering the number of junkets the AFL executive has been there on it’s no wonder they’ve got a sick obsession with introducing unnecessary razzle dazzle to the event. It’s a noble idea, after all Channel 7 has turned Brownlow night into a spectacular of frocks and baffled international singers collecting enormous paychecks, but to paraphrase “Dirty” Harry Callahan (who was drafted by the Brisbane Bears in 1988 but opted to stay at Norwood) “a league’s got to know its  limitations.”
Unlike the Brownlow there is no way to jazz up the National Draft. Gil McLachlan can storm through five rounds of voting without a breath to ensure there’s enough time for a Mick Molloy stand-up set (need not have bothered), but he can’t intervene to force sides into picking quicker so Fox Sports can introduce a Wolfmother concert can he? Perhaps as the defacto owner of GWS he can have a say there, but as we discovered last night even clubs bidding on their own academy players now causes the drafting process to grind to a halt as if there’s been a general strike by the Recruiters Union.
Considering how many clubs treat draft night as their grand final it seemed a shame they didn’t open with the national anthem, but as the night went on we discovered that any time saved during the coverage was to be savoured.
The draft is not entertainment television, and nor does it need to be. A decade ago I was driving to Albury on draft day with only radio coverage available, and was forced to slow down to dangerously low speeds on the highway to retain SEN’s signal long enough to hear the top 20 picks. Fortunately in those days they opened up at #1 and rifled through the next 70 names in about 45 minutes so we could get on with our lives instead of stretching proceedings out over 150 minutes for the sake of a handful of lunatics who felt that what the draft needed was more ‘drama’.
The first attempt at artificially injecting excitement to the process was when the first 10 selections were made behind closed doors before the players were introduced on stage in reverse order. This was supposed to add mystery about who would be picked first but foundered because a) the top 10 is the most predictable phase of the whole draft and b) most of the picks belonged to GWS and/or Gold Coast anyway.
Fortunately this idea was soon shelved in favour of having each of the top 10 draftees shaking hands and posing for pictures with the man who will be their senior coach for at least half of 2016. It almost seems unnecessary, after all as much as fans of some clubs would disagree it’s not like the kids are never going to be seen again, but I suppose you’d have to have the hardest heart to deny them that awkward moment of glory. And won’t that investment portfolio bestowed on Jacob Weitering for being picked first come in handy in a few years when he’s searching for change down the back of his couch?
This year the draftees were provided with the bonus of a live crowd of ticketholders hollering indecipherably as picks were made. It was a great introduction to being an AFL football, where you’re guaranteed to having red-faced, sweating lunatics hanging over the race yelling at you almost every week. Opposition fans will probably abuse them as well.
The main criticism of the night was that it took place at such glacial speed that there was enough spare time for a side draft where ranked everyone’s phantom draft. It’s not that they did everything wrong with the coverage, after all we tuned into to find out who our side was picking and got there eventually without the coverage crapping out after pick 11 once everyone had switched over to the golf.
One positive change was to give each side their own booth and hire multiple cameraman to cover them. A few years ago one poor bastard was dropped into the middle of 18 tables and expected to focus on the right group as picks were made. This worked fine in the genteel early stages of the draft, but when selections started to fly in at a rapid pace (remember when they flew in at a rapid pace? If last night was your first draft the answer is NO) he ended up spinning around like a whirling dervish trying to find the right shot and more often than not located the right table after they’d just finished their pick.
This year the coverage got through the first 10 picks without significant drama. It was like Fox Sports expected that 75% of the audience would tune out after pick 11. It was after the pomp and circumstance that things started to go south at a rapid rate, and the host broadcaster need not shoulder all the blame. The quick decline in the quality of viewing was the only thing rapid about the night, and from there the process plodded along so slowly that by the end of the first round only the keenest draft enthusiasts and Geelong fans were interested in bolters, shifters or smokies. The rest of us sat mouth agape in front of our TV enjoying the spectacle of a live broadcast going – as the kids would say – “tits up”.
On the main channel they wrapped things up and moved to cliché laden interviews after the first round, but where else would you have been but on the full coverage channel when the picks started dropping at the rate of one every three minutes and an increasingly hostile Gil was forced to continually rush on and off stage as if he was doing a beep test? Somewhere in all of this carnage Adelaide drafted somebody with the surname Doedee as if to deliberately ensure that the swimming pool scene from Caddyshack would live forever.
The league CEO started the night doing his best Elliot Goblet impersonation and gradually turned into Patrick Bateman as he realised that whenever a team passed he would have to walk up to the microphone and announce it. Several weeks ago the clubs were reported to have met for a test draft to make sure all the new bidding system equipment was working, but obviously nobody thought to hold a dress rehearsal of the television coverage while they were at it.
Who could have thought that after the top 10 was done it and each was going to add anything to proceedings to have Gil announce every single pick – and if he had to why couldn’t he just stay at the lectern instead of rushing on and office 45 times? The process of clubs locking in bids, sitting around for a few seconds twiddling with their laptop and G-Money walking on stage to read it was in no way an advance on the old method of a craggy recruiter self-consciously leaning over the microphone and reading out “Player number…” before moving onto the next selection. If you like endless shots of tables full of middle-aged men (and always men) looking longingly at computers this was the night for you.
At times it seemed that the coverage had been rigged to make picks seem like they were taking longer than they actually were. When Essendon trolled Steven Silvagni by forcing him to match their bid for his son in a storyline far more exciting than the last Liam Neeson movie it took 30 seconds for the match to be publicly acknowledged, and acted upon as if the process couldn’t have been wrapped up in five if it had been done verbally.
Other highlights included Gil’s eyes doing the full 360 at one point as he stood on stage in silence trying to work out whether he was supposed to be speaking or not, and the vigilante activities of Luke Beveridge who came dressed like somebody you’d avoid on public transport then proceeded to storm the stage for an announcement that the Bulldogs had drafted Josh Dunkley before it had even been confirmed that he was officially theirs. The microphone cut out on him, so he exited stage left only for Gil to come on and say exactly the same thing he had been trying to a few seconds earlier.
We should be thankful the draft is televised, but what would we have really missed out on if it had been done over the radio in the old way. Ross Lyon looking like he wanted to kill somebody, wondering why there was only three people left in the GWS booth by the end of the night and not a great deal else. For this we paid the price of the coverage being strung out for hours like footy’s equivalent of Apocalypse Now Redux. Fortunately rookie elevations were removed from the evening; otherwise the National Draft would have still been going on by the time the Pre-Season draft started.
It was slower than [insert a well-known freeway in your state or territory], but fantastic viewing for fans of desperately unhinged television. The 1983 Magarey Medal telecast still remains the gold standard for baffling coverage of a major Australian rules football event, but this battled hard to be considered a contender. Meanwhile while all of this was happening Turkey was shooting down a Russian fighter jet, leaving open the possibility that if World War III erupts we’ll be having televised drafts a lot more often. Let’s see how people like it when the armed forces stretch their version out to three hours.
The far from breakneck pace of the evening proved a winner for one group at least, people who enjoy exploiting the disinterest of teenagers in their own privacy to turn up social media ‘scandals’ involving draftees. Last night they had a win that in the new scandal bidding system was equivalent to pick 153.
For Melbourne fans the escape hatch opened after pick 46, but I was having such a good time that it felt compelling to see what happened next. We were eventually rewarded with a Richmond selecting a character called Oleg Markov who appears to be a cinema villain from 1913, and an improbably named fellow called Wylie Buzza who must have been recruited directly from the WWE. Sadly there was nothing for Didymus Blanket fans, but after missing out on Freddie Clutterbuck a few years ago I’m desperately hoping that he winds up at the Dees in the rookie draft. Can he play football? Does it matter?
The great survivors of the draft were Geelong, who by the time they were called on to have a pick had been trapped longer than those Chilean coal miners. If there was an explanation of why Chris Scott was replaced by Someone Else when their first selection was read out I missed it. Maybe he ducked out for a milkshake and didn’t make it back in time?
Geelong would ultimately use the last pick of the draft on somebody so obscure that Fox Sports didn’t have a photo of him handy, and without fanfare or an announcement of any sort it was over. The commentators (who had done a fantastic job padding through 90 minutes of landfill television) were left unnecessarily trying to keep things upbeat and interesting. It only became clear that the evening was over when Neil Balme was shown picking up his briefcase and going home.
I expect Gil didn’t come on and tell everyone to go home like Ferris Bueller because he was already quaffing a crate of champers at the after-party and trying to forget what he’d just been involved with.
It was a fitting ending to a night that was gloriously shambolic. You wouldn’t have it any other way would you? An AFL draft night without technical mishaps would be like a Formula One race where nobody crashes into a wall, it wouldn’t be right. We live in hope that the players our side picked will turn out to be good, but no matter how badly it goes you know we’ll be right back in the same place again next year hoping for a better result. We all live in hope of better drafting, but if the coverage could continue being presented as a comedy that would be ace thanks Gil.

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