The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2017 Results

A Franchise Affair

Copyright © Douglas Hamilton 2017

A consequence of the discovery that Jimmy Taggart had been playing in the AFL wearing dark glasses and a body suit because he was a zombie rather than a normal person with a skin condition was an upsurge of interest in all things undead, and the announcement that there was to be a match between two teams comprising zombies was greeted with considerable enthusiasm. Although complete assimilation of the undead had yet to be achieved, an expected attendance of thirty thousand at Docklands stadium for a match between the Shoreham Walkers and the Fitzroy Revenants was taken as evidence that community fears were easing. Stadium management were unapologetic about the booking, as they made clear in the press conference before the match.

"We think this match and others to follow will be extremely successful," said the Stadium CEO, "and will open up an important new direction for Australian football. We believe the idea that the zombies will be physically repugnant in a way which will discourage attendance is ridiculous and I point to the Kiss concerts we have run here in the past."

The CEO was asked what arrangements were being made to ensure that normal spectators would be able to see the action.

"We think our arrangement will be a world first," she said, "we'll have the zombie players wearing sunglasses to minimise the impact of the ambient light, while spectators will don night-vision goggles to maximise the value of that very same light. We think contrasting shots of the audience and then the players will enhance the viewing experience and ensure a world-wide audience for what will be a ground-breaking event."

"Will you be using the term 'ground-breaking event' in your advertising?" asked a journalist.

"Under no circumstances will we be doing anything that might negatively impinge on the sensitivities of a minority group," said the CEO, "and I would add that because of the zombies' physical advantages the event will be cheap to run and have almost zero impact on the environment. We will for instance have little need of artificial light, so the power requirements will be minimal."

The first zombie match in any football code anywhere in the world was something which had considerable novelty value, and both stadium management and the zombie population were happy with a gate of almost thirty thousand and a television audience in the millions. Promoters were also encouraged to see the crowd get into the spirit of the event, waving wooden stakes and silver bullets and suggesting that these could find productive use should any player refuse to clean up his act. One of the Walkers was reported and fined for inciting Fitzroy supporters after being observed running around the ground showing his teeth and pointing suggestively at his neck, but this was seen as a minor issue in the broader scheme of things. The event was both a financial and cultural success, and Stadium management were quickly engaged in planning for more matches of the same type.

"We think it's important to keep drilling where oil's been found," said the CEO.

The zombie community saw additional benefits, taking the view that sport could provide a way towards reconciliation with the general population, and to widespread surprise they announced their intention to apply for a licence to field an AFL team in the 2021 competition. The announcement immediately generated a storm of debate on social media, and tasteless remarks on topics ranging from the likely treatment of blood-flow injuries to teams trying to bury the opposition were rife.

It was however understood that the AFL was looking favourably on the idea, believing a zombie team and a Zombie Assimilation round during the home and away part of the season would help recover some of the marketing ground lost the year before. Following the success of the Dreamtime and Anzac rounds the AFL had progressively themed almost all the remaining rounds but had made a mistake with the 'Round with No Name', overlooking that the victims of amnesia to whom it had been dedicated might well forget to show up for the ceremonies. High hopes were held for the zombies and the announcement became the major topic of discussion in that evening's edition of Footy 720 (football from all angles and back again) on cable television.

Footy 720 was presented with the two hosts, Jerry 'Gerard' Stoker and Roberto 'Robbo' Cronin seated at a desk in front of a rolling backdrop of football images.

Gerard: Well, no prizes for guessing what’s top of the agenda tonight, Robbo.

Robbo: No, this really is one for the headlines. Almost enough to take your mind off the Rules Committee's proposal that the player nearest any ball going out of bounds should cop a week's suspension.

Gerard: Let's not get side-tracked here, Robbo. The AFL is all about maximising entertainment without impacting on the defensive elements of our great game…

Robbo: Huh!

Gerard: but tonight's show will be dominated by the thoroughly exciting news that zombie business leaders have announced they will be bidding to take up a franchise in the AFL. I understand that the proposal is for the team to be known as the Fangs, and that their willingness to play to the death-knock will be an important selling point. I believe they already have a motto for their first membership drive which is 'get your teeth into a real football team.' AFL supremo Lachlan Mack has agreed to join us for the discussion, but before that can I get an initial reaction from you, Robbo?

Robbo: Well, what can I say. I've thought for some time that with GWS and the Gold Coast bedded down the AFL should be starting to look for some new blood

Gerard (smiles): thanks for that Robbo.

Robbo: and I certainly think our undead friends can provide that.

Gerard: Do you think there will be much public support for this?

Robbo: My information is that it has a strong underground push behind it (he starts to laugh and is unable to continue for a moment) and that the zombies are sure they can rise to the occasion. But I foresee some serious difficulties with the rules. I mean for instance, is there a specific rule about wearing wrap-around sunglasses while you're playing? I know that Jimmy Taggart has had a special dispensation on his, but it might be a different matter when a whole team has them.

Gerard: You think this might become an issue like the wearing of gloves a few years ago?

Robbo: Well I can certainly see Eddie and some of the other presidents arguing that players shouldn't be allowed to employ artificial aids to their vision.

Gerard: That might be true, Robbo, but remember that all prospective players must nominate for the draft so so there's no guarantee the Fangs will have a monopoly on zombies. I think we all saw how well Jack Renfield performed in the Shoreham-Fitzroy match the other night. His capacity to instantly transform shambling into bounding was quite extraordinary, and that could be a huge asset given that bounding looked to be much quicker than running. I remember watching World War Z and while I'm not across the research on which that was based, what became obvious to me was how quickly zombies can move when they put their minds to it. This could be a real can of worms if you'll pardon the trope!

Robbo: Have you heard the rumour that Carlton have been drafting zombies for some years? And that it explains their recent performances?

Gerard: I think that story might be based on using 'zombies' as a metaphoric term for poor performers, Robbo. Not zombies in the sense of undead people who are collectively suffering from an extremely nasty virus.

Robbo: You might be right. But I still think it's fair to call them the walking dead - I reckon it's years since some of their players have actually run anywhere except when they're chasing a beer.

Gerard: I know you tend to be a bit emotional about a team that's performing badly, Robbo, but I think you're drawing a long bow there.

Commercial break - an advertisement in favour of the proposal is shown, featuring a zombie taking a hanger over the top of a player already standing on another player's shoulders. Voice-over: 'and you thought the Bombers could fly up, up'.

Gerard: Welcome Lachlan.

Lachlan: Thanks Gerard, Robbo. I'm glad to be here.

Gerard: So let's get straight into it. Is it true that the AFL Is considering the zombie proposal?

Lachlan: All I can say at the moment is that we have received a business proposal from a group representing Australia's undead population, and that we are considering it seriously. We're crunching the numbers and early indications are that they look promising, but there is a question as to whether the current level of interest in zombie football is sustainable.

Robbo: Are you giving it grave consideration?

Lachlan: I'm not sure that sort of remark is necessary, Robbo.

Gerard: Will you think again about going to an unbalanced competition?

Lachlan: Well, Gerard, you know that we have an ongoing preference for an even number of teams, and I can say that we have another proposal that we are also considering.

Gerard: And that would be from Tasmania, I imagine?

Lachlan: Tasmania? (he laughs) I prefer to be serious on television, Gerard.

Robbo : Why won't you consider Tasmania?

Lachlan: We've been through this many times before as you well know, Robbo. You and I, and I imagine Gerard too, we all know where Tasmania is. But can you name a business organization that does?

Robbo: Gunns?

Lachlan: We'll consider a proposal from Tasmania if and when the time is ripe, but what I can say at the moment is that in terms of trying to raise the necessary finance the Tasmanians are talking about selling a lot of apples and then running an extra boat race if their weather improves, and that just doesn't cut it in the current economic climate.

Gerard: So what's this other proposal then?

Lachlan: It's from a consortium of opal miners in Coober Pedy, in South Australia. Their idea is to build an underground football stadium in the desert, which would then be available for games twenty-four hours a day.

Gerard: Won't there be some issues with grass? Or are we going for rebound ace?

Lachlan: I prefer constructive comments Gerard, although I won't deny there are one or two technical issues still to be ironed out. But it's a very exciting proposal.

Robbo: What's the planned capacity?

Lachlan: Seating for about a hundred thousand. And another hundred thousand in corporate boxes - we think it's particularly important to protect the business community on whose behalf we run football in what will be quite unusual conditions. The large size of the stadium is possible because we'll be able to use all the BHP equipment that will be lying round whenever the Roxby Downs miners are on strike, which we're predicting will be pretty much twenty-four seven.

Gerard: You're not suggesting that BHP will just let their equipment be used for no charge, are you?

Lachlan (staring hard into the camera): I think BHP will understand what's in their own best interests. The AFL is a very powerful organization, although we do of course always use that power wisely and for the common good. And think what BHP will get in return - favourable publicity, a lot of goodwill on our part, and public recognition of their brand.

Robbo: So that's it? You're going to drag us out into the middle of South Australia in fifty degree heat so we can watch a bunch of miners playing people who are clinically dead?

Lachlan: You're being extremely negative, Robbo. One real advantage would be that if global warming continues the way the Prime Minister says it won't, we would be the first football organization in the world to have an oval that's permanently available and totally impervious to the weather. Problems at the surface don't matter too much when you're a kilometre underground!

Gerard: Perhaps if we could get back to the zombie proposal for a moment, Lachlan. Do you see a zombie team being given some of the draft concessions the last two expansion teams received?

Robbo: Perhaps you could dig up your old policies (he starts chuckling again) and see if they work better this time.

Lachlan: If the proposal goes ahead there will be some concessions, but let's not bury ourselves in detail at this stage.

The subsequent allocation of an AFL licence to the Bittern South 'Fangs' football club was controversial in the extreme, but the criticism was muted when international television ratings for AFL matches jumped to previously undreamed-of heights. There was an early controversy when questions of copyright surfaced in relation to the club's catchy theme song 'We Will Never Say Die', but it was replaced with 'Fangs for the Memories' and the trouble died down. The level of support waned slightly when the Fangs performed badly in their first three years but rose dramatically again when the team made the finals in its fourth year.

'Easy-beat Undeads showing new life' was one headline at that exciting time. 'Magpies get it in the neck' followed after a spectacular win over the wooden spoon favourites. 'Undeads running on top of the ground' was another, with every sub-editor in the land by then searching for the winner. 'Near dead certainties for the flag' was seen as ambiguous and 'Fangs chomp on Tiger carcasses' as questionable but a number of fans tweeted their appreciation of both 'Undeads dig their way out of hole' and 'Zombies channelling Lazarus' after an amazing recovery in a match that had seemed lost. More publicity for the club followed when it signed its best player to the first hundred-year contract in the history of the code.

"Membership is up, and it's no longer the case that all our followers are teenagers," said the Fangs president during his weekly press conference at the Crematorium, "we feel we have the makings of a side that will last forever, and it will be a long time before anybody will be able to repeat that old chestnut and say that the Undeads lack real bite."

The president smiled widely, making quite a few people feel nervous. Nor were they all football followers.

It seemed clear that the AFL was on a winner. While international soccer had planned to follow suit on the zombies once FIFA had paid off the people managing their latest corruption inquiry, its cause was weakened when a zombie player who had failed to look after himself properly during the off-season rose to a corner and drove both the ball and his own head into the back of the net.