However the AFL finds itself at a tipping point. While growth has been steady, largely due to a series of checks and balances designed to keep the product equitable, it appears that the inevitable plateau is near. The very things that have seen the competition expand and succeed are now at the point of destroying the core product. For all the bells and whistles, AFL is (or should be) a sport. It is about teams competing to win each and every week. The phrase "integrity" of the competition gets thrown around a lot, by media and supporters alike, but the truth is the league's bean counters have slowly stripped the league of its competition. The greed and bonuses of fat cats have ensured that, while the game has numerically grown in size and stature, it has ceased to be a sport. Indeed, it bears more resemblance to the contrived world of WWE than the sporting glory of the world's great sporting leagues. Now they aren't all perfect, the EPL is only likely to be won by one of five teams, but only the AFL buggers up so many of the fundamentals that make for an engaging and truly significant sporting competition.
Let's break down some of the causes-
The recent expansion has watered down the teams. There is no doubt. With the lure to basketball in the 1990s and soccer in the 2000s the number of good players being produced is down. Bringing in more teams only increases the number of substandard players who pull on a jumper. One could argue that Fremantle have never one a meaningful game of football since their admission to the league in 1996. Port Adelaide do have a premiership, but currently have few players on the list that would attract attention elsewhere. Both Brisbane and Gold Coast have young sides that were routinely belted during 2011. The introduction of GWS Giants in 2012 will only see this record broken next year. At a league level, the competition is worse off when fewer teams have access to good players and have to fill lists with young kids or VFL rejects. (Not that I am disparaging the VFL warriors who eventually make the top league. The stories of Podsiadly and Barlow are brilliant and an inspiration to others to keep working hard. What this shows however is that the league now needs more players and needs to draw on lower comps to get players on their lists. This didn't happen as often 15 years ago.)
At a club level the effect is far worse. The majority of teams do not have depth to their lists. The Bombers best 22 looked great early in the season but take out a couple of players (Dempsey, Watson, Winderlich) and the reserve players couldn't make up for it. They lost five straight to teams that would finish below them. The Bulldogs were minus Lake and usually a midfielder (Cooney for instance) and they ceased to be competitive against teams they dominated just twelve months before. Carlton missed a couples of guys and had to dip into their list only to lose to teams beneath them (ironically including the Bulldogs). At face value this would make for a more interesting competition where anyone can beat anyone. But this isn't entirely the case when the talent on display is woeful. Jason Tutt looked brilliant for the Dogs when he debuted - against Port Power, who had lost back-to-back 100 point games, and a Freo side that had to request AFL assistance just to field a team. He'd probably look great against the suburban teams too.
Of course these weaker teams have little chance of becoming good again when the draft is so ridiculously compromised to set up the new teams. Between priority picks, which can't be removed until after 2012, (since Gold Coast have made it part of their initial strategy!) and the compensation picks the AFL has created a system that will stop clubs climbing back up the ladder. The introduction of free agency will only make this worse as teams with big cash reserves, facilities and sponsorship opportunities get the better players. Few players will want to hang out in Casey or Seaford. The Westpac Centre? Melbourne Airport? That's a little more like it! With a smaller percentage of good players in the league, spread inequitably amongst more teams, the quality of competition suffers. The AFL often quotes the high number of teams appearing in preliminary finals as proof the draft creates a balanced and fair competition. Whilst the statistic is true, the measure is inaccurate. If you examine the number of grand finalists in this period (2001-2011) the following patterns emerges:
- Brisbane defeat Essendon
- Brisbane defeat Collingwood
- Brisbane defeat Collingwood
- Port Power defeat Brisbane
- Sydney defeat West Coast
- West Coast defeat Sydney
- Geelong defeat Port Power
- Hawthorn defeat Geelong
- Geelong defeat St Kilda
- Collingwood draw with St Kilda and then defeat St Kilda in the replay.
- Collingwood vs Geelong
The distribution of players isn't the only cause for concern. The number of wins over 100 went up astronomically this year as top sides try to eek out every last bit of percentage from an opponent. In other sports, likebasketball, large victories are usually cooled off as the victor rests players and takes the foot off the accelerator in the last quarter. With the emphasis on percentage as a separator for teams, this is unrealistic to assume teams would ever go easy to finish a game off. The league itself is stopping games being competitive. The introduction of the substitute should be applauded for helping teams continue when players are injured. However teams with multiple injuries are effectively dead in the water anyway. The high impact nature of the sport means injury is inevitable, especially with the recent emphasis on quick bursts of speed over the endurance athletes of the old days. This need for percentage and loss of players mid-game only exacerbates the blow out potential in games. Perhaps the league could look at alternate scheduling arrangements to make head-to-head results of greater significance than percentage?
The percentage problem isn't one that can be easily fixed without addressing the fixture. And nothing in the AFL is more fixed than this. The AFL can never, and will never, be a competition while it presents this charade of a schedule. There is no formula for scheduling (like the NBA or NFL) nor is there scope for a simple home & away draw. The focus for the AFL is on big crowds and therefore big revenue. The teams themselves aren't relied on to be a draw, rather it is the history of the clubs and the number of supporters. The 22 round season is unworkable with 18 teams. Well actually that's not true. It is unworkable when Essendon, Carlton and Collingwood have to play each other twice for historical reasons. And Essendon and Richmond, and the respective interstate derbies. And some teams sell games to other clubs. This use of a deliberately planned fixture ensures the competition isn't competitive. As long as some teams get to play the last team twice, and others don't, the AFL isn't a competition. It is a deliberately manipulated form of entertainment. Like wrestling.
What could work is the use of a conference system. Splitting the league in two conferences of nine would enable teams to have a clear rationale for when and where they play. You would play the other eight teams in your conference twice (home and away) and the other conference once (rotating who is home and away on a yearly basis).
It could work like this:
- Conference 1: Collingwood, Richmond, St Kilda, Hawthorn, Melbourne, GWS, Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane
- Conference 2: Carlton, Essendon, North, Western Bulldogs, Geelong, Adelaide, Port, West Coast, Fremantle.
That's a 25 game season where who is playing who is clear. The number of games is probably too high but in order to fix the first problem (dilution of the player pool) actually cutting two teams would solve this problem. The top four would play three weeks of finals before the top teams from each conference playing in the grand final. The competition, at least in terms of scheduling, is equal. Teams play finals at the ground of their choice (so their ACTUAL home ground- Geelong can play in Geelong). Surely a high finishing team earns this right.
Now none of this is likely to happen. (Actually we may have a chance on the draft rules). The AFL isn't interested in a fair competition that is an actual sport. They want 'more than a game', one that is an entertainment spectacle that attracts top corporate dollars and keeps their pay checks fat.
But the tipping point is close. How much longer will fans put up with lopsided matches with poor skills? How long will Bulldog, Saint, Demon and Richmond fans tolerate decades of disappointment when they realize they have no hope of winning a premiership in a competition that is designed to keep big draws in top?
Who knows? But we know crowd numbers were down this year and average margin was up. And the last two premiers are in another grand final... Hopefully someone realises there is greater worth in having a true competition than being Australia's answer to the WCW.