It’s been described as the elephant in the room for the AFL; an inequitable home and away season draw, distorted by two factors and exaggerated by the league’s maximising of its bottom line at the expense of a fairer competition.
The two factors that condemn a truly fair AFL competition are:
(i). With 18 teams in the competition from next season, unless the AFL reduces the home and away season to 17 rounds or expands to 34 rounds – neither of which is a reality for various and justified reasons – clubs are not playing their opponents an even amount of times. For example, some teams play newbies Gold Coast Suns twice this season while others face them once.
(ii). As a legacy of the national competition’s Victorian Football League roots, with its 10 Victorian clubs versus soon-to-be eight interstaters, the level of travel each club must undertake per season is naturally going to be uneven.
“If there is one thing in football that never ceases to amaze me it is that every year the AFL draw always seems to work out reasonably fair for all clubs,” wrote legendary player and coach turned commentator, Leigh Matthews – a sentiment that tends to be echoed around the competition, or at least accepted given the lack of real antagonism against the draw.
But the draw would be an easier pill to swallow – “reasonably fair for all clubs” – if the inconsistencies were limited to those two drawbacks. But they tend to be exaggerated and amplified when the draw is laid out.
Firstly, the lack of a system in place to ensure which teams face which opponents twice on a regular basis season after season, means there’s no attempt at correcting the anomaly of who meets who twice.
Secondly, by not ensuring Victorian clubs travels outside of their state an even amount of times, there’s an even greater imbalance.
Throw in the accepted practice of some teams selling home games to the likes of Tasmania, Canberra, Darwin and Cairns, and you have a draw distorted by finances rather than fair play.
Reigning premiers Collingwood, for example, played 22 straight games in Melbourne over the course of 2010 and 2011 (four of which were finals played with earned home ground advantage) – a whole year without playing outside of their home state; 19 times playing at their home ground, the MCG, and on the other three occasions across Melbourne’s CBD at Etihad Stadium.
Contrast this with fellow Victorian club Richmond, who played three consecutive interstate matches early in 2011 – one of which was a sold home game.
It’s not hard to see why the AFL is keen to maximise the amount of times the likes of Collingwood play at the ‘G. After all, the AFL boasts home and away attendances that embarrass all other Australian codes.
The big three in Victoria – Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon – currently hold an average of over 50,000 per home game.
According to the MCG, 2011 AFL attendances are currently 2.143 million at an average of 56,403 per game.
Yet the draw anomaly cannot be ignored as a matter of fairness, particularly at a time when the balance of power within the league lies with the likes of Collingwood, for it further distorts an already uneven playing field.
The AFL will keep the 22-round fixture list through to the end of 2013, at which point the Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Giants would have settled into the competition and the teams meeting them twice won’t have an easier chance at four points.
A conference system remains the easiest and fairest option to implement who plays who twice, but the old dilemma of fairness versus profitability appears yet again.
By splitting the 10 Victorian clubs into two conferences (along with the two NSW, Queensland, West Australian and South Australian teams for good measure), the AFL deprives itself of Victorian clashes, not to mention resulting in only one Showdown in South Australia, one derby in West Australia etc per season.
By putting the Victorian clubs into one conference and the rest in another, it only increases travel for the interstaters and decreases it for the Victorians.
If the conference system is ignored, then some form of equalisation within the doubling up of fixtures needs to occur – some way of evening up the draw.
The AFL cannot ignore the growing divide between clubs – from those who have to sell home games, like Richmond, to those who can afford to send their players to mid-season training camps in Arizona, like Collingwood.
The competition may be salary capped and draft concessions in place to ensure some form of equalisation takes place, but the growing inequities between club operations and spend are only amplified when the draw contains such inconsistencies.
As a matter of fairness and for the league’s integrity, the elephant in the room cannot be ignored any longer.
Follow Adrian on twitter @AdrianMusolino