Don’t augment the AFL season, reduce it

Ben Waterworth Roar Guru

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    Jeff Kennett

    Hawthorn club President, Jeff Kennett, claps his players off the ground. (AAP Image/David Crosling)

    ‘Less is more’. It’s such a well-known proverb. Whether you’re writing an article, designing a website, or hosting a wedding reception, content seems more efficient when it’s produced succinctly. Now the AFL must employ the same approach to its home-and-away season structure.

    On Saturday, outgoing Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett told SEN radio that the AFL should extend the home-and-away season to 30 rounds to even up the competition.

    Huh? Thirty rounds? He was kidding, surely?

    Kennett’s exhaled many outlandish statements during his time as Hawks chairman, but his most recent one was plain silly. Yes an even competition is crucial to its long-term future, but a 30-round season in today’s era would border on suicidal.

    In fact, the 2011 season has given us numerous reasons why the AFL shouldn’t extend its home-and-away fixture.

    One week out from the finals and a large portion of players can give no more. They’re either spent, injured or both. In 2011, they’ve been pushed to new limits, going harder and higher for longer periods of time.

    And it’s beginning to take its toll.

    Ahead of Round 23, Fremantle had 17 players on its injury list. Some of the names included Matthew Pavlich, David Mundy, Hayden Ballantyne and Greg Broughton – all top ten players at the club.

    The Dockers could barely walk against Collingwood last Friday night. If they were still playing in six weeks, not too many players would be able to stand up.

    This year’s 24-round season has turned into an anti-climax.

    As the season has progressed, margins have increased, the chasm between clubs has grown and crowds have thinned. Collingwood, Geelong, Hawthorn, West Coast and Carlton cemented their spots in the top five back in Round 16 and haven’t been challenged since. While the lower placed teams have bottomed out faster than Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth program.

    So what’s the solution? How do we avoid this in the future?

    Don’t increase the number of games in a season. Rather, decrease it.

    AFL fans would think they would be the biggest losers from a shortened season. After all, we follow the game like a religion and want to absorb as much footy as possible.

    But supporters wouldn’t lose.

    Yes we’d witness fewer games, but the matches would be of higher quality. Players would be fresher and fitter come the end of the season. The best talent would be available for selection.

    Dead rubbers, like the clash between finals-bound Hawthorn and exhausted Western Bulldogs last weekend, would diminish. The gulf between teams on the ladder would close in and teams would play with the motivation they could still feature in the top eight. Late-season contests would be as entertaining as ever and, for once, more than pride would be on the line.

    But what’s the magic number? How many weeks should there be in an AFL home-and-away season?

    A 17-round season would be ideal.

    When the AFL’s newest team, Greater Western Sydney, is introduced into the competition next season, it will create an eccentric draw. Each team will play one another once, plus five random others, over the course of the 22 rounds. A handful of teams will be advantaged, because they’ll take on a number of bottom sides twice.

    But by decreasing the season to 17 rounds, it would dispense any unfairness. Every team would play each other once a year and the home/away titles would be swapped the following year.

    No nonsense. An even playing field for all teams.

    There are, as always, obstacles.

    This season, the AFL just a $1.25 billion broadcast rights deal. Therefore, broadcasters would argue to keep the 22-round structure to get full value for money.

    However, arguing for a shorter season and an extended finals series might be just as beneficial.

    Adding an extra two or three weeks onto the finals series would mean the networks would show more games with significant ramifications. AFL finals are a TV ratings hit, so the more finals matches, the more viewership for networks.

    If broadcasters are still not satisfied by that, there’s always room for a State of Origin return. You just never know.

    The shorter season would also mean the game wouldn’t receive as much media spotlight during the year.

    These days, footy is in our faces from the NAB Cup in February to the Grand Final in late September. Therefore, if you reduced the season, the AFL’s best selling point – the game itself – wouldn’t receive full treatment.

    But if you look at the NFL, a league with a 17-week regular season, it’s still the most watched popular sport in the USA, despite having far fewer games than baseball, basketball or ice hockey.

    AFL wouldn’t lose publicity or popularity. In fact, the longer breaks would not only allow players more time to recover in the off-season and to prepare in the pre-season, it would also allow the league and broadcasters build anticipation amongst fans and commentators.

    Given the AFL has reaffirmed its commitment to 22 games for the next two years, there can be no change to the number of rounds per season until 2014.

    But hopefully, during that time, the AFL will realise it needs a ‘less is more’ approach.

    With the game heading the way it is, the shorter the season, the better the spectacle.

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