Will the MCG say bye-bye to the Shield final?
Midway through the last AFL season, the AFL and the Players’ Association expressed the desire to insert a second bye into every team’s draw in future seasons, maintaining the 22 home and away games for every club but spreading them over 24 weeks.
It’s a player welfare issue, with the chance of taking a second week off during the season giving the players a break from niggling injuries.
From a marketing perspective also, there’s an advantage in starting the season a week earlier. The NRL, which starts its season in early March, gets a 3-4 week head start over the AFL in terms of attracting crowds and publicity.
The AFL would love to claw back a week of that.
But it is not so easy – the AFL’s plans have historically been frustrated by cricket.
While state cricket cannot pull close to the crowds of the AFL’s first round, cricket’s contract with the MCG give it the first claim to the ground for the duration of the cricket season.
Therefore, any attempts to move the season back have failed.
Although the AFL draw for 2013 hasn’t been released in full, and won’t be until 31st October, the AFL have announced parts of the draw, with other games being leaked and hinted at.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece that is put together gives an insight into next season, and reveals clues as to other likely games.
The first round fixture is available, and in a bizarre piece of scheduling is spread over two weeks.
Two games, Adelaide v Essendon and Fremantle v West Coast, at non-cricket venues, are scheduled for the weekend when the AFL would have liked to have had a full opening round.
The remaining games of round one are held over the Easter weekend.
The traditional season opener, the Richmond v Carlton game at the MCG, is now the third game of the season; being played on Thursday 28th March.
With a public holiday fixture on Easter Monday; Geelong and Hawthorn start their seasons eleven days after Adelaide and Essendon do.
Last year, Richmond v Carlton was the second game; with GWS’s AFL debut against Sydney at ANZ Stadium being played a week before the other round one games.
With the two Sydney teams playing each other at ANZ in the opening round again in 2013, with ANZ not being a first-class cricket venue, and with the NRL having such a head start over the AFL, it’s a mystery why the GWS v Sydney game wasn’t also scheduled for the first weekend rather than not being played until Easter Saturday.
By scheduling some games for that weekend, the AFL have indicated they’re still keen to start their season earlier in future years.
The split round to open the season is far from satisfactory. But the AFL will use it to put pressure on cricket to hand over the stadiums to AFL earlier in future seasons.
It’s hard to see how cricket’s going to win this one. They don’t have the product in March to justify occupying a 100,000 seat stadium.
There’s only a few more years to go on the current contract; and with the AFL keen to start earlier, cricket would be unlikely to get the current arrangements renewed.
And, with Sheffield Shield cricket not attracting crowds, playing the Shield final at suburban grounds would produce a better look and atmosphere.
In Sydney, a venue such as North Sydney Oval or Bankstown Oval would be more than sufficient. Moves are afoot in Melbourne to redevelop Junction Oval, which would give a 7,000 capacity oval to cricket for as long as they want it.
But cricket has one last hurrah, one last reason to want to keep the MCG in March.
In 2015, the ODI World Cup takes place. The tournament runs from late February, finishing in late March or early April.
After that date the MCG would be due to be handed over to the AFL.
The venue for the final is still to be determined. If a deal can’t be worked out with the AFL, the final won’t be in Melbourne.
It’s not hard to see where this is going and what the inevitable deal will be. In 2015, cricket will keep the MCG for the World Cup, including the final, with the AFL using other venues for the first couple of rounds.
Then in 2016, and future seasons, the MCG will be handed over to the AFL earlier, with the Sheffield Shield final played at suburban venues.
And the transition to a two-bye season will be complete.