A conference system won’t provide AFL equality

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Every year people complain about the AFL fixtures. It leads for calls to replace the current system with a US-style conference system, but unfortunately it would not solve any competition equality problems.

Conference systems split teams into geographical groupings to form divisions within a league. The US uses such systems in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL – the four major professional leagues in the US.

Last week, Adelaide coach Brenton Sanderson was the most recent to put his voice behind a change towards a conference system. His assistant, Matthew Clark, has been working on a report to put to the AFL to convert the present free-for-all system into a conference system.

Clarke proposes to split the AFL into three regions, the north, south and west. Each would contain six teams. This would lead to a US-style playoff systems with seeded teams and wildcards.

Within a three-region conference system, teams would play everyone in their conference twice and play every team outside of their conference once per season. It would shorten the AFL regular season to 18 rounds.

Due to ten AFL teams being based in Victoria, it would force four Victorian teams to be assigned to the West or North regions. Those two teams would be forced to travel considerably more than other Victoria-based teams.

Something which seems to go unsaid every time a call for the conference system is made is that it doesn’t work. The US uses it in all four major codes but that does not make all four competitions fair.

In the NFL and NBA, for example, there are epic flaws.

To be the best team in the NFL you must win the Superbowl which was first fought in 1967. There have been 47 Superbowls since then.

There are a staggering ten NFL teams who have never won a Superbowl in a competition with 32 teams. Due to the importance of winning matches within divisions (subset of the two conferences), weak teams in strong divisions are terrible for a very long time.

The Cleveland Browns are in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. Cleveland has never appeared in a Superbowl, let alone won one.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh have appeared in eight and won six – more than any other team in the league.

The NFC West division has been the laughing stock of the NFL for quite some time. Three of the four teams in the division, St Louis, Arizona and Seattle share just one Superbowl victory between them. It has pretty much ensured the fourth team, San Francisco, a free ticket to the playoffs each year.

So bad has the NFC West division been that two seasons ago, Seattle earned a playoff berth by winning the division with a losing record.

They finished the season with seven wins and nine losses but were given a playoff berth because it was enough to win the NFC West division.

In the NBA, Miami are all the rage and seemingly unbeatable. They had a great season which saw them finish as the highest ranked team in the league while racking up a 27-game winning streak. The main reason for their winning streak is their division.

Miami share a division with perennial cellar dwellers Washington and Charlotte, while Orlando Magic imploded following the departure of Dwight Howard. Atlanta are the fifth team in the division and they made the playoffs but would not have had they not been in such a weak division.

This season, Milwaukee grabbed a wildcard despite winning just 38 of their 86 games. They were the eighth seed (of eight) in the Eastern Conference.

In the Western Conference, Utah (43) and Dallas (41) both had more wins than Milwaukee yet were denied wildcards. This was because the Western Conference was considerably stronger than the East and more wins against stronger opposition were required to make the playoffs.

The conference system is great for promoting rivalries within geographical confinements, but in terms of equality they are restrictive. The current AFL fixture is fairer than a conference system would be.

For outright equality, nothing can beat the EPL. Every team plays each other twice a season – once at home and once away. For the AFL to do this they would have to scrap the preseason and finals and the regular season would be 34 rounds long.

Will it happen? Not in anyone’s wildest dreams.

The AFL fixture isn’t 100 percent fair. It favours certain teams, but only marginally.

It is manipulated by the AFL to maximise crowd attendances, however overall it is as fair as a manmade 22 round fixture can be.

Small changes can be made to the fixture to increase equality to the detriment of television ratings and crowd figures, but switching to a conference system is not the answer to a fairer competition.

2014 Brownlow Medal: Alfred Chan has successfully predicted the last two winners. Can he do it again? Read his analysis here.
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