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Is the AFL's expansion strategy misguided?

Roar Guru
9th March, 2011
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3031 Reads

2012 will see the introduction of Greater Western Sydney to the AFL, the second new club to enter the competition in as many seasons.

This means the AFL will now have an 18-team league – crammed into the five major states – as it looks to consolidate its position as Australia’s most popular football code and win over areas outside the game’s original heartland in Melbourne.

It’s clear that when the AFL plans for expansion and growth of the game, they automatically think that more teams is the only answer.

Australia’s population is around is around 22 million people, from as many different backgrounds as you can imagine. In the United States the population is closer to 300 million, yet their most popular sporting codes think 30 is the right number of teams for the elite level of their game – spread across 25 states. One team for every 10 million people, as opposed to the AFL soon having a team for every 1.2m people.

It’s interesting to note that 25 of the US states have neither an NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL team. These are the most professional sports organisations in the world, and they have realised that expansion doesn’t mean setting up teams in every geographical region. The Sacramento Kings’ impending move to Anaheim suggests the owners understand when a market – California – has become saturated and there are more opportunities elsewhere.

Promoting growth of the game outside of the regions that are already sold on the product doesn’t have to mean more teams. Not only does it mean current teams eventually have less prospective fans/areas to market too, it also stretches the talent pool even thinner.

There is over 800 players on AFL lists already, and many argue that the last couple of teams to sneak into finals each year are just there to make up the numbers. No team has come from outside the top four to win a flag since the AFL introduced the McIntyre final eight system in 2000.

But more teams has already led to discussion of a bigger finals series, some suggesting even ten teams should qualify. While the eagerness to grow such a great game is the obvious next step, it isn’t worth diminishing the product. Expansion can be done in other ways.

Take the NBA’s examples from just this weekend. Two of the top teams, San Antonio and Miami, became the “Los Spurs” and “El Heat” for the night in a Latin-themed game promoted strongly in South America, continuing a campaign that began in 2009.

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This played second fiddle to another match on Saturday though – the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors played the first ever NBA regular season games in Europe, with two games at London’s O2 Arena.

Obviously, basketball is a well established global game already. But it did originate in the USA and its no coincidence that it still holds the game’s biggest league. Despite this, the international expansion efforts of the NBA have lead to the 2010/11 NBA season kicking off with 84 international players on team rosters.

It will take a long time before Australian Rules Football is that well developed in so many countries, but in order to reach that point, the code needs to ensure it doesn’t lessen the quality of its showcase, the AFL.

More teams, particularly with the impending free agency and potentially much larger salary caps, leads to possible disruption of competitive balance. Poorer clubs are likely to slip further away from the wealthier ones. More one-sided finals are not good for the image and reputation of the game.

Therefore, more teams is not necessarily the answer for growth. A greater focus on converting existing impartial followers of the game into passionate customers would make more sense. There are already big issues with the lop-sided fixture, and perhaps less teams is the way to go.

Imagine 14 teams, where each team plays each other twice, once at home and once away, in a 26 round season. The pre-season competition would need to be removed or shortened, and teams would want at least two mid-season breaks, but there could be no complaints regarding the fairness of the fixture at all.

Reducing teams is probably the last thing on the AFL’s mind. But it would inevitably lead to a better overall product. It’s only a matter of time until 10-team Victoria becomes untenable and struggling clubs should be given every incentive to play regular season games in developing Aussie Rules markets – not just those within our shores.

There are many different methods of expansion, and although it may be too late now, the AFL needs to think outside of the large but sparsely populated square that is Australia.

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