A conference system won’t provide AFL equality

Alfred Chan Columnist

By Alfred Chan, Alfred Chan is a Roar Expert

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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.

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    The Crowd Says (73)

    • May 20th 2013 @ 7:29am
      Jesse G. said | May 20th 2013 @ 7:29am | ! Report

      The author clearly has only a passing knowledge of both the NFL and the NBA. To say that the Heat’s streak was mainly propelled by their poor division/conference is laughable. They’re one of the greatest teams of the past ten years with one of the top five to ten players of all time on their team, along with another sure-fire Hall of Famer and another borderline one. While there is sometimes an imbalance in conference strength, the East is poor now and the West is excellent, this does equalize over time and the top end teams are normally fairly equivalent. Taking the current situation as an example, Miami, in the lesser Eastern Conference, is the best team in the league.

      As for the NFL, saying that the Browns haven’t won because they’re in a good division ignores the fact that they are just incredibly poorly managed and have been for years. The NFL is, in fact, renowned for its parity on a year over year basis. Using the NFC West as an example, while the Seahawks (not the 49ers who, according to the author have a free ticket into the playoffs) made it to the playoffs in 2010-2011 with a losing record, that was a relative fluke. More importantly, that division is now arguably the best in the entire league merely two years later. The 49ers, after a 2010-2011 season with a losing record where they failed to make the playoffs have, in the following two seasons made it to the equivalent of the Preliminary Final and then the Superbowl in back to back seasons.

      More importantly, the NFL has a sophisticated set of rules that govern the schedule. Those rules attempt to equalize, to the extent that they can, the difficulty of a teams schedule based on their results from the prior season. Teams that were good and made the playoffs can be guaranteed to play a couple of extra games the following season against teams that were also in the playoffs in the prior year.

      • Columnist

        May 20th 2013 @ 10:52am
        Alfred Chan said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:52am | ! Report

        I appreciate your comment Jesse G but by saying the East is poor and the West is excellent only adds to the inequality of the NBA conference system.

        It takes a long time for the bottom teams to get to the top due to free agency. Fancied draft picks leave at the first chance they get because they want to play for a winning team but free agency is a whole other discussion.

        • May 20th 2013 @ 1:28pm
          Jesse G. said | May 20th 2013 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

          That’s really just not true of young stars. Dwight Howard is the exception, rather than the rule, and even he was in Orlando for 8 seasons. Chris Paul played with the Hornets for 6 seasons before forcing a trade. Anyway, the reason why the NBA is unbalanced is just because there is such a small quantity of elite talent. Free agency has little to do with it, compared with the luck of getting a very top player through the draft. Finally, I’d dispute the idea that it takes a long time for a team to get from the bottom to the top in the NBA. it frequently takes as little as two seasons from being a very bottom team to a playoff team with a good draft and one or more savvy free agent signings. Even if it did take a long time for any individual team to change their station, it should be rare periods when one conference is demonstrably better than the other.

          • Roar Rookie

            May 21st 2013 @ 8:36am
            josh said | May 21st 2013 @ 8:36am | ! Report

            What about when the East was tops with Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Indiana, New York all being better than the West who had the Lakers and Utah.

    • May 20th 2013 @ 8:00am
      Brendan said | May 20th 2013 @ 8:00am | ! Report

      Dont know enough about the USA sports models to comment but in principle dont mind a conference system.Personally think two leagues of nine sides each where you play each other twice and the other conference once resulting in a twenty five game season could work.Collingwood,Carlton,Essendon , Richmond ,Stkilda ,Gws, Sydney, Brisbane and the Suns in one conference. Geelong,Hawthorn , Western Bulldogs, North Melb , Melbourne , Adelaide,Port Adelaide, West Coast and Fremantle in another.The top four from each conference contests the finals.

      • Columnist

        May 20th 2013 @ 10:00am
        Alfred Chan said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:00am | ! Report

        The biggest problem with the US system is that if the two best teams come from the same conference they can’t contest the final.

        If you take the top four from each conference in your model, the fifth or six team could potentially have a better record than the fourth team of the other conference and miss out due to the equality gap between conferences.

        • May 20th 2013 @ 1:59pm
          Brendan said | May 20th 2013 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

          So be it Alfred arguably if your the fifth or sixth best team in your conference then you aren’t going to last long in the finals anyway.

          • May 20th 2013 @ 10:58pm
            Floreat Pica said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:58pm | ! Report

            ‘So be it’ for no chance of a major rivalry being in the Grand Final!? Conferences would be the death of the game.

    • May 20th 2013 @ 8:12am
      PaulS said | May 20th 2013 @ 8:12am | ! Report

      Why would an AFL conference system have to be geographically based? Of course it wouldn’t work, the current make up of teams wouldn’t allow it.

      A conference or division system still could work though-
      Two conferences, say the Matthews and the Barrassi. Each conference would have five Victorian teams, three of the more powerful clubs and two from North, WB, StK and Melb.
      You’d then have four of the ‘interstate’ clubs – you could pair the rivals together or have one from each state.

      The fixture would be home and away between the division for a total of 16 games and play the other division once for a 25 game season, which is quite manageable I think, and fairer than the current setup.

      As a throw in bonus, you could even have a pre/mid/post season all star game to satisfy those still crying out for State of Origin…

      • May 20th 2013 @ 10:59pm
        Floreat Pica said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:59pm | ! Report

        What would be the point? The only argument for conferences that I can see is making the travel more ‘equal’.

        • Roar Guru

          May 21st 2013 @ 9:01am
          The Bush said | May 21st 2013 @ 9:01am | ! Report

          No the point is that you would have a fairer draw over the year against your co-conference opponents because you would get a fair chance to play them all home and away and they have that vice-versa and everyone would get a single chance to play the other teams. The only unfairness that then remains is whether it was home or away, a hell of a lot fairer than being denied the four easy points against GWS.

          It’s not ideal, but it is somewhat fairer.

          • May 21st 2013 @ 6:55pm
            Floreat Pica said | May 21st 2013 @ 6:55pm | ! Report

            I still cant see that regionalisation makes the whole competition more ‘fair’. People would then complain that their team is not in the region where the easy-beats are- so will perpetually miss playing them twice rather than sucking it up for a single season. Imagine if this year had a ‘Northern Conference’ with Sydney lapping it up in a pool of GWS, Brisbane and Gold Coast.. How fair would that be?

    • May 20th 2013 @ 8:24am
      Franko said | May 20th 2013 @ 8:24am | ! Report

      Hi Alfred, nice piece and worth thinking about but I think the article is a little jumbled
      “For outright equality, nothing can beat the EPL” – Yes but Man Utd have won over 50% of the championships since the EPL began and only 5 different clubs have won since 1992 (Man City and Blackburn only once each) So playing everyone twice is hardly a silver bullet.
      So if you are looking for equality look elsewhere.

      Having said that though, I think there is something to be said for not having an equal league. It kind of takes out the pain of struggling and dulls the highs when you know the wheel is going to keep on turning. It’s a bit like sports day at school where everyone gets a turn. Sure, the dogs squandered theirs, as did St Kilda but we know in 5-7 years they will be back up there again, and in that time it is highly likely that Hawthorn and Geelong will slip.

      • Columnist

        May 20th 2013 @ 9:53am
        Alfred Chan said | May 20th 2013 @ 9:53am | ! Report

        I get what’re you’re coming from but I don’t think the EPL favours Man U based in their fixture in anyway. They’re inequality comes from financial inequality.

      • May 20th 2013 @ 10:54am
        Matt F said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:54am | ! Report

        The EPL draw is as equal as you could ossibly get. The inequality comes from financial differences between the clubs

    • May 20th 2013 @ 8:45am
      damo said | May 20th 2013 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      3 conferences would result in 6 victoriam clubs NEVER LEAVING MELBOURNE.

      • May 20th 2013 @ 9:51am
        Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 9:51am | ! Report

        Only if you use the simplistic geographically based conferences suggested by the author and that would never happen.

        Its easy to come up with 3 conferences that address this issue:
        C1: WA teams + 4 Vic teams
        C2: Qld teams + 4 Vic teams
        C1: SA teams + NSW teams + 2 Vic teams

        • Roar Guru

          May 20th 2013 @ 10:03am
          Redb said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:03am | ! Report

          Conferences should be based on previous years ladder position and reset each year.


          3 x 6 teams
          Play each other twice in conference and everyone else once.
          Forget protecting the double derbies and blockbusters they will occur at least once.
          By mixing up the conferences each year it never becomes stale and distributes teams regardless of location.

          • May 20th 2013 @ 10:24am
            Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:24am | ! Report

            Do the math this system does not work, eg West Coast went from last to 4th from one season to the next.

            • Roar Guru

              May 20th 2013 @ 10:49am
              Redb said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:49am | ! Report

              Does not work how?

              This is a way of removing the biased draw. It is completely arbituary.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 11:49am
                Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 11:49am | ! Report

                Basing who teams play on where teams finished the previous season is not completely arbitrary, it is based on how teams did in the previous season. How a team goes from seasons to season can fluctuate greatly, hence the West Coast example, so basing the schedules on last seasons placings does nothing to increase the fairness of the schedules.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 12:13pm
                Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

                Beside that it does nothing to address damo’s original concern “6 victoriam clubs NEVER LEAVING MELBOURNE”.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 12:23pm
                Matt F said | May 20th 2013 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

                Neither does your geographical based one. I’m sure that the Victorian clubs would much prefer to be in C2 with the QLD clubs than in C1 with the WA clubs this season and probably for the next few seasons as well.

                damo’s original point was wrong anyway. In every conference system, every club will still play every other club once which means that every Victorian side will have a minimum of 8 games against non-Victorian opposition. Basic law of averages would mean that a few of those will be outside of Victoria.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 1:19pm
                Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

                Matt F,

                In my proposed conference system NO Victorian team NEVER leaves Victoria, they all travel interstate at least twice, in practice this would be at least 4 times.

                Due to Perth being twice as far from Melbourne as the next furthest destination, Brisbane, no schedule structure can address this travel anomaly.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 2:16pm
                Matt F said | May 20th 2013 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

                I know. That wasn’t my point. Your draw is no more equal than Redb’s is. If the top 4 in a particular year are GWS, Sydney, Adelaide and Port then C3 is going to be much more difficult than the other conferences. Your draw does very little to solve the unequal part of a draw as there is no guarantee that teams in one geographical area are equal with the teams in another. Basing it on last years ladder is not perfect but it is a re accurate way to judge the strength of teams than a geographical conference system. My issue with WA and QLD was not about travel but about the quality of teams from those states. Right now the two WA teams are much better than the 2 QLD teams so other clubs will prefer to be in C2 with the QLD teams than C1 with the WA teams, hence C2 is easier than C1. It had nothing to do with travel as travel really makes no difference at all to a 22 round draw.

                My bit about teams travelling interstate was in response to your line when you quoted damo. Every conference will have Victorian teams travelling interstate as every team will still play the other 17 teams once and then the other team in their conference twice. As 8 of the 18 teams are from outside of Victoria, every Victorian team will play at least 8 games against non-Victorian sides. Obviously some of those 8 games will not be in Melbourne so the idea that “no Victorian team will ever leave Melbourne’ for any conference format is incorrect.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 5:52pm
                St Mark W said | May 20th 2013 @ 5:52pm | ! Report

                Matt F,

                I fully acknowledge that it is impossible to have an equal draw, unless every team plays every other team H&A. It is impossible so why pretend that a single competition correctly reflects team standings, a conference system acknowledges this impossibility and instead plays 3 parallel competitions where it team in each competition has an equal chance of making the finals.

                The only sustainable argument against a conference system is the, once again, unavoidable discrepancy between conference but under the current structure every team has its own playing schedule that is a different strength to every other teams schedule, therefore, a conference is inherently an improvement on the current system.

                The best response to the criticism of differing strength conferences is, does a team the finished lower than 3rd in a 6 team conference really deserve a place in the finals, even if a ‘weaker’ team from another conference has made the finals?

          • May 20th 2013 @ 10:57am
            Matt F said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:57am | ! Report

            Redb – I’ve never really seen the need for conferences, however I have always thought that using your system for the purposes of doing the draw would work well i.e. play each team in those “conferences” twice but keep the current ladder system. It’s about as even as you’re going to get without every team playing each other twice, which we all know will never happen.

            • Roar Guru

              May 20th 2013 @ 12:43pm
              Redb said | May 20th 2013 @ 12:43pm | ! Report

              Yep it’s a means to end and unlike geographic conferences it will never get stale as it rotates from year to year. Some teams might travel more from year to year but it will even out.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 12:54pm
                Matt F said | May 20th 2013 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

                On the chance that there is a conference with a large number of non-Victorian sides in it I’m sure the AFL can easily make some adjustments so that the Victorian club/s in question get to play the non-Victorian sides that aren’t in their conference at home while those that have a Victorian dominated conference re more likely to play away matches against the non-Victorian sides that aren’t in their conference. It shouldn’t be too hard to balance out to a reasonable level.

                I’ve always thought that the travel factor is overrated anyway, especially given how good clubs are at monitoring fitness and recovery etc these days. It may be an issue if there is a significant discrepancy between teams but in general 1 or 2 extra interstate trips isn’t going to impact a season. Besides the non-Victorian clubs travel every fortnight and it didn’t hurt the Swans, Eagles, Crows or Dockers last year.

        • May 20th 2013 @ 10:23am
          Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:23am | ! Report

          That should read:
          C3: SA teams + NSW teams + 2 Vic teams

      • May 20th 2013 @ 10:26am
        Dg said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:26am | ! Report

        Except when they play the interstate teams 1x dumbarse. You could even have them play more of their 1x games against interstate teams away more often, this reducing the travel of interstate teams and really make the comp more fair.

    • May 20th 2013 @ 9:14am
      Griffo said | May 20th 2013 @ 9:14am | ! Report

      actually 3 conferences of 6 teams, playing your conference teams twice and everyone else once is 22 games. What if instead of a conference system each team had their 2 time opponents worked by where the clubs finished the previous season. Rank all others 1-17 and split them into 5 groups with the club in question playing one from each five groups twice. The groups would be 0-3.4, 3.4-6.8, 10.2-13.6, 13.6-17. Given that 5 doesn’t go evenly into 17 this would allow some flexibility due certain that could be classed in two different groups, for example 4th is in both the top and and the second group meaning that club can play them as their tope group opponent or as their 2nd group opponent. This would provide a more balanced fixture in terms of the quality of opposition yet would still ensure that the afl could play derbys / showdowns / big rivalries twice

      • Columnist

        May 20th 2013 @ 9:48am
        Alfred Chan said | May 20th 2013 @ 9:48am | ! Report

        Yes your right, it would be 22. Sorry, my marsh never was great.

        Very interesting idea also.

      • May 20th 2013 @ 9:58am
        Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 9:58am | ! Report

        The AFL have tried to base this years schedule on last years final table position but, if you do the year to year calculations, it simply doesn’t work, table positions can vary a great deal between seasons, West Coast went from last one season to top 4 the next, a couple of seasons ago.

        • May 20th 2013 @ 10:28am
          Timmuh said | May 20th 2013 @ 10:28am | ! Report

          Even if it is still imperfect, which any system will be, at the very least it is transparent and less open to claims, or actualities, of favourable fixtures being give to certain clubs. Its usually only one or two sides that vary greatly from one year to the next. Basing who plays who twice on it is about as even as can be done. There is no need for conferences, a single ladder remains with a fixed method of allocating opponents.
          I don’t even mind if its just a random set of pools drawn out of a hat, so long the system is transparent. Of course this only helps fix the on-field part of the fixture. The scheduling so that financially weak clubs remain weak and large clubs are granted fixtues worth much more than cash assistance to poor clubs is another issue entirely. And even on-field, back to back travel, 6 day break vs 8 day break, etc, are all still problems.

          The reality is though, that even a true horror fixture will be overcome by a genuine premiership contender – the best teams can beat anyone anywhere, the worst teams will lose to anyone anywhere, and the mid-tier sides might move two or three places if given a very lopsided fixture on the ladder but remain mid-table. The difference between finishing 7th and finishing 10th really isn’t that great in terms of premiership chances. Winning the flag from 7th is possible but not realistic, even less so if you only get there through an easy fixture.

          • May 20th 2013 @ 12:00pm
            Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 12:00pm | ! Report

            The fundamental problem with any compromised schedule is the the table does not truly reflect the relative strength of the teams. Since the table does not truly reflect the relative strength of teams, due to variations in the strength of schedules, anything based on those tables is itself seriously flawed.

            • May 20th 2013 @ 12:19pm
              Timmuh said | May 20th 2013 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

              Any system will have flaws, but the only thing that really counts is the premiership. Despite the flaws, the best teams will be near the top and have the double chance. They are the ones who are genuine premiership chances, and will be any any realistic system.

              Conferences have the same issues where a conference can be considerably weaker or stronger than another. Why introduce them when they won’t fix anything. At the moment any “northern conference” would include GWS, GC and Brisbane giving Sydney an advantage; arguably a bigger advantage to a second side as they might qualify for top four due to a weak fixture. Admittedly this is an extreme example with expansion clubs, but if another conference was to include Melbourne, Bulldogs and St Kilda a smaller but real advantage would exist for any good team (maybe Hawthorn) in that conference.

              At least deciding pools by previous ladder position attempts to even that out, and without restructuring the season. Yes, one or two teams move dramatically most years. No system short of 34 games will even it out properly, and 34 a game season would introduce resting players cricket style and compromising the whole league further through that as well as the practicalities around venues, heat, and so on.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 12:26pm
                Matt F said | May 20th 2013 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

                Pretty much spot on. Despite the inequities in the current draw the best teams eventually find their way to the top and the worst teams eventually find their way to the bottom.

              • May 20th 2013 @ 1:03pm
                Griffo said | May 20th 2013 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

                I agree with your summary and would like to add that last years ladder after the end of the home and away showed an average change in position of 3.2 places from the last season for the 17 teams that played in 2011. It is simple enough to exclude GWS from this data as they finished 18th last year anyway. If the teams your team plays twice are evenly spread across the ladder then you will probably play some teams who are better and some who are worse than the previous season.

                I would like to add something that i think could also make things a bit fairer. Each club has a priority list comprising of all 17 other clubs. At the top of that list is the club that your club has least recently played twice in a season. When a club reaches the top of your list you have to play them twice the following season. The following clubs high on that list would be dependent on how closely placed they were to your top priority. E.g. If West Coast has Richmond on top of it’s list then they have to meet twice next season, They might have Carlton second on their list but if Richmond finish 9th and Carlton 10th then Carlton will have to wait for the following season to play West Coast twic3 because they’re too similar in strength.

                Might sound complex but it makes sense in my head

              • May 20th 2013 @ 1:59pm
                Gr8rWestr said | May 20th 2013 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

                In an equalised competition, such as the AFL, it is extremely rare that any team can be so dominant that it will beat any other team, each team also has opposition teams that they match up against better than others, add in the home and away final variable and the oft quoted assertion that the best team will always win despite the draw is itself flawed.

                The current system is a flawed system so acknowledge that it fundamentally changing the structure. The primary complaint against a conference structure is disparity between conferences, as with Timmuh’s “northern conference” but does a team that finishes below 3rd in any 6 team conference deserve to be in the finals, when every team in that conference plays an equivalent H&A schedule?

                Griffo, at least you tried to do the math but average over the competition is meaningless to individual team chances, as is a single year sample. Try doing the change between each individual team’s schedule, the position sum of all teams played, from one season’s table to the next and see how large some of the differences are, averaging always minimises any individual impact.

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