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24 insights into the 2017 AFL fixture

Gillon Mac MC'd the AFL draft. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)
Expert
27th October, 2016
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2952 Reads

I promised you 2017 AFL fixture insights, and here are my 2017 AFL fixture insights.

In many ways, the release of the 2017 fixture is the beginning of the end of the season. The AFL, like all professional sporting bodies, are seeking to stretch out the league to make it a 12-month sport. After yesterday’s release, though, there’s a quiet few weeks where all we hear about are 30 metre sprints and agility tests ahead of the draft.

So let’s soak up all we can now, for a barren month awaits. Like last year, consider this the early findings of what is a complex, iterative process. This is not comprehensive. It can’t be. The fixture is everything, and the volume of information is overwhelming.

But, here’s what sticks out.

Melbourne will make the finals next year, if they’re as good as they showed for most of 2016
The Demons have been exorcised – get ready to read that simile a lot next year – and HQ has set up Melbourne’s 2017 very nicely with a kind fixture.

Melbourne will play 16 of their 22 games in Victoria – 12 at the MCG and four at Etihad. They double up on Adelaide (not good), Carlton (very good), Collingwood (probably good), North Melbourne (probably good) and St Kilda (probably good). They have no consecutive six-day breaks, and play 13 games during the day.

Four of Melbourne’s 12 MCG opponents are interstate teams (Fremantle, Sydney, Port Adelaide and Brisbane). Their game against Geelong is at Etihad Stadium despite being a Geelong home game – work that one out – and their final three weeks are all spent at the ‘G.

Yes, the Dees will be doubling up against so-called “bogey sides” in the Kangaroos and Saints. Melbourne haven’t beaten North Melbourne (15 straight losses) or St Kilda (13) since 2006, which seems impossible because it should be. They should be reaching the stage of their development where there is no such thing as a bogey side.

Despite the positives in the rest of their fixture, these four games loom as Melbourne’s short term litmus test. If they are the team former head coach Paul Roos has set them up to become, then three or four wins should be forthcoming in this quartet of games. Anything less, and the cushy nature of the rest of their fixture probably won’t amount to much.

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One downside to Melbourne’s slate is they’re playing just one Friday night game. If they’re good, that’s going to look a touch silly by Round 23.

Speaking of North Melbourne…
We talked about the state of the Roos on Wednesday, looking for some silver linings amongst the dark clouds which enveloped the club in the second half of the year. Let’s add their fixture to those silver linings.

In case you weren’t aware, the AFL seeks to handicap the fixture using what it calls the “weighted rule.” At the end of the season, teams are split into three groups of six for the purposes of working out double ups. Clubs are then allocated three double up matches against teams that are in their same bracket of six, two from another group of six, and one from another. Generally speaking, HQ tries to keep the bottom six bracket and the top six bracket separate, but sometimes the fix component of the fixture overrides this impulse.

The general rule is broken for match ups like derbies, traditional rivalries, white elephants and novelty games. The weighted rule is never going to produce an even fixture, but that’s fine, because it’s a fixture and not a draw, and 17 does not go into 22.

North Melbourne appear to have benefited from this rule in 2017. The Roos travel outside of Victoria or Tasmania just four times, and two of those trips are to face the terrifying-in-a-bad-way Queensland teams. Their other two road trips are to face the lesser of the respective states’ opposition: Fremantle and Port Adelaide.

North’s lone top eight double up is against the Western Bulldogs, with that series wrapped up by June. Otherwise, they get to play Fremantle, Gold Coast, Melbourne and St Kilda twice. For a finalist – a 2-9 on the run home finalist, but a finalist all the same – it is about as nice a draw as the brass at Arden Street could have hoped for.

It probably won’t be enough to see them retain their spot in the top eight, but the predictions of a bottom four finish now look on the pessimistic side of the spectrum.

Prime time is now genuinely a reward for good performances
This time two years ago, Carlton fans were rejoicing that their team had been given six turns under the glaring lights of Friday night football in season 2015. We know what happens next. Last year we saw HQ begin to tentatively move in the direction it flagged during that year of drudgery, by scheduling more top eight matches and less of the so-called “Big Four.”

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This year, reputations be damned. Prime time means prime time, and the best teams of 2016 have been given the lion’s share of the spotlight.

There are 44 slots available on Friday nights (it’s 46, but we don’t know the Round 23 fixture quite yet despite the pre-finals bye week being retained), and the 2016 premiers and runners-up have been granted 16 of them combined.

The Western Bulldogs and Sydney Swans will grace us with their stylings eight times each in 2017, in what looms as a substantial upgrade for both sides. Last year, the Dogs and Swans were on the big stage three times each (Sydney also had a Thursday night game). Now both have been granted a third of the games each.

It’s hard to believe that in 2014, the Dogs didn’t play a solitary game on a Friday night – they actually played 16 games on Sundays, which the 2017 fixture confirms is the naughty corner.

Adelaide, St Kilda and the GWS Giants – a year too late for the Giants, mind – all get multiple bites at the cherry, as do Geelong, Hawthorn and North. For the first three, it is doubtlessly a reward for their highly attractive styles of football. Adelaide and the Giants were the two highest scoring sides in the home and away season, while St Kilda’s high tempo game saw them crack 100 points in seven of their outings at Etihad Stadium (where three of their four Friday games will be played).

By contrast, Carlton (one game), Collingwood (two), Essendon (two) and Richmond (doughnuts) will play just five games between them. That’s down from 13 last season, when the Blues were banished. If that’s the price to pay for match ups like Dogs-Swans, Giants-Dogs, Saints-Giants, Eagles-Dogs, Swans-Hawks, Cats-Crows… you get the picture.

western-bulldogs-afl-2016-grand-final

The heel turn is on
I joked during the finals series that the Western Bulldogs were on track to become a more hated team than the GWS Giants. Then Luke Beveridge gave his premiership medallion to Bob Murphy and grown men cried. Then journalists started to show their depth of knowledge by comparing their win to Leister City in the EPL. Then the players didn’t show up at an event at Ballarat. Then the administration began to charge $250 for a photo with the premiership cup. Then Bob Murphy tweeted that he liked Jet’s second album.

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I was feeling pretty good. To confirm I wasn’t crazy, I conducted a scientific study.

76 per cent of people are wrong. The Dogs will be on national television at least every second week during the home and away season. They are at near-monopoly levels on Fridays, play a Thursday night game, and have three Saturday night outings. Footscray were an incredible story last year, but I’d wager that y’all going to be sick of hearing about how they’re “doing it for Bob” by around Round 10.

Now that’s off my chest, the Dogs have fared reasonably well with their fixture in 2017. Outside of the Sydney pairing, Footscray will gladly double up against Brisbane, Port Adelaide and West Coast. They fear none of that trio.

Offsetting this is the amount of travel the Dogs will partake in: two trips to Perth and one each to Adelaide, Ballarat, Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Geelong and Sydney. It is easily the most of any Victorian-based club, with Hawthorn and North Melbourne travelling out of Victoria nine and eight times each including their four and three journeys to Tasmania. It’s not great, but it is worth noting that the Dogs shed their “Etihad team” tag last season in winning nine of their 12 games away from the venue (including their four still-jaw-dropping finals wins).

Pass the baton
Something astounding is set to happen next season: neither West Coast or Fremantle will be playing a game in Tasmania! This is a red letter day indeed.

The Dockers had been asked to ritualistically get their butt kicked by Hawthorn at Aurora Stadium in four of the past five years. It makes sense from a commercial perspective: Fremantle have a very small east coast contingent, and a small travelling group of fans, so stick them at the stadium with the lower fixed costs so we can make more money. But from a fairness point of view, the annual march to the frigid torture chamber rankled the fans and administrators alike. No longer – the Dockers play Hawthorn on a Saturday night in July at Domain Stadium, and that’s that.

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West Coast have tended to play North Melbourne in Tasmania, presumably for similar reasons. This year, they will face the Roos at Etihad, and Etihad only.

It’s a good outcome for the Western Australian teams, who are already faced with ten weeks of travel a year. But it appears Tasmania’s western connection has merely been passed to another team: GWS.

The Giants will play in Tasmania not once, but twice. Granted, it’s a much shorter trip from Blacktown than Subiaco – it just looks a bit strange for the Giants to be facing two teams at grounds where they hold significant home ground advantages. They will also play at the MCG just once. A cynic would say a fiendish moat is being hastily dug by the AFL. Lucky we’re not cynics. GWS will play games in every Australian state in 2017, as do the Brisbane Lions.

The Sun rises in the east, heads north, then south, and sets somewhere west
But the jetsetters of 2017 will be the Gold Coast Suns. The league’s 17th team will play in:

Adelaide
Alice Springs
Brisbane
Cairns
Gold Coast
Melbourne
Perth
Shanghai, China
Sydney, and
Western Sydney

It is a truly remarkable fixture. The Suns will play football in 10 cities next season, spreading the very northern, western and southern-most reaches of Australia. Their journey to China will break new ground, but the cost may be greater than the benefit, particularly given the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that has made the deal happen.

If you look closely at the fixture, you’ll see that the Suns are the home team for Port Adelaide’s sojourn into China. It emerged in the hours following the grand press conference to announce the game that Port Adelaide had “bought the rights to a Gold Coast home game”, meaning the Power, despite being the driving force behind the game and being listed as the first team on all signage, are the away team for the purposes of the official fixture.

This sets an interesting precedent. Port Adelaide had always maintained that they wanted to take a game to China, but they would not be able to wriggle out of their stadium agreement with the Adelaide Oval stadium operators. So it would have to be some other team’s home game. That the Power – and presumably HQ had a role to play here too – have used the Suns as their patsy doesn’t sit right with me, particularly given Port Adelaide are the team which stands to substantively benefit from this push.

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Time will tell, but this looks funny to me. I hope it is a one-off, and the Power and AFL House work out a way to make this a Port Adelaide home game going forward. That’s the right outcome.

Adelaide’s table has been set
The Crows will play last year’s top eight nine times – a pretty normal figure, given most teams play top eight opponents nine, 10 or 11 times by virtue of the weighted rule. Adelaide get to host five of those nine games, which is a very good percentage only beaten by Hawthorn (who play seven of their 10 top-eight opponents at home).

After a somewhat challenging start to the year – the Crows play GWS and Hawthorn in their first two weeks – seven of Adelaide’s eight opponents from Round 3 to Round 10 were outside of last year’s top eight. It is in stark contrast to the start of the 2016 season, where the Crows played every team that finished in the top eight that wasn’t themselves.

Of the cream of last year’s crop, the Crows look to have done the best when the minutiae of their fixture is examined. Adelaide don’t double up against the Dogs, Giants or Swans, and get the benefit of home ground advantage in each of their match ups with these teams. They play against the weakest teams away from home, saving their home ground advantage for the best teams. It could work spectacularly well for the Crows – it could also result in a middling season.

Eddie Betts Adelaide Crows AFL Finals 2016

The good oil
Adelaide’s fixture is ranked 11th in a combined ranking of three notable projection systems that I’ve seen put out their analysis since the fixture was released. Rohan Connolly of The Age prepares a somewhat subjective measurement system to rate each team’s fixture, where Tony Corke from Matter of Stats and Cody and Sean from Hurling People Now rely more on the numbers. The table below shows where they rank each team’s fixture, and the table itself is sorted by the average of the three projection systems.

Rohan Connolly Matter of Stats Hurling People Now Average
Greater Western Sydney 1 2 1 1.3
Hawthorn 2 1 2 1.7
Sydney 3 4 7 4.7
Fremantle 8 3 4 5.0
StKilda 6 6 3 5.0
Western Bulldogs 4 7 5 5.3
Collingwood 11 5 6 7.3
Geelong 7 9 8 8.0
WCE 5 11 10 8.7
Melbourne 9 13 9 10.3
Adelaide 10 18 12 13.3
Brisbane 14 12 14 13.3
Gold Coast 13 17 11 13.7
Carlton 15 10 16 13.7
Essendon 18 8 15 13.7
North Melbourne 12 14 18 14.7
Port Adelaide 17 16 13 15.3
Richmond 16 15 17 16.0

The Giants and Hawks are the consensus one and two for fixture difficulty next year. Fremantle also look set to have a tough time of it, with the two quantitative systems pegging them as having a top four fixture in terms of difficulty – this is not in keeping with their ladder position. Richmond come out with the least difficult slate of games, with all three projection systems placing their fixture in the bottom four.

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Quick singles (hey, it’s cricket season you know)
Richmond have been wiped off the face of the AFL earth in 2017. They don’t play a Friday night game – the first time since 2008, when they were coming off of a three-win season – with Opening Night their only non-marquee prime time slot. The Tigers play eight games on Sundays, which is a huge number for a team with such a large fan base. As a consolation prize, Richmond have a tasty set of double ups: Brisbane, Carlton, Fremantle GWS and St Kilda. My interest is piqued.

Hawthorn’s semi-finals exit doesn’t seem to have helped their fixturing cause. Indeed, that they played two epic games against the Cats last year has meant the previously-locked in double up between Geelong and Hawthorn which vanished last year has returned. The Hawks also play Sydney and Adelaide twice, in addition to the Pies who ran them close in Round 23 and the Suns who are as big a wildcard as any. How’s that knee feeling Jaeger?

The death of Saturday afternoon football on free to air TV looks all but assured. Channel 7 have dropped the spot from their slate, per the new broadcast agreement which kicks in this year, meaning the slot will remain mostly idle outside of Foxtel. That is, of course, unless News Corp can convince Channel 9 or 10 to come to the party and sub-license 11 games from them. Interestingly, the AFL has fixtured 10 Saturday afternoon games across the season that commence at 2:10PM EST, which would mean they wrap up just in time for 10’s five o’clock news bulletin. This is the slate.

Round Home Away Venue Time (EST)
3 Richmond WCE MCG 2:10 PM
6 Carlton Sydney MCG 2:10 PM
7 Collingwood Carlton MCG 2:10 PM
8 StKilda Carlton Etihad Stadium 2:10 PM
15 Carlton Adelaide MCG 2:10 PM
16 Collingwood Essendon MCG 2:10 PM
18 Melbourne Port Adelaide MCG 2:10 PM
19 Greater Western Sydney Fremantle Spotless Stadium 2:10 PM
20 Essendon Carlton MCG 2:10 PM
21 Geelong Richmond Simonds Stadium 2:10 PM
22 Collingwood Geelong MCG 2:10 PM

Watch this space, I think.

Critically, we don’t know which callers are going to be calling which games. The retirement of Dennis Commetti has created a void that must be filled, and the potential entry of Channel 10 as a sub-licensee could complicate matters further. There are options-a-plenty, and most of them involve giving greater roles to broadcast professionals rather than ex-players. Hey, I can dream can’t I?

The NFL’s influence on Australian sports has taken a sinister turn, with West Coast, Collingwood and Essendon set to have five-day breaks. The Eagles travel to play Richmond on a Saturday afternoon in Round 3, and back up with a Thursday game in Round 4 against Sydney. Collingwood and Essendon have five-day breaks courtesy of a Tuesday ANZAC Day in 2017.

Courtesy of AFL.com.au, there will be 10 days where football will be played between Thursday, 13 April and Tuesday, 25 April – that’s just 13 days! Admittedly, a bunch of them fall in the traditional time slots, but still, 10 days of football is very nice.

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Bonus insight: That’s a wrap
For many, the off season began once the Western Bulldogs raised their premiership cup in the middle of the MCG in the first week of October. Some others tap out just after trade period. Many continue to follow the game like ravenous dogs right through the draft. For me, my off season begins now.

Thanks for making my second year as a try-hard football pundit so much fun, Roarers. I haven’t been around to comment as much as I would like, but I can assure you I read every line you write. It’s been an incredible season in many ways, and one that I suspect will be remembered as something of a turning point in AFL history. We’ll get to the reasons why soon enough.

I’ll be back in late November, to run my ruler over the 2016 draft – assessing players on the basis of their handshake when presented on stage, the complexity of their last name, and their parents. It’ll be fun. Then in the wind down to December, we’ll have a bit of fun with some off beat stuff, before starting the world’s longest season preview in early January.