Nobody knows what awaits the AFL once COVID-19 is gone.
Idealistically, everybody wants to believe the AFL will remain an 18-club competition and it’ll be business as normal.
Regardless of the landscape, the reality is the AFL are presented with a unique opportunity to reboot the competition.
The current model
I’ve never been a fan of the haphazard way the AFL expanded.
It worked well in Western Australia and South Australia because these states already had elite Australian rules competitions. These states were Aussie rules mad.
They were also effectively states divided into two fan-bases: in WA, Perth and Fremantle; in SA, Adelaide and Port Adelaide. Building teams here has worked. They draw support. They have identity. They have passion.
But in the non-traditional Australian rules states?
Sydney struggled in New South Wales. Brisbane struggled in Queensland. Both clubs had to be propped up with the hope that success would entice fanaticism in those cities. At least Sydney carried over their South Melbourne supporters. Brisbane found some identity when they merged with Fitzroy.
Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast get so-so crowds at home, and a sprinkling on the road. Some of their games with lowly Victorian-based clubs at the MCG make for terrible viewing. They hark back to the old days when a reserves game would be screened on Sunday from Lakeside Oval.
Some will counter that the Giants and Suns are generational projects. Well, look at some of the younger Victorian clubs. Did generational cultivation give them a big fan-base, or a so-so fan-base? Do we really expect these new franchises to be powerhouses in 50 years? Gold Coast certainly isn’t doing itself any favours to win fans.
It might be an unpopular belief, but the AFL should have forced Victorian clubs to move to each locale. It might have initially disgruntled fans, but as the demise and rebirth of Fitzroy proved, most of those fans found their way back to the new entity. It also would’ve infused these new franchises with identity and history, and brought in an existing fan-base.
I’ve supported Collingwood for over 40 years. The GWS Giants pipped us in the 2019 preliminary final, and I feel nothing toward the Giants. If that had been, for example, the GWS Demons, however, then I’d be a lot more passionate.
That’s what this game is meant to be about: passion.
But that’s been diluted.
In the new AFL, merging might solve a number of issues for several clubs, ranging from financial needs to creating an identity and building immediate stature.
Everybody simply accepts the fixture now as an idiosyncrasy of the AFL. It drives me mad the way we stop questioning things because the AFL just never does anything about them. Then it becomes this cute oddity we occasionally scoff at.
Not everybody plays one another twice. That means the competition is always going to be skewed predicated on a club’s fixture. Think about the seasons where a middling club gets to play a struggling club twice. Think about the way we look at the ladder and qualify some clubs’ positions by who they’ve played.
The other issue is that clubs will often play one another twice before they’ve played everybody once.
How is that fair?
Some have insisted everybody should play one another twice, which would prolong the season. I couldn’t think of anything worse.
By Round 11, your bottom four to six teams are largely set. Imagine subjecting them to 13 more games. Teams from about seventh to 15th are just killing time. Do we need more games to establish that? The top four – and usually the top two – have already been identified.
We don’t need longer seasons to establish the pecking order.
Something else that’s a concern with a longer season is the attrition. Come the finals, I want to see what the best teams have to offer, rather than teams that have fallen in and are struggling with injuries.
One of the other problems with the current competition is that expansion has diluted the talent pool. Every round, there are any number of mediocre games.
We should be looking at a way to lift the standard of the competition rather than lower it.
The best finals system was the final five. The minor premier drew the biggest advantage, getting a bye in the first week of finals. The top three all had double chances. Fourth and fifth were constantly playing sudden death.
No system since the five five has been as fair.
The final eight is actually a bit of a farce – especially now they’ve introduced the pre-finals bye. There’s no advantage for finishing top. Finishing second is just as good as finishing first.
In some cases, finishing fifth or sixth might be better than finishing third or fourth if it means navigating tricky interstate assignments.
As for the finals themselves? Well, if first and second both win in Week 1, all they’re doing is biding time for a fortnight. If they lose in the second week, then finishing where they have has not advantaged them at all. Arguably, with the pre-finals bye, it hurts them to play so little over three weeks.
With the final five, the minor premier’s first game was the second semi-final (in Week 2 of the finals). If they won, they went straight into the grand final. If they lost, they went into the preliminary final – another chance to make the grand final. How good is that? Finishing minor premier gave a club two routes into the grand final.
Given the current use of the final eight, it would seem the fairest system they can implement, but it’s still one full of redundancies.
If I was given autonomy – and I know much of this is wishful thinking, and some will consider it radical and idealistic – here’s what I’d do.
As far as the regular season goes, everybody plays one another once. While interstate assignments are always going to give fixtures certain weighting (e.g. playing West Coast in Perth is tougher than playing them at home), at least playing one another once is fairer than what’s currently going on.
This is my plan for the end of the season.
The teams that finish 15th to 18th play a home-and-away round robin, which then determines the top four picks in the draft. Yes, this might mean the wooden spooner doesn’t get the number one pick. My response is this: so? Let’s stop rewarding abject failure. Make these teams aspire.
The teams that finish ninth to 14th play one another once, at the end of which a ladder is drawn. First plays fourth, second plays third, and the two winners go through to their own final. I’ll admit, I’ve struggled to find the right incentive to reward the victor. I would suggest they’re rewarded with pick five in the draft, and the finalists get a marquee fixture the next season, such as the Queen’s Birthday. I would give them Anzac Day, if you can wrest that from Collingwood versus Essendon.
The top eight teams are the finalists. They play a round-robin competition, with the home-ground advantage always going to the higher team. At the end of it, first and second from the round-robin ladder play in a best of three grand final series.
Now’s your time to truly scoff. Three grand finals?
I’ve been a champion of the best of three grand finals forever.
A best of three would cater for interstate grand finals.
It would also accommodate injured players and suspensions.
And it would introduce a brilliant tactical element where you would see coaches addressing what hurt them the previous week, having to cater for conditions or different venues, and trying new strategies to find an edge.
You also create different levels of excitement through rematches, such as watching teams having to come back from one-nil down.
I’ve never been a fan of this philosophy that the grand final is won by the best team on the day. I want the grand final won by the best team of the season.
Make that team prove that they can not only win the big one, but win it again.
Again, I know all this is idealistic. But what it does is that it gives meaning to the clubs come the end of the season. They’re all playing for something, rather than half the competition just killing time.
Also, with this system, the season isn’t much longer than it is now.