Last Thursday the AFL sent a document to its 18 clubs entitled ‘Future AFL Competition’ and asked for feedback on a number of issues as the league looks to move forward post-COVID-19.
Soft caps and list sizes were front and centre, as was how a national second-tier competition would look.
How indeed could a second-tier competition work, where do the AFL’s priorities lie and where does it leave our state leagues?
The future of Australian Rules football is upon us, and it’s not going to be what we’re used from the era of excess we’ve suddenly departed from.
Soft salary cap slashing in the national competition will inevitably lead to smaller football departments, fewer coaches and obviously less money in football’s reboot. It appears list sizes will also shrink to less than the 45 the clubs currently enjoy, with some football insiders predicting a number closer to 35.
Fewer coaches mean less coaching, while smaller lists will result in players having to spend less time at their clubs. Less time will equal less money.
The issue of list size is imperative to how a second-tier competition will look. If lists are culled, how would clubs access top-up players if and when they’re needed? With ten clubs in the AFL based in Victoria, the VFL in particular is being looked at closely.
However, this isn’t all about Victoria, and football fans in South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland will also be interested to know what the future holds. One thing that seems certain is the idea of a national AFL Reserves competition can be forgotten, though a Victorian-centric reserves tournament may be feasible.
Eddie McGuire on Triple M’s Hot Breakfast recently spoke of a likely merger between the VFL and the NEAFL, saying that an AFL reserves competition “would’ve killed off the VFL, the SANFL, the WAFL”. But then that’s something COVID-19 may have done already anyway.
Why would a merger between the VFL and NEAFL work? One way of looking at it is that the AFL is really still a glorified VFL. AFL House is prioritising the best interests of the ten Victorian clubs and their New South Wales and Queensland clubs at heart given the millions they have invested into them to grow the game.
The VFL currently consists of standalone clubs Port Melbourne, Williamstown, Frankston, Werribee and Coburg. There are the aligned clubs of Box Hill (Hawthorn), Casey (Melbourne) and Sandringham (St Kilda), while the other Victorian-based AFL clubs all have their own sides in the VFL.
In a new football economy supporting another club financially will make no sense, so the Hawks, Melbourne and St Kilda can cut adrift their aligned affiliates and go it alone in a second tier.
While Hawthorn do not have a problem with this financially, it could prove to be an issue going forward for the financially struggling Melbourne and St Kilda operations while also sounding the death knell for some of the standalone clubs.
The NEAFL has struggled since its inception. Sydney, GWS, Brisbane and Gold Coast could disband and join the VFL, forming a 14-club VNEAFL.
The AFL has no interest in clubs like Ainslie, Southport and Canberra going forward, and like Williamstown and the other VFL standalone clubs, they could be tossed out and left to fend for themselves.
The AFL is also seeking the views of the clubs on the level of investment in junior talent in this new economy.
Clubs are being asked to give their ideas on lifting the draft age and returning to an under-19s competition rather than under-18s, but with the draft age remaining the same.
It would mean kids drafted would most likely spend a year or two in a pathway program rather than be thrust into an AFL footy system with smaller lists to break into.
The TAC Cup is broken up into zones, and one possible scenario is a ten-club VFL under-19s competition, with the ten Victorian clubs regaining their identity for this league.
The better players would get an opportunity to play in the higher second tier while players who were 18 and already in that league could be dropped down to the under-19s competition.
Players who were not drafted to a Victorian AFL club but who showed talent and potential in school football or suburban football could still be invited to train and play within the pathway and perhaps drafted the following year.
It’s a throwback to the olden days, but it might just be the future.
It leaves the four northern clubs outside the under-19s, but an AFL-endorsed NEAFL under-19s would work and perhaps be better than the academy system at the moment.
That leaves South Australia and Western Australia and their pathways moving forward in the new era.
The problem at the moment is that without football some clubs in these two proud, historic and great football states are on life support, and who says that if an entire season is rubbed out, others will not follow?
Already in the SANFL West Adelaide and Central Districts, to name two, have their backs to the wall and are asking fans and footy lovers in general if they can help with donations to avoid going bankrupt. In Western Australia West Perth are in a similar position, and the longer this goes on, the more clubs it will affect.
It appears that helping the state leagues means helping just the VFL and NEAFL.
So how do the SANFL and WAFL go forward?
Make the state leagues true state leagues and evolve from suburban leagues.
I’m not really sure if this is the answer, and obviously feedback and debate are welcome, but I think it’s how the five standalone VFL clubs should look to the future also.
The SANFL could add another club from Adelaide, and maybe that could be Tea Tree Gully, which has been spoken about before. Whyalla could be an option. A side from the Riverland, which is an area that has produced some of SA’s finest players, could also work.
Despite the size of Western Australia, could Bunbury, Geraldton and Broome be added to the mix as we go forward?
I would like to see a new-look ten or 12-club VFL devoid of interference from the AFL. Almost a throwback to the VFA, but a modern-day variation. I hope Sandringham, Casey and Box Hill survive without the money from their AFL affiliates, but if not, maybe Vermont, Balwyn and North Ballarat could get something up and going. And representation from Gippsland or Sunraysia perhaps?
There are four AFL clubs from South Australia and Western Australia and their state leagues and pathways need to be strong in order for them to survive. If they lose clubs and perhaps an entire season, it will have devastating financial effects.