General Footy Writing: The days of plain sailing in the AFL may well be numbered

By Sam Steele

AFL entered the new millennium on Wednesday 8 March 2000.  A midweek matching of Melbourne and Richmond at an unusually early time of year, was followed the next evening by Essendon hosting Port Adelaide, in the first match for premiership points at the Docklands Stadium.

If such radical scheduling was meant to be a sign of things to come, then frankly, the decade that followed has been a major let-down.  However, for those of us still reeling from the previous twenty years of massive change, it has been a period of welcome stability.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the game’s rulers dragged the amateur, financially naïve, Melbourne-centric VFL, kicking and screaming, onto a national stage and gave it a thorough, professional overhaul.  With an almost religious zeal, the League transformed every aspect of the game, both ignoring and exhausting its opponents in the process.

The contrast between those rollicking days and the past ten years has been remarkable.  Consider the state of the game in 2000 and compare it with 2009.  The same sixteen teams.  The same fixturing.  With the exception of the demise of Princes Park, the same venues.  The same finals format.  Broadly the same draft and salary cap rules. Truly, this has been a period of stability reminiscent of the old days of the VFL, with 12 teams and six games on a Saturday.

This shift to a conservative approach by the AFL is no mere coincidence.  If asked why, the League’s response would probably be that by 2000 it had achieved most of the major reforms necessary to modernise, professionalise and nationalise the game.  The wisdom of two decades of hard, often unpopular decisions could be seen in a flourishing competition characterised by record attendances, thrilling spectacles and overflowing coffers.

The AFL would also argue that it hasn’t sat on its hands on important issues when they have arisen.  Certainly, its stance on drug testing or its efforts in reaching an accord with the Players Association on contractual and playing conditions have been sensible and forward-thinking.  But even in these areas, the League has been hardly done more than one would expect from a prudent and professional organisation.

A less charitable view of the AFL’s handling of the last ten years is that it had sniffed the winds of public opinion and detected a strong whiff of reform fatigue.  Burnt by the PR disasters of the relocation of South Melbourne to Sydney, the ill-fated Fitzroy-Footscray and Hawthorn-Melbourne merger attempts, and the eventual and pitiful demise of Fitzroy, the League has “officially” removed such proposals from its agenda.  It has also done a complete about-face from its “survival of the fittest” philosophy of yesteryear, openly bankrolling a number of struggling clubs where once they might have arranged shotgun marriages or moves interstate, threatening extinction for those that dared to resist these offers.  Its forays into new markets have been tentative and experimental, with occasional games only in Darwin, Canberra and Launceston.  Even these have occurred only with the generous backing of State and Territory Governments.

One area where the AFL has shown an appetite for change has been in the rules of the game, where a regular series of subtle but significant shifts in both the letter and the interpretation of various laws has created a spectacle that, by the standards of 2000, is faster and based far more on uncontested possession.  Handballs often outnumber kicks on the stats sheets, the relentless speed of the game is fuelled by constant interchanges and players no longer shun giving ground or passing across goal in their efforts to find an uncontested way forward.

Even here, I would argue that the AFL’s motivations have been conservative rather than innovative.  Its public position on rule changes has been that it is making the game a better spectacle.  I don’t doubt this objective, although I’ve never had a sense that AFL fans were getting bored with what they were seeing.

The underlying concern that I believe the AFL has been coy in acknowledging has been to stamp out the violent elements of the game.  It has been open in its determination to eliminate behind-play thuggery that once blighted the game, and has been pretty successful in doing so.  However, much of its rule-changing appears to be targeted at eliminating the once legitimate physical contact within the game.  The League’s approach here seems to be a nervous response to growing fears of legal consequences of serious injuries and the adverse implications for the game’s image in the face of competition from other less “brutal” sports.  However, a consequence is that many traditional fans are bemoaning the loss of the unpredictability and the contested, collision-based elements of the code that once set it apart.

Perhaps the best consequence of the “if it ain’t broke” strategy has been from the League’s rigid adherence to its equalisation policies.  Seven different clubs won premierships over the last ten years, equaling the 1960s as the decade producing the most different Premiers.  Nine teams have won flags since 1998 and a further four clubs have contested Grand Finals during this period.  Even allowing for the great performances of Brisbane at the start of the decade and Geelong at the end, there have been no enduring powers across the whole decade as in previous eras.  This is unquestionably a good development for the competition.

Even the seemingly irresistible power shift from the traditional Victorian clubs to the non-Victorian giants stagnated in the face of the AFL’s enforced socialism.  In 2000, the top four clubs were all Victorian and the Grand Final was played between two foundation clubs, Essendon and Melbourne.  By 2003, all six non-Victorian teams were finalists and the Brisbane Lions had won their third consecutive Flag.  Port Adelaide broke the Lions’ stranglehold the next year, followed by Sydney and West Coast, as non-Victorian Grand Finals became the norm during the middle of the decade. However, there has been a clear reversal of this trend in recent years and the decade has just concluded with the top four clubs again all being Victorian and the Grand Final being contested by two foundation clubs.  And in a really positive “retro” development, the Noughties saw the return of the “classic” Grand Final after two decades of almost constant mismatches on footy’s biggest day.

The AFL enters the new decade in a strong position.  On most indicators, it is weathering the storm posed by rival codes, despite the advances made particularly by soccer over the last ten years.  Even the huge increase in coverage of sport from around the world through pay TV and the internet does not appear to have caused a decline in appetite for the local code.  Likewise, the global economic downturn has, to this point, not drastically impacted on the AFL coffers beyond some small and prudent measures to cut a few costs and restrict price rises for admission.  Footy has, after all, been a cheap and popular form of escapism during tough economic times.

One trend of concern from the last decade is the declining levels of participation in the game, particularly at junior levels and in the country.  There are numerous social and demographic reasons for this beyond the simple explanation of a decline in popularity of the code.  However, the fact that we appear to be as keen as ever to watch the game but less likely to play it does raise the question of whether it is still “in the blood” as much as it once was.

So will the next decade be just as tranquil for Andrew Demetriou and his team?  I believe that it almost certainly won’t.

We can speculate about all sorts of “unknowns” that may emerge to challenge AFL’s dominance in the Australian sporting marketplace, but I can list at least seven major known factors that I believe will challenge the League’s “steady as she goes” approach of recent years, some of which are of the AFL’s own making.

1.  New clubs

At least two new clubs will be joining the competition in the next few years.  The League’s strategy of locating teams in the nation’s biggest areas of population growth has a compelling logic.  However, they are not traditional AFL markets and in the case of Western Sydney, they are staunch followers of the rival NRL.  For the first time since the establishment of the Brisbane Bears in 1987, the AFL is seeking to convert the heathen.

While a successful conversion will do wonders for the game nationally, these developments pose huge risks for the AFL.  The obvious one is that the ventures may be unsuccessful.  While the League has arranged draft concessions with the apparent blessing of the other clubs that are likely to ensure that the new teams are strong and viable from the outset, off-field success is harder to control.  As with the Sydney and Brisbane ventures of the 1980s, once committed, the AFL can scarcely afford to back down if the new teams are not immediately viable.  This will inevitably mean some form of subsidy and with it, the secondary risk of alienating the rest of the competition.  Will the AFL continue to be benignly tolerant of the financial struggles of the established clubs if, by 2015, they have an unviable and unwatched West Sydney to deal with?

This is hardly new territory for the AFL and I’m sure they have done their homework in a far more detailed and systematic manner than when they formed the Sydney Swans and Brisbane Bears.  But it is territory that they have not ventured into for many years and it is inherently risky and challenging.

2.  Free agency

I must confess to having a limited understanding of the intricacies of player contractual arrangements and what exactly the concept of “free agency” might mean for players, clubs and payment scales.  However, what I do know is that the salary cap and the strict rules around trading players have been great stabilizing factors in the financial side of the game, keeping ambitious club and player management egos in check and ensuring that players are well rewarded, but not outrageously so.

Any developments that upset this balance, particularly those that risk significant player payment hikes or players being able to effectively hold a club to ransom pose a huge threat to the viability of the competition, both in a financial sense and in terms of maintaining the League’s enviably even competition.  The challenge for the League will be to balance the understandable demands of players to gain greater freedom to ply their trade where they like and for whichever club can offer the greatest amount, with the need to maintain an equitable and financially viable competition.

3.  Draft concessions and “tanking”

The AFL has sat on its hands on this issue to date, refusing to acknowledge either that there is an inherent problem with the draft concessions rule or that clubs are deliberately going to some lengths to minimise their chances of winning games (if I can put it euphemistically) in order to benefit from this concession.

Whatever the truth of the matter, perception is everything and the integrity of the competition is already suffering as a result of the controversy that is brewing on this issue.  This issue cannot be allowed to fester too far into the next decade.

4.  Gambling

The recent proliferation of betting agencies and the media focus on the odds of games, margins, first goalkickers etc., has been dramatic.

My sense is that the AFL sees gambling as a massive cash-cow in the making.  This can be seen in its encouragement of live telecasts of games against the gate.  Where once live coverage was not permitted out of concern for reduced attendances and gate-takings, “public demand for live sport”, is now being used as a legitimate justification.  Clearly the numbers have changed.  Betting agencies freely admit that there is more gambling on games televised live.  As such, any diminishing gate-takings will be more than offset by higher commissions from increased betting.

Without wanting to sound like a wowser on this issue, it must be acknowledged that the attendant risks to the integrity of the sport are plain to see.  The above issue of “tanking” has already become of sufficient concern both to betting agencies and regulatory authorities to start asking awkward questions of the AFL.  Murkier prospects of match-fixing don’t bear thinking of but they may have to be if gambling becomes an even more influential tail wagging the AFL dog.

5.  TV rights

The negotiation of the new TV rights is, in itself, not a new issue for the AFL, as it managed to bring off two lucrative deals during the past decade.  National coverage will again be a key issue that the AFL must get a good result on from the next round of broadcasting rights.  But as noted above, the level of live coverage will also be pivotal.  From a viewer perspective, live is intrinsically good, but it becomes a more complex issue when gambling is taken into account, alongside the possible impact on participation in and attendance at local competitions, the “grass roots” that the League insists it is committed to.

6. Rule changes

The simple question here is whether the current practice of regular tampering with the rules will eventually render the game unrecognisable and, by definition, less appealing.  By all means fix genuine problems in the laws of the game but I’m not sure that the annual experimental changes are required in perpetuity.

7.  Rival codes

Although the AFL has deftly managed the competition from rival codes to date, I see these as a growing threat to our indigenous code in the coming decade.

Two particular developments will demand the close attention of the AFL.  First, watch out if Australia does genuinely go for and maybe even wins a World Cup bid in 2018 or 2022.  Second, the presence of global sport through digital media will only become more pervasive and the first generation brought up on this diet of sport on demand from all over the world will become adults over the next decade.  Will they still be inclined to follow the local game with the same loyalty as their predecessors?

I hope that I am reflecting on the state of the game at the end of 2019 and will conclude that these and other apparent challenges to the AFL’s health and stability were greatly over-estimated.  No doubt the League will maintain a confident, positive public position on all of them, no matter what.  However, I’m sure that these and other issues will be exercising the minds of far more influential folk than this humble fan who, without heaps of thought can see plenty of emerging threats to the wellbeing of the game he loves.  The days of plain sailing may well be numbered.

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Great stuff Sam

    “Comprehensive and thought provoking” sums it up.

    A few thoughts occur.

    1) Rival codes- Soccer would get an enormous boost if we scored the World Cup, but that’s a big if.

    Even if this occured, it faces a long term problem in Oz. The best players don’t play here, and won’t for the forseeable future. The global media you speak of is primarily interested in stars and sport at the highest level.

    The A league would seem to have a ceiling imposed on it by this fact- it’s competing with it’s own overseas stars for the public imagination.

    The grass roots could be another matter….

    Rugby League will get some boost from the new home stadium, but it has a long way to go in Melbourne despite the great efforts of the Storm club.

    2)Gambling/Tanking- Spot on to raise this connection. Andy D is kidding himself if he thinks the big-time gambling bus won’t collide with the Tank. Of course, he isn’t kidding himself, he’s trying to kid us. For this reason, priority picks would seem to have the life expectancy of the dodo.

    Also, REALLY big gambling money always taints what it touches. Is the AFL ready for that fact?

    3)TV rights- All of the AFL’s big ticket items presume that billion dollars they’re expecting. This is probably more in the realm of the “unkowns” you avoided, but if something were to interrupt this largesse, it would be interesting to see how set-in-stone some of these ambitions are.

    Today’s talk of News Ltd possibly moving out of League raises interesting questions in this regard, and hints at how the media landscape has potential for volitility.

    Again, a great read Sam.

    Cheers

  2. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    This is a very thought provocking article Sam – some very pertinent observations about the future of the game.

    A few thoughts on rival codes:

    1. Soccer World Cup
    I reckon it’ll be very similar to the Rugby World Cup – if Australia gets it.
    Everybody will embrace it and enjoy it – & then get on with barracking for their respective clubs in the AFL and going to the cricket in the summer.
    Basketball was supposedly going to take over the world back in the late 80’s/early 90′ – dud game to watch, fortunately that hasn’t eventuated and its really struggling as a spectator sport in Australia.

    2. Super 14 Rugby
    The real loser will be the Storm, just like in Canberra, the Brumbies own the town. The Raiders were a powerhouse in the late 80’s, but with the establishment of a Super 14 rugby franchise the aspirational classes soon switched to rugger – its not cool to follow the league, its a bogan game. Footy embraces all the social classes and unites people; the rugby codes divide them. There’s no NRL club on the north shore in Sydney (Manly is based on the northern beaches)

    Footy has nothing to fear from rival codes; on the contrary, they’re extremely concerned about the inroads our game is making everywhere.

  3. Dave Goodwin says:

    Thanks Sam – thoughtful, comprehensive, stimulating.

    One issue you didn’t directly touch on – though it’s implicit in the subject of competing with rival (global) sports like soccer and basketball – is the challenge of internationalising Australian Rules football. After a gestation of 160 years, when is the time for the game to ‘go forth”? Or do we parochially think this is unnecessary, or just too hard? What does the AFL think on this topic? Surely this would be a great subject for a major address, or thought piece, by Mike Fitzpatrick.

    My perspective is shaped by the fact I have been living in Singapore for the past four years. My passion burns bright from up here, and it’s possible to follow the game closely with four Australia Network telecasts a week and the internet, and a son boarding at Scotch College helps to link me in. BUT the universe of conversations about footy up here is limited to other Australian expats, and primarily southern staters. My global executive friends who are English, American, South African or Scandinavian have no frame of reference for our footy – sure they’ve seen it a few times but it’s a curiosity at best.

    And yet, Australian Rules football is clearly, and with as much objectivity as I can muster, the BEST sporting spectacle on the planet – despite the rule tinkering you reference. It appeals on the level of tactical sophistication and recognition of the ability to execute difficult skills under physical and pyschological/scoreboard pressure (the universal appeal of sport). In short it’s a product that is potentially marketable to the world.

    I say this as someone who lived until 1981 (when I was 17) in rural Queensland towns where no Aussie Rules was played within 200 kilometres. But I was seduced by watching the game on TV – sufficient to make it apparent this was unquestionably the greatest football code to watch. Admittedly I had a father who’d played the game in Brisbane in the late ’50s – to become a fan you need a point of reference.

    Most good Aussie sport junkies take an interest in all ballsports and have a strong interest in American baseball, football and basketball and Premier League soccer (also TV derived). So we understand how the gradual familiarisation process occurs, and can take root. These are the sports which are taking over the consciousness of people across Asia (India excepted) and Africa. No serious effort is being made to offer the Australian Rules footy product as an alternative – this is an abrogation of duty by the administrators.

    Sure it’s hard. (Highly paid administrators are there to crack difficult problems.) There have been efforts made in South Africa. I lived in Auckland for a year in 1993 and attended a function there where Kevin Sheedy – passionate on this subject at that stage of his life – extolled the criticality of internationalisation. What’s been the NZ strategy since? Small market I know. But there are 70 million plus pretty athletic people in Vietnam and in Thailand and in ten years not so many of them will be below the poverty line. Imagine cracking western China. And India is still wide open.

    The Ireland effort seems more end-of-season trip oriented than aimed at a Saint Patrick style conversion, and the idiots that have condoned going the biff over there (Sheedy included) – and gone unpunished – have destroyed the game’s prospects in the Irish market.

    The encirclement of Australian Rules football by other codes will ultimately, inevitably, be the cause of its demise (or rather, marginalisation). You won’t be writing about this in ten years but you may in 25. We need a well-resourced 20 year plan to ensure the game sprouts outside Australia, supported by an international media strategy as well as grassroots efforts.

    This is, I would argue, more important than seeding Western Sydney. Or perhaps I’ve just lost true perspective because I’ve been living away from our sandy shores too long.

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