The Tyranny of Football Distance

There was an interesting article in The Weekend Australian on Saturday by Mick Malthouse, in which he looked at the procession of retiring players that can occur at this time of year, the impact on clubs when they lose a core of experience simultaneously, and how different clubs have managed the process.

Significantly, he compared the retirement age of various players that have played much or all of their careers in the country’s south-east (Kirk, McDonald & Akermanis all aged 33) against that of Fremantle’s Paul Haselby, at 29.

He went on to add:

“As someone who coached West Coast for a decade I have no doubt that the constant long-distance travel to and from Perth every second week during a football season, year after year, reduces the life of Perth-based AFL players… Flying five hours each way in the space of a couple of days means it takes longer to recover from injuries and longer to recover from the general attrition of matches.”

It’s a theme that Malthouse has consistently voiced over the last decade, and is a credit to him that whilst he obviously has a very competitive focus in his current place of employment, he hasn’t forgotten (or had new biases cause him to overlook) the geographic and bio-physical facts he learnt is his time coaching the Eagles.

Malthouse continued:

“A number of the West Coast players I coached retired in their late 20’s instead of early 30’s when they were good enough to keep going. We’ve seen a number of senior players struggle at West Coast this season including Dean Cox, Darren Glass, Daniel Kerr and Ashley Hansen. They’re all late 20’s.”

Similarly, Mark Harvey has been outspoken this year on the travel burden that the Dockers endure. Earlier in the year, he was rightly aggrieved at having consecutive 6-day breaks with major travel commitment involved, when his side backed up from a Sunday Derby win, to play at the Gabba the following Saturday and then back home to face Malthouse’s Magpies on a Friday night. Harvey said at the time that he thought the WA clubs could have about 13 games at their home ground of Subiaco and about 4 at the WACA, to put them on a par with most Victorian clubs might have at the 2 grounds in their city.

More recently, Harvey came under fire when he rested a stack of his stars from a long trip to Tasmania 2 weeks before the finals, as the impact of the season’s cumulative travel has fatigued his side. He made the observation that (similar to Malthouse’s recognitions and insights) most people in football don’t realise the impact of constant trans-continental travel until you work at a club where you have to do it.

It doesn’t sit easily for me that I find myself completely agreeing with the views of the coaches of Fremantle and Collingwood, but they are dead right. And it probably carries a lot more weight that the reality of the WA travel burden is being highlighted by a couple of Victorian legends, and not just West Australians like Eagles CEO Trevor Nisbett or Dennis Cometti (the only free-to-air commentator or journalist who undertakes that travel burden himself).

Picking up Malthouse’s point, it’s interesting to go through some of the stats on player longevity across different states of residence.

To firstly look at some history, in the ‘old days’ where the distinct single-city VFL, SANFL & WAFL competitions required footballers only to play within their own respective cities (save perhaps for a once-off trip for an interstate game for the handful of players at the top level, or maybe a 1980’s annual trip up to the SCG), player longevity across the states was fairly comparable. Barry Cable’s stellar career in the 1960’s and 1970’s yielded a total of 405 WAFL, VFL & Interstate games, broadly  comparable to Kevin Bartlett’s then-record in the same era.

Since then, as we’ve moved into the era of ‘national competition’, things have diverged significantly. Consider the following comparison of the top 5 ‘Most Games Played’ at some of the ‘newer’ clubs:

Adelaide (since 1991) Brisbane (since 1987) West Coast (since 1987)
Andrew McLeod 340 Marcus Ashcroft 318 Glenn Jakovich 276
Tyson Edwards 320 Alistair Lynch 306 Guy McKenna 267
Mark Ricciuto 312 Michael Voss 289 Drew Banfield 265
Ben Hart 311 Nigel Lappin 279 Peter Matera 253
Nigel Smart 278 Shaun Hart 273 Dean Kemp 243

(note: Brisbane’s club records include Lynch’s games for Fitzroy)

With Adelaide having the shortest history of these clubs, you could reasonably expect them to trail the other 2 in records of player longevity, but this is not the case – rather, the numeric facts bear out Malthouse’s point.

The reason for this is the impact of travel. Not the impact on an individual week, but the cumulative impact over a season, and a career. The Crows (and Power, and Swans) travel every second-week but (for the most part) only on a 1-hour flight. The Lions carry a bit more of a burden, whilst the WA clubs travel the length of the country every fortnight, clocking up 8-10 hours in a pressurised aircraft in the process.

It’s also interesting to then look at the relative success of clubs by their location over the 14 years since the Lions merger and Port joining the competition. Let’s look at top-4 finishes and finals hosted (assuming this year’s top-4 finishes up as per the home-and-away placings):

Top-4 finshes (totals) Top-4 finshes (ave. per-club) Home finals (total) Home finals (ave. per club)
Victorian clubs (10) 36 3.6 64 6.4
SA clubs (2) 9 4.5 19 9.5
NSW clubs (1) 3 3.0 8 8.0
Qld clubs (1) 5 5.0 12 12.0
WA clubs (2) 3 1.5 9 4.5

(note: “home-finals” includes the cases where West Coast, Adelaide & Brisbane each earnt the right to a home-final, but didn’t get to actually host it; excludes Grand Finals)

If you accept that Queensland is an anomaly in the above, having had 1 brilliant team for a period (and plenty would argue the rights and wrongs about salary cap concessions and merger impacts in that mix, but we’ll leave those for another day), the clear outlier is WA, whose clubs have performed comparatively poorly over the 14-year journey. The stats are actually made to look slightly better by the fact that they include Fremantle hosting a final next weekend, the first final in WA for 3 years.

I think these performance stats would surprise a number of people. This year’s form notwithstanding, there is a common perception of West Coast as a dominant, powerful club. Whilst it’s true that period of the last 14 years excludes West Coast’s preceding success in the early 90’s, that just underlines that under the current fixturing and travel arrangements, a WA club will only ever seriously challenge when it has a rare coincidence of a really exceptional group of superstars (ie. the Eagles foundation squad, or Judd plus Cousins), and even then, only for a relatively brief ‘premiership window’.

The point also needs to be made that, much as Malthouse notes the wearying of current Eagles senior players, the travel burden does not excuse West Coast this year. West Coast is poor at the moment because they’re not fit enough, they can’t hit targets, their decision-making is just woeful and they don’t tackle, shepherd or assert themselves physically. What it does mean is that when (if) West Coast rebuilds an outfit that can threaten, it will stay ‘up’ for a shorter period than teams in the equivalent situation in other cities. The same goes for the much-improved Dockers – a young side on the ‘up’, they might only get a 2-year window, whereas the young Demons could potentially grow into a force that is dominant for some years, like Geelong.

Apart from the inequity for clubs, there’s also the inequity for individual players. If you compare those ‘games played’ records for Adelaide & West Coast (above), the 60-odd game disparity essentially means that a player drafted to a WA club will (even if his career goes really well and he becomes a club ‘great’) have approx. 3 years shaved off his career – just like the case Malthouse cited of Haselby compared to the east coast retirees 4 years his senior.

That might be a 10-year career versus a 13-year one, or a 30% difference in your potential career earnings – a significant financial disadvantage as well. That also reinforces the WA clubs’ problems, giving a further challenge in player retention, as well as having to churn their lists more frequently from the earlier retirements.

So what can be done about this? After all, geography is a reality.

One option would be to just give the WA clubs an extra salary cap concession, which (though justifiable in terms of players’ shortened careers and reduced earning capacity) creates other inequities of its own. I wouldn’t support that approach as the travel mitigant.

Another would be to give the WA clubs the right to have larger lists, or to have preferential recruiting rights given the added list churn. On a similar note, Mark Harvey recently suggested (very optimistically) that interstate clubs should be allowed more interchanges than Victorian clubs. Once again we’re talking ideas that bring other, fresh inequities, and even ones that distort the game itself.

Rather (and much more simply), why don’t we just even up the travel? Make clubs from the south-east travel to the west (and the far north) more, and give the WA clubs more games in Perth (and its vicinity). As Andrew Demetriou has rightly recognised, Perth is a growing and “under-serviced” market, although he also rejected West Coast’s previous efforts to ‘buy’ and extra ‘home’ game from North Melbourne. Perhaps we need to find a way to adjust this systematically, and share the travel burden across all teams, rather than the attempted piecemeal solution through a bilateral financially-oriented deal between 2 clubs.

There are a few ways an 18-club fixture could be worked to get more equitable travel outcomes, whilst preserving (or even enhancing) the integrity of the fixture, and acknowledging the reality of commercial constraints.

I think the absolute fairest approach would be to have a 22-game season in which every club plays its local rival twice annually, and plays the other 16 clubs 5 times each over 4 years (which adds up to a neat 88 games over 4 years). Those 5 head-to-head clashes over 4 years could then be played on a ‘2-home / 2-away / 1-neutral’ basis; the neutral fixtures would be played at alternate (eg. regional) venues, with the WA (and perhaps Qld) clubs getting their 4 annual neutral fixtures somewhere close to home. But this scenario has a huge number of games being transferred from the major venues in the cities to smaller grounds, and so fails the commercial test.

Here are 3 other suggestions:

Scenario 1: All Victorian clubs take 1 home-game interstate, under a 22-game season

Assumptions:

  • Haw takes 4 home games to Launceston annually; NM does likewise at Hobart’s Bellrieve Oval; the other 8 clubs are each required to take 1 home game interstate
  • GWS’s intent to play some games at Manuka Oval is a mix of a couple of their ‘home’ games and 1 or 2 ‘away’ fixtures

How it would work:

  • all clubs play their local rival twice annually, and the other 16 clubs 5 times each over 4 years; in all cases, the 5 head-to-head clashes are on a 3-home/2-away or 2-home/3-away basis
  • the 2 WA clubs each have 3H/2A against the SA, QLD & NSW clubs as well as Haw & NM
  • the 2 WA clubs each have 2H/3A against the other 8 Vic clubs, but those 8 Vic clubs each take 1 home game (in the 4-year period) against each WA club to Perth; ie. in any given year, 4 of those 8 clubs take a home game to Perth, 2 being against WCE and 2 against Freo
  • those 8 Vic clubs (excluding Haw & NM) also take an occasional game to either Canberra, Darwin or Cairns on a rotational basis, such that in any given year, 4 clubs take a home game to Perth, and 4 take 1 to one of those regional centres
  • to balance out 11H and 11A for all, Haw, NM, and the SA, QLD & NSW clubs (having had a total of 4H/6A against WA teams over the 4 years) will each have 21H/19A against the remaining 8 Victorian teams (ie. 3H/2A against 5 of those clubs, 2H/3A against 3 of them)

Upshots:

  • the WA clubs’ travel burden is reduced from 10 annual trips to 8
  • every eastern club goes to Perth 6 times over 4 years
  • each Vic club (except Haw & NM) annually has 10H & 6A in Vic; they each travel 6 times annually, for 1 transported home-game and 5 away-games
  • the Lions and Swans end up with 26H/24A games against Vic clubs, preserving their annual 6 away games in Vic for their Melbourne-based members
  • Carl, Coll & Ess each share the burden of trips to places like Canberra, Darwin & Cairns, which is great for fairness and promoting the sport in particular parts of the country, but probably not optimal in terms of crowds

Scenario 2: Travel-sharing, but with greater commercial considerations, under a 22-game season

Assumptions:

  • the same as for Scenario 1 above, except that Car, Coll, Ess & Geel are each assumed to refuse point-blank to transfer a home game, and the AFL doesn’t force them to do so
  • similar objective as for Scenario 1, but with some greater focus on commercial considerations

How it would work:

  • the 2 WA clubs each have 3H/2A against the 12 clubs other than Mel, Rich, StK & WB
  • the 2 WA clubs each have 1H/4A against Mel, Rch, StK & WB, but with those 4 clubs each taking 1 home game to Perth annually (2 against each of the WA clubs)
  • Mel, Rich, StK & WB also take an annual home game to either Canberra, Darwin or Cairns (rotating), and also have a 3H/2A record against each of the SA, QLD & NSW clubs
  • Car, Coll, Ess & Geel each have a 2H/3A record against each of the SA, QLD & NSW clubs, though have the majority of their away games against NSW teams at the more ‘neutral’ ANZ Stadium, and against the Suns at the Gabba

Upshots:

  • As per Scenario 1, the WA clubs’ travel burden is reduced from 10 annual trips to 8, and every eastern club goes to Perth 6 times over 4 years
  • Car, Coll, Ess & Geel each have 16 games in Vic, being 11H & 5A; they each travel 6 times annually for away games, at the larger venues (eg. ANZ, Gabba)
  • Mel, Rich, StK & WB also each have 16 games in Vic, but these are 9H & 7A (only altered if they have an away game in Tas); they also each travel 6 times annually, being for 2H and 4A, taking in games at the likes of Manuka, Carrara, Homebush Showground, the SCG & Darwin
  • Haw & NM continue to annually have 13 games in Vic, and travel 9 times, 4 of which to Tas
  • We effectively end up with the same outcome as Scenario 1 of all clubs playing each other 5 times over 4 years on a 3H/2A or a 2H/3A basis, which is an equitable fixturing outcome

Scenario 3: Varying the extra ‘home’ games under a 24-game season

Assumptions:

  • The ‘play each other 5 times over 4 years’ (and your local rival twice annually) doesn’t hold up under neat mathematics anymore with the longer season, and clubs may play each other 5 or 6 times over that cycle
  • Every club has to have at least the 11 ‘home’ games that it currently gets, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone gets 12

How it would work:

  • the 2 WA clubs each get 14 home games (or games at a ‘neutral’ venue in/near Perth)
  • Adel & Syd each get 12 home games
  • Bris & GC each get 12 home games, plus 1 game in (say) Cairns
  • Port & GWS each get 13 ‘home’ games, but that includes some games at Darwin & Canberra respectively (ie. Port might have 11 home games at AAMI, 2 ‘neutral’ at Darwin and 11 away)
  • Haw & NM each get 12 home games (including their 4 each at Tas)
  • The remaining 8 Vic clubs each get 11 home games, 12 ‘standard’ away games, and 1 extra travel game away at/near Perth, Darwin, Cairns or Canberra

Upshots:

  • the WA clubs’ travel burden is reduced from their current 10 annual trips (or the 11 that they would get on a straight 12H-12A basis under a 24-game season) to 9
  • most Vic clubs would get 17 games in Vic and travel 7 times (unless playing as an away side in Tas)
  • Haw & NM each get 14 games in Vic, and travel 10 times, 4 of which are to Tas

Obviously, each of these scenarios has most Victorian clubs playing a disproportionate share of their games against WA clubs in WA (either officially as an ‘away’ game, or effectively as one), and plenty would surely object. But if the facts of the current travel inequities aren’t enough, let’s not forget that any Victorian-WA clash in a Grand Final would be played at the Victorian’s home. I’d think you could afford to give up some home-ground advantage for the odd home-and-away game, and consider it a down payment for the home-ground advantage you’d enjoy on the day that you’ll really want it.

More so, I think the AFL owes it to 2 clubs (who paid license fees, and are fully entitled to an even playing field) to address this. And it certainly owes it to every kid that gets drafted by a WA club, who would currently watch 30% of their career earnings potential being wiped away immediately the moment that their name gets called.

Comments

  1. Interesting and relevent Brad.

    I can think of one club would balk (scream) though.

    An interstate trip for them would be a trip down the road to the ‘Dome.’ They appear to have enough clout to very rarely travel any further so why would they bother to consider a change if the league kow tows to them now.

  2. Great article Brad. A thorough analysis and some practical solutions.

    I think it was David Parkin who said a few years back that a side from the West had to be 10% better than the next best team to win a premiership. Too true.

    Kudos to Malthouse too for getting involved. You see part of the problem facing Harvey and Freo in getting their point across is there’s no back up from Wet Toast. Their coach, president, CEO and board won’t speak up on anything remotely controversial for at least another decade. In the wake of the Cousins saga the club has no bark, no bite, no balls.

    It’s worth remembering that CEO Trevor Nisbett and Wet Toast were once outspoken contributors in AFL debates, and could be counted on to use their financial weight and power as a successful club to have an influence on outcomes for the two WA teams.

    Now they are muzzled, timid and gutless. And they’ll pay for it big time in the next five years.

  3. Good article.

    Part of this could be corrected by the AFL ensuring that the WA teams at least shouldn’t travel to Brisbane/Sydney in the same season. Freo had to go to Tasmania as well. They’ve also travelled to Darwin in the past. Better fixturing could help.

    In regards to Top 4, I think the WA stats are slightly skewed by the fact that Freo had such an inauspicious start for a whole lot of reasons, only one of them travel related.

  4. Neil Hassa Allen says:

    I have a solution, but a very difficult one which will never happen but interesting nonetheless. One day I will write an article and expand on it.

    Dismantle the non-Victorian AFL clubs, introduce shortened state level competitions in the non-Victorian state in lieu of their demise. At the end of the state competition these top ranked state level teams play in a truly National finals Competition against the top ranked Victorian.
    Call it the “Championship of Australia”.

    Take WA as an example.

    We have 9 teams in our WAFL competition. We play each other twice (16 games). The top two ranked WAFL teams then qualify for the National finals.

    In the case of Victoria with a revamped 10 team VFL (true VFL not re-jigged VFA) would possibly have 3 teams qualify. SA would have 2 etc…

    Then dependent upon the number of teams qualifying, you might have something like an 8 game Championship of Australia elimination finals season, culminating with a Grand Final for the Championship of Australia.

    Just imagine – football remains localised for a majority of the season, club culture & history is retained and nurtured. Zones can remain intact, kids play for the team same local team they grew up with.

    Any local state league club near you has the chance and opportunity to finish bottom of the state league one year & rise to win the Championship of Australia the next year.

    Ah, imagine the stories.

  5. Neil – that sounds a bit like pure communism; great idea but could never work. It would send them all broke.

  6. Guys, thanks for your comments.

    Smithy, I think you’re quite right that the West Coast hierarchy seem (from the outside at least) to be timid and compliant. I’d like to think that there might be a ‘peace dividend’ in the offing for doing so, but I’m not holding my breath… I also like your other point re David Parkin recognising that a WA team has to be at least 10% better in order to overcome the travel disadvantage – a true gentleman and a very fair & balanced observer, I’m not surprised that Parkin would notice that (whereas I would fall off my chair if Mike Sheahan ever picked up on it).

    Jonathon, I take your point that in a sample of 2 clubs, Freo’s past years of failures could serve to skew things – but if you left Freo out, West Coast still have only 2 top-4 finishes to show for themselves over the 14 years since Port came in, compared to Vic/SA averages of 3.6 & 4.5 (and a total AFL average of 3.5 per club). Both WA clubs figure in the league’s 6 worst performed clubs by this measure.

    Neil, what you described is perhaps how we might have chosen to build a naional footy comp some years ago, if things had worked out a little differently. It would’ve addressed a lot of the travel disparities, and it would’ve been terrific to see some of the great historic clubs like Norwood, Sturt, East Perth & West Perth have had an opportunity to participate in a national comp. But that one’s done and dusted now. Still, in a small step in that direction, I’d like to see a 3rd WA team come in at some stage. And like yourself, I would like to see local kids growing up to play for local teams (though that’s probably another issue…)

    Interesting to see the AFL state last week that the 2012 season (once GWS is in) will consist of either 22 or 23 games (ie. seemingly ruling out their earlier idea of a 24-game season). Perhaps they could do something with a 23-game season, eg:
    – give the WA teams 10 home at Subi, 10 away (which would include an annual away derby for each), 3 ‘neutral’ at an alternate ground in/near Perth
    – give the SA/QLD/NSW teams 11 home, 11 away & 1 ‘neutral’ at Darwin/Cairns/Canberra
    – Vic clubs each fly for an extra ‘neutral’ fixture

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