18 might just go into 2

by Tavis Perry

There are going to be 18 teams in the AFL competition by 2012. While I’m all for expanding the competition and growing the game nationally, I honestly think the time is right to look at introducing two conferences instead of having the mundane set-up we have now.

I understand there will be a lot of traditionalists who are vehemently opposed to the idea, but I think there is a lot of merit to splitting the 18 teams into two conferences of nine. For starters, they will be able to play each other twice, once at home, and once away. Finally, there will be a scenario that is truly fair, makes sense and is a lot easier to organize. Obviously at the moment the draw is heavily dictated by TV rights deals and ‘show-piece’ games such as the Anzac day clash between Collingwood and Essendon. Having the league effectively broken in two would theoretically mean that this clash couldn’t happen annually, but there is no reason why these two sides should have a monopoly on this date and I’m sure every other club would love to have the opportunity to be a part of it. And while Collingwood are given a lot more home games because they are the biggest crowd pulling side, should their money raising capability take precedence over having a draw that is fair for all? I’d like to think not.

Having two conferences of nine teams would also mean that the AFL could establish a top 5 system in each conference, which has consistently been cited in Herald Sun polls as supporters preferred finals format. It is easy to understand and gives a real incentive to finish on top of the ladder. This arrangement means there are only four sides that don’t make the finals in each conference, meaning that each year sides will have a greater chance to make finals. It will also mean that each side will be in the finals race for longer, which should help quell the ‘tanking’ phenomenon.

From here, there are obviously a number of different ways to arrange how the finals system would work. As an example, I think it would add a lot of intrigue if the teams in each conference’s top 5 played against each other. So the first week of finals would include two elimination finals; the team that finished 5th in conference 1 taking on the team that finished 4th in conference 2. Conversely, the team that finished 4th in conference 1 would take on the team that finished 5th in conference 2. The team that finished higher on the ladder would have the home ground advantage. Similarly, for the qualifying finals the team that finished 2nd in conference 1 would play the team that finished 3rd in conference 2, etc. Both teams that finished on the top of the ladder in each conference would earn the luxury of a week off in the first week of finals and go straight into a Second Semi-Final. The difference from the traditional top 5 set up would be that the winners of the Second Semis would go into preliminary finals, instead of how it usually operates – that they go straight to the Grand Final. This would ensure that the top two teams out of the entire 18 would still get a chance to play in the Grand Final (anticipating that in some years the team that finished 2nd in conference 1 is better than the team that finishes 1st in conference 2, as an example). With this set-up, the AFL would still get the full quota of finals matches to televise.

How the teams would be split into the two conferences could also be done in a number of ways. I like the idea of each conference still having to play at least one team from each different state, so there would be five teams from Victoria and 1 from each of SA, WA, NSW and QLD. They would then rotate on a yearly basis. In that way, again, every team is exposed to the same conditions, in that every Victorian based team has to play at least 1 game in each state. That would mean a lot less interstate ‘derby’ matches, but imagine the furore that would be created if interstate teams played each other for the first time in a year in a final.

Having 18 teams also means that it would be substantially harder to pick an All-Australian side; the number of players on team lists would be well over 700, so picking a definitive 22 is recognizing less than 5% of the AFL players. With the introduction of the two-conference system, there could be two ‘all-conference’ teams selected, or there is the possibility of having both these two teams and an All-Australian side.

This theory, like all theories, isn’t infallible by any means. For a start it would mean that there would have to be two separate draws (though they would be possibly be easier to arrange than the single one they have at the moment), two league best and fairest awards, replacing the traditional Brownlow medal system and probably two Coleman medalists. But if the AFL is going to continue keep expanding and promoting the game across the country, it is inevitable that at least some of the tradition is taken out of our great game, or new innovations are utilized. There was talk during the week that the AFL would consider having 20 sides down the track, in which case you think they’d have to adopt this format, or something similar, just to keep the appeal of the competition alive.

This is just an idea that I have been thinking about recently that I think makes a lot of sense and adds a lot of intrigue to an already enthralling competition. I also believe that the AFL should be looking at creative ways to improve the current scheduling format.


  1. I personally would like to see a 17 game season, augmented by the development of a national elimination competition similar to the FA Cup. I think there would be a certain romance to seeing say Port Adelaide take on Norwood (who missed out on the 16th licence) in a quarter final. Or say Melbourne playing a game against a Darwin team, perhaps even the readers own team may embark on a fairytale run.

    It would be a wonderful sponsorship opportunity for a company to truly reach communities around Australia. Early rounds could be played by Geographic region to limit travel costs, AFL teams would be scheduled to enter the competition at the Round of 32. It would give the MCG the chance to host 2 grand finals and broaden exposure to a wider audience around Australia, giving teams and places that do not have the opportunity to participate at the highest level a chance to show their skills.

    Of course this will never happen…

  2. I see merit in the conference idea and Tim’s too.

    My vote would be for a two-division comp. The obvious problem with that would be the complaints about the sides that end up in Div. 2. But there are a number of benefits that the AFL should consider:

    1. Two divisions of 10 teams each (more on the 19th and 20th teams below), will allow for an 18-round season with all sides playing each other twice, home and away. Top 4 or 5 finals system can be used for each division.

    2. Tanking would not be an issue for Div. 1 teams as they will be trying to avoid relegation.

    3. This format presents the AFL with the opportunity to include teams from Tassie and the NT. Yes, there will be significant financial implications as these two clubs would be unlikely to run at a profit for many years (if ever). BUT – 20 teams in two divisions gives TV stations 10 games per week. Granted, 5 will be Div. 2 but will the fans of those sides drop off to the point where they won’t watch? Some will, but I reckon most won’t. The financial windfall of having 10 games on TV could offset the Tassie and Territory clubs running at a loss.

    4. The drafts could be set up as a lottery, with the Div. 2 sides of the upcoming season getting the first 10 and the Div 1 sides getting the next 10 etc. Each round of 10 picks would be drawn at random from that Division’s teams.

    No more arguments about favourable draws. Fair draft. No tanking required. And the so-called “big 4” clubs will play each other twice each year, AS LONG AS THEY’RE GOOD ENOUGH to stay in the top division. (No rewards based on money, members and mediocrity.)

  3. Hey Gigs and Tim,

    Both your ideas have a lot of merit. I agree, Tim, that your idea will probably never come to fruition, mainly because I think it’s too far from what has already been in place for over 100 years. A few people I’ve spoken to about this idea agree with Gigs, in that it should be divided into 2 divisions, as opposed to conferences. I think if it went that way, it would actually help out the NWS and Gold coast sides, because the standard of the competition that they would start in (assuming they’d start in Div 2) wouldn’t be as high, and it would give them a better chance of making finals within 2-3yrs. Then, if they’re good enough to win a Div 2 flag they’ll have unequivocal proof that they’re good enough to play against the top tier teams.

    In my opinion, the main problems would be with teams money raising capabilities if they played Div 2 – it’d be harder to sell membership tickets and gain sponsorship, because Div 1 would be seen as the ‘elite’ and therefore have greater prestige..

  4. Clint Youlden says


    What you right about is spot on. It’s no secret formula or format of course, the mega-success of USA sporting teams have been built on such a system and the AFL public needs to get rid of it’s ‘anti-american’ view and focus on what works over time. They simply keep changing things over and over again instead of making the hard decision that will ultimately succeed in the game.

    I think having first and second divisions (like soccer) is suicide for the game. All the money will be in the first division and you’ll end up with 8 teams playing each other 4 times each. We already see how little interest there is in the VFL so I think this is not an option at all.

    Two conferences is the best format with one interstate game each being in the draw. However, this only means fewer games for the league and the league wants more games (the nab cup etc). Having two colemans and two brownlows isn’t going to work because you are effectively making it two separate leagues then, not conferences. I admit there will be certain all-conference teams and awards etc, but the standard awards shouldn’t change.

    My solution is, as it was 10 years ago, is two conferences (divided however you like) Each team plays very team in their conference twice and every team in the other conference once. This gives a 23 game season and the finals system as Tav said.

    Finals systems like Tav explained would probably fit the best and would enable any team to eventually face off in the GF, a problem that the USA teams have with the best in the east v the best in the west always meeting at the finals.

    No mater how you do it there will always be opponents and purists that want to be heard some way or another. What I object to is the fact that it’s brought up year after year as the best solution for the league to progress and nothing gets done about it.

    Let’s just see someone in the AFL earn their money for a change and put their nuts on the table for once to make a hard decision that will ultimately be beneficial for the game in the future instead of clinging on to stone age traditions.

  5. Cheers Cannon,

    I actually can’t really think of a reason why the AFL wouldn’t want to have 2 conferences, or a similar set up..?

    In regards to the Brownlow situation – the draw that you propose is the only way that you could keep it, by the actual system I first stipulated teams would only play others that are in their particular conference.

    I personally think that the finals system that I spoke about would add a lot more intrigue and interest, even over the current format, where most believe the top 4 are the only chance of winning the GF (which of course, statistically is accurate). There were be so much written about the differences between the top teams in each conference, but the build up would be even bigger because they would only meet in a finals match.

    It will be interesting to see what approach the AFL adopts as the amount of teams in the competition increases, I just can’t see how they can keep the same fixturing.

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