AFL Fixture Options

All AFL fans (possibly excepting those whose world view is black and white) agree that the current season fixture is unfair and outmoded. 22 games divided by 18 teams does not produce an equitable outcome. Broadly speaking, there are 3 viable alternatives, which I will briefly analyse.

The first is elegant in its simplicity, eminently fair and mirrors the intent of the original VFL draw of 22 games. Each team plays each of its opponents once at home and once away. With 18 teams, this would produce a season of 34 home and away games. I lied; this is not viable, as it would extend the season by 3 months, leading to the Grand Final being played some time around New Year’s Eve, but imagine the premiership celebrations!

So, you can’t play each team twice – you can play every team once and then just some teams for a second time. The question now becomes: what is the fairest and most sensible way of determining which teams meet twice in any given season? Two different approaches have emerged, each with its attractions. N.B. I do not favour the locking-in of so-called “conferences”, e.g. based on geography (east and west is one example) whereby there are two permanent sub-divisions of the AFL which have mini-competitions and then the top teams in each conference meet in a finals series, as in the USA. To me, this destroys the unity of the one competition, and smacks of some glorified interstate football carnival. But, enough of what we’re not considering, let’s look at what’s on the table.

It seems we’re agreed that every team meets once (I haven’t heard any objections…you’ll have to speak up). 17 games, and to keep it fair, you alternate each season between home and away. No problems, but then what? You could end the season there, and go straight to the finals, but we would lose 5 games a year, a few zillion dollars in gate takings and a lot of good footy opportunities. So, we could either use the results of the 17 games as the basis of the rest of the season, or we could use the ladder positions of the previous season.

To take the latter (i.e.the ladder) first. This would entail playing another 5 games against teams that finished in the same third of the ladder as your team did last season – the top six would play each other twice, teams 7 – 12 would play against each other and teams 13 – 18 would play each other. This system has the benefits of maintaining a 22 game season, encouraging a more even competition without scoreboard blowouts and being firmly fixed in place at the start of each season, thereby enabling logistical planning in advance. Unless teams had major form changes, you would generally expect the top four teams, for example, to meet twice before the finals. Fans would understand the logic of this arrangement, and there could be no suggestion of heavy-handed AFL interference. My concern is that the teams that finished 7 and 8 may get a relatively easy run into the finals, by not meeting any of the top 6 teams twice. Is this an argument to revert to a Final Six?

Using the results of the 17 game season to determine the remainder of the draw is a more radical departure, but offers some interesting possibilities. Under this model, the bottom 9 teams would be eliminated after round 17, and only the top 9 teams have a chance of making the final 4. The bottom 9 would play out the season against each other for a consolation trophy, with some cash incentives built in, to encourage new players, team building etc. The top teams would play 8 more games, guaranteeing that all will have met twice before the finals commence. Effectively, there will be two elimination cut-offs, one after round 17 and one after round 25. The Final Four system would be like the old VFL finals over 3 weeks, a season total of 28 games (compared to the current 26). The last 8 weeks of the home and away season would be like a mini-finals series in itself, with top teams clashing each week.

On further reflection, I think the knock-out competition could well be too great a change from the traditional model, and might even lead to disillusionment among fans of the bottom teams, creating a “them and us” division. It could also seriously compromise the integrity of the Brownlow and Coleman medals.

So, on balance, I believe we should stick to the 22 game season, with all teams playing each other once, and then each team playing against the 5 other teams in their third of the ladder, as determined by their placing in the previous season. Whether or not we persevere with so-called “blockbuster” and “marquee” games is a whole other question, but I would like to see the home and away alternation enshrined, so that that important element of fairness is locked in and transparent. The first 17 games of the season’s fixture could be virtually set in cement, and develop their own unique traditions over time.



  1. Well done Bert, you have ticked all the boxes for a fairer footy season.

  2. Mark Doyle says

    This is another mickey mouse idea to justify 9 Melbourne teams in an AFL competition.The only fair draw should be based on a 12 team AFL competition with 22 home and away games. The 12 teams should be Geelong, Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, West Sydney, Adelaide, Port Adelaide, West Coast and Fremantle.

  3. Gutsy solution Mark – your numbers work is impeccable. Are you perhaps an accountant by profession?
    As a Cats fan, who endured the 1989 and 2008 Grand Finals, I can see the merits of euthanasing Hawthorn (rather than just relocating them to Tassie), but I think there may be a few footy fans left with a soft spot for the Doggies, Tigers, Roos, Saints and Demons, as an integral part of our great game’s traditions (and I don’t mean just the supporters of those clubs).
    By what logic did you determine which Victorian clubs “should” get the thumbs up?

  4. Mark Doyle says

    Bert, the logic for determining which Victorian clubs get the thumbs up is a history of good management and team success. Clubs such as the doggies, tigers, roos, saints and demons would be better off playing in a semi-professional Melbourne based competition with their history and traditions maintained. In recent years clubs such as Geelong and Hawthorn have developed good business plans – Geelong have used government funds to develop an AFL venue income producing asset of Skilled Stadium; and Hawthorn have developed something similar in Launceston, Tasmania in partnership with the Tasmanian government. It is interesting that the AFL are using these Geelong and Hawthorn models for other clubs such as Gold Coast and the two Adelaide clubs, Melbourne clubs such as the doggies, tigers, roos, saints and demons have used their government funds to develop better training and administration premises, but these premises do not generate significant amounts of revenue. The only way for the weaker Melbourne clubs to increase their revenue is to develop poker machine clubs with 5,000 plus poker machines in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.

  5. Dave Nadel says

    I hate the idea of mickey mouse final rounds based on matches between the “top six” “middle six” and “bottom six” It undermines the concept of finals and advamtages 7 and 8 over 5 and 6. The only fair systems are one’s in which the same teams play the same opponents every year. One solution is some sort of geographic conference system (which I like, but you do not) Otherwise the only fair alternative is a seventeen game season. I realise the economic problems of this (and I don’t want to lose five games either) but it is the only fair system involving all eighteen teams in the same competition. Perhaps the remaining five weeks could be used in an improved pre-season competition. Perhaps two weeks of the remaining five could be used for a “State of Origin” competition.

  6. David Downer says

    M.Doyle, your posts never fail to disappoint.
    What a solution. Be done with the “mickey mouse” rubbish and just cull six Melbourne clubs (I think you like referring to them as “garbage clubs”). We could let their 4 million collective supporters just pick other sides to follow in the new 12-team “AFL Utopia”, but we could still follow our rubbish teams complete with car-horn honking in the second-tier comp. Just like Fitzroy in the VAFA, it’s perfect.
    Football is an emotionless industry (er, game) of course, so it would be a seamless transition. Footy hasn’t been built on 100+ years of sentiment, glory, hurt and passion, it’s all about “business models”. It’s never been about the fans, I’ve been wrong this whole time. We are but faceless irrelevant pods in this whole equation. Tradition has little intrinsic or intangible value, or if it does, it doesn’t matter, it’s dispensable. We’ll all just happily accept our second-tier predicament and kneel at the almighty altar of the “business model” (we were talking about footy right?).
    So after we’ve destroyed the heart and soul of the game, alienated most of the market, lost hundreds of millions of dollars in TV rights and sponsorship, we do still have the perfect scenario to make all that back. As you suggest, we could just attack the lower socio-economic demographics of the outer suburbs, bleed pension money and unemployment benefits from poker machines and our “successful business model” is suddenly restored. It just has to work, gee it looks terrific on paper. Everyone’s a winner …or if not, too bad hey.
    And better yet, the “garbage clubs” could mix it with the best of the rest in that reformed semi-professional competition – up against the likes of Balwyn, Diamond Creek, St Bedes/Mentone and Mildura Imperials. A “garbage commentator” such as Gerard Whateley could head up the commentary team on the sole televised game of the week on ABC4 on Saturdays at 2pm.
    In turn, Tracey Holmes could host the AFL Utopia telecast – what a treat that would be.
    But hey, what would I know, I’m just another “self-absorbed” almanac writer.
    P.S: Nice attempt at providing a solution Bert, I appreciate your efforts.

  7. John Butler says

    Mark Doyle, on the (hopefully slender) chance that you’re serious, a couple of problems with your criteria spring instantly to mind.

    Firstly, any realistic reading of VFL/AFL history would substitute your ‘good management’ for something more along the lines of ruthless pursuit of success, a defter hand at dubious dealings, a willingness to stretch (or break) the rules of any given period, and a superior access to the largesse of wealthy benefactors. These would seem common factors to all of the most historically successful clubs.

    Also, the fortunes of all clubs have waxed and waned through time. Any club could have been judged as incompetent or a basket case at some stage in their history. What period to judge from? Collingwood’s current financial ascendancy has no future guarantee of permanency (just for one example).

    Hanging your financial hat long term on pokies would seem to have some obvious potential pitfalls.

    If all financial concerns were so easily predicted, then economics would be a much more useful pursuit than it has hitherto demonstrated itself to be, and we would all be millionaires.

  8. Good points, JB.

    Ranald MacDonald’s “New Magpies”, anyone?

  9. As previously a Fitzroy supporter, I remember well the bumper stickers emblazoned “Up Yours Oakley”.

    I have friends with the surname Doyle, so hope that there isn’t a sequel to the Oakley stickers.

    PS: I like the “every team plays each other once” idea for fairness, but agree that the financial benefits of “the big teams” playing each other twice probably makes this impractical.

    That is all

  10. I loved the “Up Yours Oakley” sticker but for being gramatically incorrect but oh-so-right at the same time, I always preferred the “Merge Oakley into Outer Space” one.

  11. I’m glad others have gently pointed out the flaws in the Doyle 12 team model as my comments would have been rather more pointed.

    The whole point of this article is how to structure a reasonably fair fixture around a competition that is a tricky amalgam of rusted-on tradition and a relatively recent expansionist phase that, frankly, is still finding its feet. Solving the problem by culling clubs, especially those around which the entire fabric of the competition has been based for a century, brings babies and bathwater to mind.

    I think we all agree that 2 meetings, home and away, is the ideal. However, it’s just not feasible with 18 teams. Even if we moved to an EPL model with no finals and the Premiership going to first past the post, we’d still be running 2 months longer than we currently do.

    Recognising this, I think the best we can wish for is a move from the blatantly unfair “attendance maximising” model that we currently have to a fixture that at least puts fairness as its primary guiding principle. This means a genuinely random draw that takes no account of club preferences. It means sharing around the set in stone fixtures like Anzac Day and Dreamtime that have been hi-jacked by rich clubs under the pretence of “tradition” but are really about lining their already bulging pockets. It means the possibility that there won’t be 2 Showdowns and Derbies a year, or that Collingwood may have to travel to Geelong (or Darwin). Beyond perhaps a gentle weighting that ensures that the bottom sides play more games against one another and less of the top teams, and vice versa, I don’t see any justification for any further manipulation of the fixture.

    Of course there will still be gripes from various quarters, but at least the League could say, hand-on-heart, that equity was its priority.

  12. Here is a better way… 3 pools of 6 teams.
    Check this.

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