Almanac Footy: A decade on – was I Nostradamus?


One of my earliest pieces for the Almanac was penned in October, 2009. [Read it HERE.]


The theme of the piece was that the AFL had had a pretty cruisy decade from 2000-2009 but that the road ahead would be far rockier.  I listed seven major issues which I thought would be the League’s biggest challenges.  Needless to say, I didn’t predict a global pandemic would be one of them, but with the decade now done, it’s interesting to review these issues and compare my speculation with how things have panned out.



1. New Clubs


What I said in 2010


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 Greater Western Sydney, they are to be located in NRL heartland.  For the first time since the establishment of the Brisbane Bears in 1987, the AFL is seeking to convert the heathen.


Whilst 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.  Whilst 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 GWS 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.


What I say now


The expansion clubs’ experiment was always going to be a long game.  For the two clubs simply to have survived a decade is a plus. Onfield, the League would be pleased with GWS’ rapid progress, making a Grand Final in just their 8th season, but would be disappointed that Gold Coast hasn’t made a finals series to date.  The obvious challenges about growing the game in ‘foreign territory’ remain.  The clubs themselves remain defiantly upbeat about the growth of their fanbases and membership numbers, but crowds remain low.


One issue I overlooked in my original piece was the impact that the new clubs would have on the existing Queensland and NSW teams.  From day one, Sydney treated GWS with the disdain of a resentful big brother.  Its recruitment of Lance Franklin, when all had assumed he was bound for GWS, brought this incipient rivalry to the boil.  In time, this may be a positive if both Sydney clubs remain strong.  However, the inherent fragility of the Sydney market won’t be helped if the two clubs continue their off-field posturing.  In Queensland, the dynamic has been less adversarial.  However, Gold Coast’s arrival coincided with a low ebb in Brisbane’s history and for several years, the poor performances of both clubs created a perception of Queensland footy being in a parlous state.  The recent resurgence of the Lions combined with some promising signs from the Suns – not to mention Queensland’s heroic efforts to rescue the 2020 season from oblivion – have fixed that for now.


The biggest challenge ahead for the League’s newcomers is to address the alarming and persistent exodus of players from their ranks.  Consider the Gold Coast team in Round 7 2014 when it thumped North Melbourne at Docklands and moved to within a game of top spot on the ladder.  The lineup included: Gary Ablett, Harley Bennell, Charlie Dixon, Tom Lynch, Stephen May, Jaeger O’Meara and Dion Prestia.  It’s a pretty fair core group to build a new team around.  Yet in 2020, all these players were at other clubs and the Suns have gone backwards. It’s a similar story at GWS.  Take the team that sensationally beat Sydney in the Giants’ first final in 2016. In 2021, Jeremy Cameron, Rory Lobb, Jonathon Patton, Tom Scully, Dylan Shiel, Devon Smith and Zac Williams will all be lining up at other clubs.  The term ‘destination club’ has become a cliché, but there’s no doubt that the crucial priority for the new clubs is to throw off their reputation as transit lounges for emerging stars and refuges for B-grade castoffs.


A key factor in this is free agency – see next point.


2. Free Agency


What I said in 2010


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.


What I say now


I absolutely hold with my original comments.  This is a major threat to a balanced competition.  The key point that I didn’t accurately recognize back then was that the best free agents primarily shift clubs in pursuit of success and profile rather than big bucks.   For every Gary Ablett grabbing the Gold Coast cash, there appears to be a Tom Lynch and a Jeremy Cameron seeking the big stage and Premierships, together with a Dustin Martin, resisting the lure of big money and opportunity to become the franchise player at a battling club.


Each individual situation is different and it’s hard to argue against the principle of free agency.  But we’ve got a number of years of evidence now, and the collective impact of free agency is weighing heavily in the direction of high profile players moving to high profile clubs, widening the gap between stronger and weaker clubs in every respect – performance, pulling power and profit.  As a new decade commences, the League faces a philosophical dilemma of balancing individual player rights with its stated equalization principles and policies.  Is it happy to sit on its hands while we gradually draft back to the pre-draft days of the VFL where a handful of clubs held all the aces in the game of attracting the best talent?  Is it happy to compromise its objective to grow the game nationally by accepting a trend that is concentrating talent in the game’s traditional heartland?


3. Draft Concessions and ‘tanking’


What I said in 2010


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 minimize 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.


What I say now


The reactions to the most obvious examples of tanking in the late 2000s have largely taken care of this issue.  Specific accusations of teams throwing games in order to obtain higher draft picks have disappeared.  If clubs really see benefit in finessing their position in the draft, player ‘management’ is a more subtle way of going about it. The time-honoured tactic of ‘playing the kids’ remains a legitimate tactic for teams whose finals prospects are gone.  Changes to the draft itself have also made it a much more complex, multi-year process, allowing savvy clubs to pursue legitimate long-term draft strategies without the need for bottoming out.  The success of teams that get this right have served as an example to all that you don’t need to pin all your hopes in No.1 draft picks.


4. Gambling


What I said in 2010


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.


What I say now


If sports betting was widespread when I wrote this, it’s reached saturation point today.  I won’t lecture readers about my personal opinions of gambling and its insidious influence.  My main point here was the growing risk of corruption and the threat this posed to the integrity of the game. Thankfully, the only ‘incidents’ to date have been minor infringements such as Jaidyn Stephenson’s, rather than instances of corruption.  However, cricket’s example should loom large in the minds of the game’s administrators as a case of ‘there but for the grace of God…’ This is still a big concern.


5. TV Rights


What I said in 2010


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.


What I say now


As the biggest source of revenue for the sport, the broadcast rights remain fundamental to the AFL’s ongoing success.  But a decade on, I don’t have a lot more to say on this subject.  Further lucrative TV rights have been negotiated.  The balance of content on free-to-air and pay TV remains similar to that in 2010.  The issue of impacts on local footy hasn’t gone away.


However, these comments appear dated given the emergence of new technology platforms that are changing the way we consume televised sport.  Apart from the Grand Final, I didn’t watch a single AFL match on free-to-air during 2020 and I didn’t notice the sky falling in.


What clearly wasn’t on the horizon in 2010 was the prospect of an AFL season played entirely for the sake of television audiences and revenue streams.  The long-term impacts of this are far from clear.  Even assuming a return to pre-COVID normality in 2021, there is little doubt that broadcasters will use the experience of 2020 to drive change in the way future AFL seasons are staged.  Watch this space!


6. Rule changes


What I said in 2010


The simple question here is whether the current practice of regular tampering with the rules will eventually render the game unrecognizable 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.


What I say now


There’s a thesis to be written about this subject.  But this isn’t the place.


Suffice to say, the trend of fiddling with rules continued throughout the decade and has even continued this week with further interchange reductions announced and zoning restrictions at stoppages to be trialled.  The noticeable shift in the League’s objectives with their tinkering has been towards rule changes (e.g. the 6-6-6 rule) being introduced not just to enhance the pace and flow of the game but to fix problems.  The unpalatable truth is that two major interrelated problems – lower scoring rates and congested play – have made the game a less attractive spectacle than it was in 2010.


This trend is not surprising.  Modern coaching prioritises control over chaos.  Consistent with other football codes, this generally means stopping opposition scoring, staying in possession and creating scoring opportunities with the least risk possible.  This approach is a complete contrast with the larrikin ethos of Australian Rules based on high-scoring, daring attack and an element of randomness accentuated by the odd bounce of the ball.  Like most sports, our game has experienced highs and lows of scoring and attractive play. But at the end of a season (albeit an extraordinary one with shorter games than usual), we must confront the fact low scoring is on a scale not seen since the 1950s.  Scoring is of course not everything.  But it must be said that for all that some low-scoring games are gripping, compelling contests, the majority are not.


I’ll declare a bias here.  My team, Richmond, has become the competition benchmark for defence, and I’ve loved watching the exploits of Messrs Rance, Grimes, Vlastuin et al and the superb defensive web they’ve created to strangle the game’s best forward lines.  However, I admit that their brilliance is in stifling positive play, diminishing the aesthetically pleasing traditions of Australian Rules – high contested marking, creative, open play and frequent scoring.  A local version of catenaccio if you will.  Watching less proficient defences trying to do the same thing brings images of drying paint to mind.


With all that said, I don’t think my original concern about rule changes is really the issue here.  Short of introducing fundamental changes to playing conditions that would make the game all but unrecognizable, I can’t see how rule changes can alter the professional coaching mindset of devising new strategies to prevent scoring.  However, rule interpretation is a completely different matter.  I wonder if a deliberate return to the 1980s style of tiggy-touchwood free kicks mightn’t have a significant impact in breaking up congested play and the awful spectacles of midfield ball players being gang-tackled and penalized for ‘ducking the head’ or ‘dragging the ball in’, and forwards being double and triple-teamed.  Sometimes ‘Back to the Future’ works!


7. Rival Codes


What I said in 2010


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.  Firstly, watch out if Australia does genuinely go for and maybe even wins a World Cup bid in 2018 or 2022.  Secondly, 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?


What I say now


Well, the first development amounted to nothing!


The second, however, remains a very real concern, but I don’t think the principal threat is from other football codes.  On face value, crowd and media audiences indicate that the AFL is still way ahead of its competition, despite the extraordinary choice of sport available to us.


What’s harder to read are the levels of passion, devotion and loyalty to participating in and watching football, which were once taken for granted.  I’m not sure that they’re as high as they were when I was young and life was simpler, less busy and contained fewer bright, shiny distractions. Consider, for example, the vast impact of gaming that’s making artificial, interactive entertainment more engaging for many people than being a participant or spectator at “real” sport. How does a small football code with no global reach compete for the hearts and minds of younger generations in the face of these sorts of forces?


Just one of a few little challenges for Gil and his team to confront over the next decade!


The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE


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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Sam re the first point; New Clubs.

    I should give myself more time to research the amount of $$ the AFL has poured into these two new clubs. The AFL’s focus on establishing franchises/clubs/teams in non footy territory makes sense in a business model. The AFL being one of the major players in the Australian entertainment industry, having a consolidated revenue of $1.547 B in 2019, needs to expand to survive.

    But as neither the Suns, or the Giants, have an organic base you wonder how long you wait for a result that legitimises their existence as well as bringing in the $$$. Cognisant the Suns now have 16.236 members, the Giants with 25,392, aware that in 2020 having crowds at a game is not important, the TV coverage being the primary, sole factor, but how does it auger for the future?

    As Tasmania, the ACT don’t have the population size to be profitable for the AFL to set up franchises/clubs /teams there, adding to that the demise of quite a few clubs, leagues in the footy heartland you wonder where we’re going.

    If in 10 years the AFL $$ continue flowing into these non AFL areas, whilst the ‘base’ struggles, where will footy be?


  2. Interesting discussion.

    Where did those ten years go?

    And, yes, so much of what you were observing a decade ago and the ‘predictions based on those observations, are spot on. I reckon that shows there was/is enough observable information available for us members of the public to form a pretty good understanding of what’s going on. Even though we know there is a lot of information withheld. The other thing is that I think more and more people have realised the degree to which football is a commercial enterprise first and foremost – as much as that may disappoint many/most. It is so commercial – and we see that some people are doing very well out of it and will protect that position (and improve that position – that sometimes it feels like the footy is arbitrary. That is probably an unreasonable (and cynical) view to hold, but most decisions seem to be about the cash and who (both corporates and individuals, which are linked anyway) will benefit.

    I think the free agent issue and player movement generally (from the draft all the way through) is a big issue. I think the rules issue is important. Can the game survive by relying on fans’ passion for clubs?Is that enough for people to ignore a game that is often dull, especially when they know how good the game can be?

  3. Glen – I tried hard to be dispassionate about the issue of the new clubs, where they were located and how much they were costing. My comments are really about the extent to which the GCS/GWS ventures have been a success. But you raise a much more significant point about the Australian rules “base”, not just as the source of followers of the game but as the source of participants. When you hear about declining participation rates and rationalisation of local competitions in the game’s heartland, you wonder at what point the talent pool that the AFL draws on will dry up? This must be a top priority for the next decade.

    John – many pertinent questions here. The commercial dilemma is interesting. Is it such a bad thing that the peak competition of our game is a massive commercial enterprise, particularly when on most indicators, it’s very successful? I guess it comes back to Glen’s point about the “base”. As it pursues its commercial goals, the AFL can never forget that its success is built on increasingly fragile foundations. It ignores these foundations at its peril. Are we reaching a tipping point where our passion for the game is dulled by its commercialisation, player movement, rules changes…chip, chip, chip…

    Thanks for your thoughts. Would be good to have a bit of a forum about these issue.

  4. I think the situation changes when commerce drives decision-making. That’s a new world.

  5. And, yes, cynicism is bacterial.

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