How’s that equalisation working out for you?

“Now the darkness only stays at night time, 
In the morning it will fade away 
Daylight is good 
At arriving at the right time 
It’s not always 
Going to be this grey”

– George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass

Some of us are cursing missed finals. Some of us are feeling low. And others of us are smug and riding high. But you won’t have to put up with that annoying Hawthorn mate for too much longer.

The central idea of equalisation, through salary caps and draft ordering, is to create a fair competition in which each team sits at the top of the ladder once every 18 years. And also at the bottom of the ladder once every 18 years. And at every other spot on the ladder, once every 18 years. So how’s that equalisation working out?

I’ve channelled my inner djlitsa and a bit of Gigs here, and I’ve looked at ladder position at the end of the home & away fixture for each of the last 16 years. I’ve used 16 years, as for the majority of that time there were 16 teams (after Fitzroy was dropped and Port Adelaide added, before the Suns and Giants were even glints in the AFL’s eye).

A ladder position average of “8” is shooting par for the equalisation course.

A couple of quirks:

  • Once Gold Coast and GWS entered the competition, I ignored their ladder position and effect on the ladder positions of others (if Gold Coast finished 15th and Melbourne finished 16th, I awarded Melbourne 15th for that year).
  • I did not alter positions due to Essendon’s penalty in 2013 (i.e. Essendon kept 7th).
  • I’ve mis-counted and somehow got 17 completed seasons into the charts. Never mind.

Over par

These clubs performed relatively poorly.

Richmond (0 top places) – confirming suspicions, but interesting to note they are the worst-performed club over 16 years.

Richmond 1997 - 2013

Richmond 1997 – 2013

Melbourne (0 top places) – nothing to smile about since 2006, but their yo-yo of the late 90s should be remembered.

Melbourne 1997 - 2013

Melbourne 1997 – 2013

Fremantle (0 top places) – slow out of the blocks, their finals appearances are less than equalisation would suggest.

Fremantle 1997 - 2013

Fremantle 1997 – 2013

Carlton (0 top places) – not the best snapshot for Carlton; under-performing relative to equalisation. Draft penalties during that time look to have had an impact.

Carlton 1997 - 2013

Carlton 1997 – 2013


These clubs have known equal parts success and hardship. Not all, though, were able to pinch a flag during the hay-making seasons.

Footscray (0 top places) – Good times, bad times. A couple of Preliminary Final defeats hurt.

Footscray 1997 - 2013

Footscray 1997 – 2013

Essendon (3 x top places) – Snared a flag (2000); but over-achieved finishing on top three times.

Essendon 1997 - 2013

Essendon 1997 – 2013

Brisbane (0 top places) – Despite never topping the Home and Away, managed to win three flags on-the-trot (2001, 02, 03). Superb bang-for-buck.

Brisbane 1997 - 2013

Brisbane 1997 – 2013

Port Adelaide (3 x top places) – grabbed a flag (2004) and and finished on top three times.

Port Adelaide 1997 - 2013

Port Adelaide 1997 – 2013

Hawthorn (2 x top places) – Snared the 2008 flag ahead of expectations. Flag in 2013. Otherwise par of for the course.

Hawthorn 1997 - 2013

Hawthorn 1997 – 2013

West Coast (1 x top place) – matching equalisation expectations with one flag (2006) amid ups and downs.

West Coast 1997 - 2013

West Coast 1997 – 2013

St Kilda (2 x top places) – matching equalisation expectations, but without either the 1997 or 2009 flags despite finishing on top. Tied then lost the 2010 GF. Missed opportunities.

St Kilda 1997 - 2013

St Kilda 1997 – 2013

Collingwood (2 x top places) – only slightly better than equalisation would suggest over 16 years, with the one flag (2010). Missed chances in 2003 and 2011 but overall shooting par.

Collingwood 1997 - 2013

Collingwood 1997 – 2013

North (1 x top place) – one flag (1999) and no real bottoming-out.

North 1997 - 2013

North 1997 – 2013

Adelaide (1 x top place) – excellent ladder positioning for two flags (1997, 98) in 16 years. Other missed opportunities (2005).

Adelaide 1997 - 2013

Adelaide 1997 – 2013

Under par

These clubs have maintained high ladder position despite the equalisation measures. Their home and away record has been very good over 16 years.

Sydney (0 top places) – As with Brisbane, won premierships (2005, 12) despite not finishing the Home & Away season on top. Would indicate that they were never the strongest team of the year, but played well at the right times.

Sydney 1997 - 2013

Sydney 1997 – 2013

Geelong (2 x top places) – three flags (2007, 09, 11) and many finals, twice topping the Home & Away ladder.

Geelong 1997 - 2013

Geelong 1997 – 2013

Home & Away <> Finals

Brisbane, Sydney, Port Adelaide and Essendon records show that Home & Away success (top place) does not equate to premiership success. We knew that. But still.

3 x top places: Port Adelaide (1 flag), Essendon (1)

2 x top places: Geelong (3 flags), Collingwood (1), St Kilda (0), Hawthorn (2)

1 x top place: Adelaide (2 flags), North Melbourne (1), West Coast (1)

0 x top place: Sydney (2 flags), Brisbane (3), Footscray (0), Carlton (0), Fremantle (0), Melbourne (0), Richmond (0)

So what’s going on?

Given that scores of well-intentioned and highly motivated people, working for different clubs, are all trying to beat equalisation, what is it about Geelong and Sydney that has them regularly well-placed on the ladder? What makes them out-perform the equalisation expectations over 16 years? Why Geelong? Why Sydney? Why not Richmond? Or Melbourne?

And while equalisation may get you top spot, we know that finals are another game altogether. How has Sydney poached two flags while never being the strongest team of the year? Yes, finals are different. Carn finals.

Go pies.

About David Wilson

David Wilson is a hydrologist, climate reporter and writer of fiction & observational stories. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He shares the care of two daughters and likes to walk around feeling generally amazed. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Stephen Dudakov says

    No surprises here. Extra money in salery cap = flags. Vis brisbane, now sydney, next gc and gws. Full equalization means ALL clubs have same salary cap.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Interesting OBP so many factors in play tho ,draft stuff ups by the dees and tigers a huge part of there failures , the father son rule benefiting the cats , if it was a fair dinkum competition that would have been scrapped it would be 17 rounds , home 1 year away the next , less teams in melb. a team in tassie etc now I am dreaming a true and fair national competition !
    What is no coincidence is the clubs who in general have been the most professionally run administration wise in the hawks , swans and cats have had the most success over the 16 yr period thanks OBP

  3. G’day Stephen,
    Yep that’s the dominant narrative around this topic.
    But Brisbane never topped the ladder. Essendon and Port were stronger over the Home & Away in the Brisbane premiership years.
    So it’s too simple an argument.
    Same with Sydney (prior to this year).
    An equal salary cap. though, would seem a good start.

    Hi OBP – yep – lots of factors.
    The draw might be the biggest one. It’s certainly uneven.
    Why there hasn’t been more focus on that topic surprises me.

  4. Equalization should not be in sport every club should get the same money from the AFL, an even draw, an even distribution of time slots, an even opportunity to draft players and an even salary cap.

    At the moment no teams are winning flags on their own merits alone, the AFL is handing out premierships as a reward for hard times or being located in Sydney.

    The AFL will always be less than world class until it gets the integrity of the competition correct. If the AFL was running the 100m at the Olympics some teams would be running 110m and others would be running 70m and at every race they would get everyone change around so every gets a chance to win. It might feel good to win but if don’t really deserve it, does it really meant anything.

    Take the draft for example, one club can take average players develop excellent training methods, be really disciplined and get the very best out of their players and another club can sit on the bottom for 3 years picking the best 3 juniors in the country and achieve the same thing. this is not only unfair for the club striving for excellence it rewards mediocrity and allows the weaker clubs to continue without improvement but it also means that we don’t get the best out of our most talented juniors.

    To make the draft fairer they should divide the 18 teams into groups of 6 and each year you rotate the groups and the teams within the groups. this would mean that each team would get a top six pick every 3 years and over an 18 year period each team would get the same picks.

  5. Ben Footner says

    The equalisation debate glosses over one key point – there are too many teams based in Melbourne. At some point it has to be reduced by at least 2 teams IMO, either by relocation, merger, or folding.

  6. Dave Brown says

    Nice work! 1997-2013 inclusive is 17 seasons, so that mystery is solved. In terms of equalisation, the AFL effectively has three different measures: salary cap; allocation of draft picks; and allowances such as CoLA.

    There are also measures which work against equalisation: primarily the father-son rule and football department spending (Collingwood spent $5.5 million more than the Western Bulldogs in 2013).

    Even coming up with some sort of fancy algorithm to attempt to balance the different factors you would likely fail as this boils down to the human element. The ability of individuals and clubs to build success from the tools they have been given (even when the tools are not evenly distributed). Occasionally even dumb luck – a football bounces differently and Milne strolls into goal in 2010. Would Jack Watts be a better player at a better club – a hard question to definitively answer.

  7. Steve Hodder says

    Equalisation? Ya gotta giggle at the business types who manage our footy and spruik the axioms of the “free market”. Why is it that these “Captains of Industry”, who live and breath capitalist virtues, bleat for equalisation in the keenest of sporting comps? They seem to suffer no sanctimonious awkwardness at all.

    Nice work Dave; probably the most substantive footy trivia I’ve seen.


  8. Neil Anderson says

    With plenty of talk about relocating or merging Victorian teams it begs the question which ones? If anyone is thinking of culling, say Victorian teams from the bottom six of the ladder, then Houston we have a problem.
    For example if the Bulldogs win on Sunday they will be above Carlton on the ladder pushing that Club into the bottom group ready for a possible merger. Collingwood by chance are also dangerously close to the vulnerable ‘bottom’ group with not a good record of premierships. Good luck knocking on Eddie’s door and saying we need to talk about possible mergers or relocation.
    And don’t even think about trying to cull or merge the Bulldogs. The VFL/AFL have tried that and failed. A more even draw and not setting back established teams by at least five years by a corrupted draft would be a good start to even up the competition.

  9. This shows the salary cap punishments had a significant impact on carlton& Melbourne, while the outperformers got exceptional results out of a quirk in the rules; cost of living allowance and father/son respectively

  10. Skip of Skipton says

    WTF has “too many clubs in Melbourne” got to do with this question?

    Three of the four clubs with low supporter bases, St.Kilda, North and Footscray, have had periods of success. And those three clubs get screwed by having to play at Etihad Dome.

    Metropolitan Melbourne has a population four times that of Adelaide, which has two clubs, so 2×4=8. Yep there is one team too many in Melbourne, and that team is Melbourne if anyone.

  11. nathan jarvis says

    Look at the last decade or so’s premiers and consider this: they all got the advantage of access to players via zone selections, father/son or priority picks that their competitors did not.

    That said, most clubs have father/son – well, not so much the newer (read “non-heartland”) clubs – and priority picks. It’s what you make of them that matters.

    Of course. The defenders of the handouts just point to Melbourne as exhibit A.

    But get a well-functioning footy department, add some hilariously good PP or FS selections – Ablett, Roughhead, Judd so on – and the advantage mulitplies exponentially.

  12. Luke Reynolds says

    Well researched Dave. The draw, ahem fixture, is a huge factor. Hard to see a fair and equitable fixture any time soon given the power of the TV networks.

  13. Good comments all.
    I guess there’s a question of: Do we even want an even competition?
    In terms of the fixture, in a 12 tearm VFL, 22 rounds saw each team play each other twice.
    That’s why we have (had) 22 rounds.
    Surely the time has passed for an overhaul of the fixture.
    The sidelining of Fitzroy and the cobbling on of West Coast, Brisbane, Adelaide, Fremantle, Port, Gold Coast and now GWS, have all happened mysteriously without any change to the 22 (or 23) Round season.
    If you were starting an 18-team competition now, there’s no way you’d ever come up with the compromised fixture we have here. And it’s pretty fundamental to the whole competition. Heck, it IS the whole competition.
    Time for a re-think. Start anew.
    Any ideas?

  14. Dave Brown says

    It’s funny how about 22 rounds has stuck. It must feel about right. I’m a fan of some form of conference system. Here’s my back of the envelope system:

    The AFL has three conferences: Western; Northern and Southern. As there are four natural teams in each of the western and northern conferences they are each supplemented with two of the ten teams that geographically belong in the southern. Those teams are allocated on a rotating basis. Every team plays every other team once (17 games) and every other team in its conference again (5 games), making a 22 round minor season.

    Finals: the first two weeks are conference finals and the third and fourth weeks are league finals. Week 1 are the conference prelims where 2nd and 3rd in each conference play each other. The three winners progress to the Week 2 for the conference grand final against the 1st team in the conference. The three winners of the conference grand finals progress to Week 3 league prelims along with a lucky loser which is the highest ranked of the losing conference grand finalists. The two winners then play in the AFL grand final in Week 4.

    Just put 10 minutes of thought into that so no doubt plenty of holes.

  15. Keiran Croker says

    Good analysis and lively discussion. Though it’s only statistics. It’s impossible to analyse the effects of good administration, excellent recruiting, development, coaching and the indefinable team culture. Add those to whatever you perceive to be the advantages of an unequal competition, then you might explain why the Cats and Swans have been so good for so long.

  16. Rob Macdonald says

    Nice charts and commentary on the raw data, very entertaining.

    The range of opinions in the comments highlights how much (or how little) is understood about some of these issues.

    Claims that ‘captains of industry’ are hypocritical miss the point. The 18 AFL clubs want to beat each other for sure. But they are also smart enough to recognise the true competition is between Australian football and other sports and the smart play is to cooperate in conducting the sport and make sure we are not relegated to posting on ‘the soccer almanac’ in 20 years from now. We have made comments on the footy almanac site mostly because we are fans of Australian football; not some other sport with round balls or rectangular fields.

    To compare the AFL to running the Olympics is also a false comparison; they are different beasts (and the IAAF and the IOC distinguish between mens and womens sports anyway, which is an implicit form of handicapping by exclusion). The better comparison is to the Stawell Athletic Club or the VRC, where handicap racing is well established as part of creating a sporting contest that is also an entertainment product.

  17. Steve Hodder says

    Nope! Rob I didn’t miss the point at all. I understand perfectly well why ” captains of industry” accept and need “equalisation” to run a sustainable footy competition. Perhaps my oblique expression obscured the point I was trying to make about their moral hypocrisy. That is, they accept the benefits of “equalisation” when it suits them, but deride it when it comes to their business pursuits in the broader society. I know many have lent a steady and sage hand in running their clubs. But I also recall J.Elliot, A.Bond, G.Edelstein, C.Skase, R.Pratt, Fitzroy and those clowns that almost sent Hawthorn to oblivion in the 90’s.

    Onya Comrades

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