The end of the level playing field?


by Sam Steele


Caroline Wilson beat me to the jump yesterday with her article about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.  But my concern about this issue was sparked about a month ago by the massive contrast in the approach taken by the Melbourne and Collingwood in the lead-up to the Queen’s Birthday game.


For Melbourne, the “traditional” Queen’s Birthday home game at the “G” against Collingwood is unquestionably its biggest match of the year.  The club marketed it strongly and the football department made every effort to play its best team and to treat the game like a final.  The resulting 88 point loss must have been a shattering disappointment.

Collingwood, on the other hand, almost seemed to treat the game with disdain.  Already without key players in Thomas, Jolley and Beams, the Magpies elected to put a fit, healthy Dane Swan on a plane to Arizona for a stint of high altitude rehabilitation rather than play him in front of 76,000 fans in a big public holiday fixture against an old rival.


That Collingwood still managed to win so effortlessly under these circumstances highlighted the growing divide between rich and poor clubs and my fear that the AFL “system”, which has for 25 years, operated pretty successfully to equalise the competition, is no longer capable of doing so.


The mid-1980s restructure of the League and the introduction of the draft and salary cap created a competition that genuinely provided equality of opportunity.  No matter how powerful and wealthy the club, it couldn’t do any more than any other club in picking and paying its players.


The results reflect the sense of this system.  Since 1986, eleven different clubs have won premierships.  Only five clubs (including the now defunct Fitzroy and the fledgling Gold Coast) haven’t made a Grand Final and all clubs (except Gold Coast) have made at least a Preliminary Final.  There has been similar “churn” at the bottom levels of the competition.


The equalisation policies remain as strong as ever. So what’s changed?


I think there are two related changes, both of which stem from the increasing amount of money in the game.


Television and other corporate revenue streams are larger than they’ve ever been and are having a greater impact in favour of high profile teams.  Put simplistically, the cycle, is either vicious or virtuous, depending on your standpoint: high/low profile clubs get high/low profile games (through a lopsided fixture that borders on farcical); the games get greater/lesser coverage and ratings; ratings result in greater/lesser advertising and sponsorship dollars which flow/don’t flow to the high/low profile clubs etc.


Obviously, the additional wealth generated by the clubs that benefit from this cycle can’t be spent on player salaries.  But there is nothing in the AFL’s rules that prevent clubs from spending money on all things other than player salaries.  These days, elite footballers don’t just do circle work and ball skills a couple of times a week.  State-of-the-art training facilities, personalised attention to preparation, recovery, diet, muscle conditioning and psyche, and sophisticated video analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of opponents are among the myriad areas that can give a team a vital edge.


None of this stuff comes cheap. Clubs that can spend more on facilities and professional staff willingly do so, recognising the significant benefits that arise.  The rest are left to struggle with outdated facilities and under-resourced football departments.  This gap is steadily widening.


In short, these growing areas of revenue and expenditure, which are still ruled by market forces rather than by equalisation policies, are jeopardising the level playing field we’ve enjoyed over the last two decades.  For 25 years, the dominance of certain clubs has reflected the cyclical rise and fall of great playing groups.  Now I foresee an era in which this dominance is entrenched within the clubs that have the best access to and professional use of the unprecedented amount of money in the game.


This is not intended to be a Collingwood-bashing exercise, but Collingwood illustrates my point better than any other club.


Collingwood has always been the AFL’s “biggest” club, but as its performances ebbed and flowed over the years, there was always a sense that size wasn’t everything.  One must give credit to the Collingwood hierarchy for restoring a club that was in disarray a decade ago.  However, for all their hard work in achieving success, Collingwood has also been given a considerable helping hand by the sorts of factors I’ve previously mentioned.


On the back of their 2010 Premiership, the cycle of revenue and expenditure is working superbly for the Magpies.  Their fixture, for years a source of discontent among rival supporters, is fuller than ever with blockbuster games, mostly at the MCG, with consequent guarantees of high attendances and ratings.  Membership exceeds 70,000, and the club is doubtless continuing to enjoy a bonanza in its merchandising sales.


But it’s where Collingwood is spending all this money – on player development – that suggests to me that we’re not going to see just a short-term spike in their domination.


From what I observe, Collingwood’s investment in and approach to player conditioning is unprecedented in its professionalism and appears to be enabling the Magpies to get more out of their list than any other club.  I see it in the rapid emergence of young players as “AFL-ready”, when their fellow draftees at other clubs seem to take far longer to develop.  I also see it in the steady improvement of many of their older players, many of whom were rated as barely average a few years ago.


Seen in this context, the “Swan-to-Arizona” decision was not a gesture of disrespect to Melbourne, but an entirely logical move for a club that is carefully preparing for more important games ahead.  But my point is this.  At any level, be it financial capacity, depth of talent or need to promote the game and club, Collingwood could afford to do this.  Most of its opponents couldn’t.


So what’s to be done?  Obvious actions to address some of the latter-day imbalances that I’ve highlighted include introducing a fixture in which equity in the competition is the priority rather than television ratings and “set-in-stone” blockbusters; and, extending the player salary cap to cover the entire staffing budget of football departments.  More difficult to regulate is clubs’ spending on capital works, equipment and player welfare services, but it does seem that these are the areas where wealthy clubs are stealing a march on their poorer rivals and as such, they should be areas of attention by the AFL.  Likewise, there must be greater scope for the AFL to intervene in areas like stadium deals, and to ensure that, in an era of ever-larger revenues from television and the corporate sector, that all clubs share these spoils equitably.


Some will accuse me of being a doomsayer on this issue.  Some will say that the current dominance of Collingwood (or Geelong for that matter) will be as temporary as previous short-lived eras of greatness.  I’m not so sure.  What if we do wind up with a competition in which the top 2-3 places are foregone conclusions and the only hope for the rest is to make up the numbers in the lower reaches of the finals?  How would we feel about going to matches in which top sides regularly rest their best players because of bigger games around the corner (and still win easily)?  How would we like to see a two-tier competition introduced to create the consolation drama of promotion and relegation for clubs that are too poor to ever compete with the top group?


Big money causes things to happen quickly and dramatically.  The fans’ acceptance or rejection of this growing imbalance goes to the heart of what we want our competition to be like.


About Sam Steele

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


  1. Skip of Skipton says

    Collingwood and Geelong aren’t on top of the ladder because of their facilities and football dept. spending on trips to Arizona, or Germany for injections of calves blood etc. If this was the case then the Crows and Eagles should have dominated the comp for the last 20 years, and there would be no way North could have contested 7 consecutive prelims in the not too distant past, nor St. Kilda the last two GFs. This idea that is doing the rounds at the moment is reactionary and hasty nonsense, similar to the 2006 talk that there was some disadvantage in being a Victorian based club because the top 4 happened to be interstate teams. The key to success is and always has been :

    A. Having enough good cattle.
    B. Collective discipline and focus.
    C. Confidence.

    It’s all about the ‘vibe’, man!

  2. Skip of Skipton says

    I forgot to mention the importance of recruiting. Remember that Geelong built their list having never finished bottom four or having a draft pick etter than no.7.

  3. Tony Bull says

    Geelong has done very well with father-son rule, although it is beyond comprehension to look back and think Gary Ablett jnr was not considered a first round pick? Stephen Wells the recruiting officer is one of the most important men at Geelong. look at Richmond, their recruiting has been appalling, that is what is keeping them down. My opinion is good recruiters pick players to fit what the team needs and not just the best players available.

  4. Gary Ablett and Matthew Scarlett are the only two Father-Son recruits at Geelong that have gone on to be great players, and Ablett was not considered first round quality whilst Scarlett may not have been drafted if not for the Cats. David Clarke, Mark Woolnough, Mark Blake, Tom Hawkins have not exactly set the world on fire and there’s no one pointing out that the Cats blew draft picks to secure them.

    The Cats gave up third round draft picks to get them; the round in which we secured players like Chapman, Ling, and Enright. Would be great to give Stephen Wells those picks back again.

    The Cats learnt that whilst money was the most important to keep the club operating, more important than money, facilities and cattle to winning premierships was character and culture. And that’s what Frank Costa, Brian Cook, Bomber Thomson and Stephen Wells focused on.

    That’s why Collingwood or Geelong can have a raft our first line players out, yet still win.

  5. Rick Kane says

    Since 2000 there have been 8 different AFL Premiers. From that angle, the competition looks pretty healthy.

    I think the reasons for what appears to be a current dominance are many more than what might seem the obvious reasons. For a start, business acumen. An analysis of best practice business management across the 16/17/18 clubs would be very revealing.

    On a perverse note, what a delicious irony it is that the working man’s club, Collingwood, is the current most successful business model. The collision of meanings we ascribe to working class and business success in the Collingwood story is ripe for deconstructing. But I’ll leave that to the likes of Ian S, Dave N and Phil D.


  6. Mark Doyle says

    Stainless, I think that you are having two bob each way with your article. I read Caroline Wilson’s article and she is incapable of making a useful, objective and rational contribution to the debate of AFL football economics; Caroline Wilson likes to peddle the emotive parochial Melbourne view.

    The big issue for a number of AFL clubs is their inability to generate income of $45-50 million per year. Without this level of income they will not be able to adequately resource player development, coaching, finess, sports science, sports medicine and membership and sponsor support. I believe there is a difference of about $20 million in club revenues.

    The AFL commission and administration has done everything possible in providing a level playing field for all clubs. The draft and player salary cap were introduced. Clubs have been assisted with advice on financial management and business plans. The AFL administration negotiated a policy with the two Melbourne stadiums for a fair distribution of game day revenue. It is now the responsibility of clubs to take advantage of these policies and promote their games to increase reserve seating sales and corporate functions. Clubs also receive additional distribuions to compensate them for lack of access to blockbuster games. The AFL administration has also assisted clubs to obtain federal and state government funds for capital developments for training and administration facilities.

    With respect to recruiting, clubs such as Geelong and Collingwood have not only recruited well, but have provided an excellent environment in developing players. Ten years ago blokes such as Mark Thompson, Brendan MacCartney and Ron Watt did an excellent job at Geelong and five or six years ago at Collingwood blokes such as Mick Malthouse, Guy McKenna, Alan Richardson and Brad Scott did a similarly excellent job. The distinguishing factor for the success of both Geelong and Collingwood has been better management and governance.

    In Melbourne the biggest financial threat to clubs such as North Melbourne, Melbourne, Richmond, Western Bulldogs, St. Kilda and Hawthorn is the financial strength of Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon. There is also the additional competition in Melbourne for revenue from other professional sports such as the three levels of cricket, the rugby league club, the rugby union club and two soccer clubs. Australia is also probably one of the most competitive countries for all professional sports and especially for the four football codes.

    I believe that revenue does not guarantee success, but it does help in providing good facilites for training and administration so that people can reach their potential.

    As for AFL fans, we are much better off than most sports fans in other countries. AFL games are relatively cheap entertainment – it costs me only approximately $1.000 per year for AFL membership, Geelong social club membership, reserve seating and finals.

  7. smokie88 says

    I touched on some of the same themes you mention back in May:
    It infuriates me that, immediately following a big loss, Caroline Wilson
    iquestions North Melbourne’s existance. Why did she not question
    Richmond’s future just last week?

  8. forwardpocket says

    The AFL should look at the draw and remove all the little quirks. ANZAC day should be opened up and no Coll v Carl or Ess twice a year. On the same token no twice yearly Showdowns, Derbys or Q-Clashes and all teams to play at Kardinia Park and Aurora over a certain number of years.

  9. Mark Doyle says

    Smokie88, you are a bit paranoid mate. It is only a game!

    forwardpocket, your idea has no chance! Local rivalries are one of the great traditions of any football competiton at all levels.

  10. forwardpocket says

    They’d still play each other at least once a year Mark, in some years twice. Could actually make them bigger matches if that is your one chance in the year to knock off the mob from down the road. I don’t see it happening either but if they are looking for equity in the draw it would have to – no exceptions.

  11. Dave Nadel says

    If you want to cut the number of blockbusters involving Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon then you would have to return to the VFL system of ground revenue sharing. At the moment, while supporters of poorer clubs complain about the number of Collingwood home games at the MCG, their club officials demand that they play their home games against the Pies at the “G”. This is because the 50,000 Collingwood fans who attend all MCG games when added to the home clubs own fans provide the clubs biggest payout for the season. Any attempt to return to ground revenue sharing would be opposed, not only by the big three but also by Hawthorn, Geelong and St Kilda in Victoria, not to mention two clubs in Perth and one in Adelaide. Indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if the Crows and the Eagles do better out of home game than the Pies.

    As for forward pocket’s idea that all clubs should play at Yorke Park and Kardinia Parke, I suspect most Melbourne based Hawthorn fans would object to losing any more games to Launceston. And Strikebreaker Stadium simply isn’t big enough to accomodate the number of Pies and Bombers fans who have paid to attend home amd away games. Forward pocket’s dreams of all clubs playing in pocket handkerchief grounds in provincial cities is as realistic as my dream of all the suburban gounds (not just Vic Park, but Westen Oval, Price Fixer Park, Linton st etc.) being redeveloped to a point where they could accomodate all their supporters and 30 000 away fans. It is just not going to happen.

  12. Stainless says

    I totally agree with all the comments about how the top clubs have got to where they are now, and but they miss my main point, which was about the future rather than the past and present.

    Today, the AFL is a much bigger, more professional beast than it was when the draft and salary cap were introduced 25 years ago, and it’s only going to become more so. Of course picking good players will always be an important factor in clubs’ success, but it’s increasingly just one of a whole host of factors that contribute to the succes of players and teams. As the gap widens between what the rich and poor clubs earn and what they can spend on these other areas of player development and well-being, the equalising influence of the draft and salary cap will surely diminish.

    Unless steps are taken to equalise these other areas of revenue and expenditure, I can only see those teams currently at the top of the tree becoming further entrenched there.

  13. John Sandy says

    First of all i loved the article and argree with most of it.

    I would love an equal playing field and have been a long been an advocate of equal interstate matches and some sort of rotating draw. The AFL tried a system of sides playing each other 5 times in 3 years, Essendon and Collingwood playing only once in 1991 the year after they met in the GF the previous year. The comp has grown so maybe it could be you play a certain amount of teams from the top and bottom halves depending on where you finish, you could also rotate so teams play on a rolling basis, they could also share the proportion of friday night games. This is the only way we could get an even and fair draw but unfortunately i dont think the AFL will do this.

    I would love to return to the days of turning up at the footy on saturday arvo and getting into the ground as oppossed to the necessity to book tickets and giving money to someone aside from my club or the AFL.

    Most things in football are cyclical, what about the interstate dominance, 6 flags in a row 2001-2006, 6 interstate teams in the finals in 2003. Remember all the doom and gloom how the flood was runiing football (i was one of the doomsdayers)

    Teams buying a flag has been going on for years, South in the 30’s, North in the 70s. What about Carton in the 80s and 90s, some people felt sorry for the them when they got caught, spent a few years down the bottom but even they have recovered.

    Geelong, Collingwood and Carlton have all been down and out in financial terms but have all recovered, maybe some other clubs should take note.

    Tony Bull your point about recruiting only only proves Sam’s argument because Richmond havent been about to invest money in recruiting but not sure this dismisses are their poor decision making.

    The AFL are happy was the inequality in the comp and use facts like ‘every club has played in a prelim in the last ? years’. The give hand out the the not so strong clubs. The strong clubs are really keeping the weaker ones going. The AFL need all these clubs as the tv deal depends on it and they will continue to use the strong to keep the financially cripple clubs afloat.

    Let’s not feel sorry for the likes of Brisbane, Adelaide and Port Adelaide as they floader near the bottom

    Probably the biggest factor in football today is a fit, obviously ability and readiness is also a big factor but injuries can control your year. Collingwood in 04 and 05 are the perfect example after finishing 2nd in 02 and 03 they suddenly plummetted as they had a bad run with injuries particularly to big blokes. I’m sure most clubs have they stories and their years where things didn’t go right. Hawthorn 09 (and maybe 2011) are other examples.

    Collingwood didn’t just get there. They don’t have too many ready made AFL players, they have just introduced a couple of first year players over the past few weeks and have chosen do this as oppossed to rushing back the like sof Johnson and Macafer. Dawes and Reid played less than 10 games in 3 years before having break out years in 2010. Thomas and Pendlebury were both top 10 draft picks who played straight away and were pretty good players that 5 years down the track have become stars. Are Murphy and Gibbs only a year behind these 2? Where will Martin and Cotchin be in 2 years time? Some of this is down to good management and some down to good luck.

    By the way I am not happy with the arrangance of of the mid season Arizona trip but if it means Swanny is fit in the finals (as he wasn’t in 2009) I am happy.

    Finally if Collingwood don’t win this year’s flag, which is no gaurantee eg Essendon 1999/2001 and Geelong 2008, would we be even having this debate?

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