The great equaliser.

As each club reviews its performance in 2011, there will be perceptions of success for those that have achieved more than expected, and recriminations for those that have not.

A host of questions will be asked. Did we improve this year? Did we perform more consistently? Were we more competitive? Did we win as many games as expected? Have we climbed the ladder?

In the AFL Commission’s perfect world, the answers to those questions would be “yes” for all clubs except the previous year’s Premier, who would have crashed to the bottom of the pack to start the journey to the top all over again.

A quick review of the 2011 finalists, however, suggests that the AFL’s Utopia is far from the reality. The top four finalists have won the past 5 premierships. Five of the top eight have won the last six premierships, and six of the top eight have played in at least one of the last six grand finals.

Of course, it could be that the AFL’s vision plays out in spans of time rather than year by year which fits nicely with current wisdom that says teams, once mature, have a “window” of three to five years where they are legitimate contenders for a premiership. We may well see the teams who are now at the top, collectively drop out of contention for a decade or so whilst others take their turn.

If that turns out to be the case then at least all teams get some time in the sun. I think it unlikely to happen, but even if it did, the cyclic nature of this potential outcome makes me question whether the AFL’s equalisation strategy, of which the draft is the cornerstone, is the most effective way of creating equality.

For instance, will it ever remove the one-sided games that occur when mature, experienced sides play immature, developing ones?

And to me, it’s a travesty that even before a season starts, it is universally recognised and accepted that some clubs are not contenders.  What psychological, cultural and financial impacts does that have on clubs and supporters? And is it in the AFL’s best interests if there are only ever three or four legitimate premiership contenders each year?

To be a contender, you need the right people with the right attitude who are in the right place at the right time. At an AFL club, having the “right people” at the “right time” refers to aptitude, development and experience. Having the “right attitude” at the “right place” refers to culture and strategy. Bringing these things together will open the premiership window.

Conventional thinking, primarily because of how the AFL has implemented its equalisation policies, is that these things are brought together over time. Clubs that have gone into “rebuilding” phases have deduced that a new coach and new crop of young players must be brought in, together with new ideas. This has sometimes also been accompanied by new leadership, either President or CEO or both. And then, with the enthusiasm that only “newness” can create, the club announces the undertaking of a bold adventure that should see the Club’s premiership window open in five or so years.

Problems occur if, in the third or fourth year, the premiership window appears to be getting no closer. Unfortunately, this happens too often. Whilst it’s not possible to pinpoint exact causes, I think it’s fair to suggest that the development of the playing list at clubs experiencing such dilemmas has been stifled by the environment in general. Bringing young players and inexperienced coaches into such environments is destined for continued failure, and yet this perpetual cycle appears to be the modus operandi at the poorer performing clubs. Einstein’s definition of insanity springs to mind.

It is also a double-edged sword for draftees, many of whom are the cream of the yearly crop. They may get to experience senior action sooner, but at what cost?

A close mate of mine relayed a comment Brendan McCartney made to him prior to a Geelong/Richmond match a couple of years ago. McCartney’s view was that success was all about player development in an environment conducive to player development. He apparently drooled over Brett Deledio, suggesting that if the Cats had him, he may well have already won a couple of Brownlows.

How many young players have been lost to football, or whose potential has never been realised, purely because they were selected by the “wrong club”? It may well be that the luckiest of the top 16 draftees are the ones selected towards the end of round 1.

I’m not suggesting wholesale changes, but I think the tweaking of an existing element, and the addition of new one, would make a huge difference to the equalisation policies.

The existing element to tweak is the draft. I don’t think there should be priority picks. I think we should also review the practice of just assigning the highest picks to the weakest clubs. In my mind, it’s proven that having low picks does not necessarily translate to success. If it also has the impact of limiting the output of a potentially great draftee then the football public also misses out.

The new element I speak of is one that the AFL already uses when introducing new clubs to the League, and that is the Salary Cap.

What if the AFL, instead of awarding low draft picks, were to allow weaker sides to spend more money than the better teams, on player salaries?

If the Premier had a Salary Cap of $15M, then the bottom team could have a Salary Cap of $17.5M as an example, with all other clubs in between. With Free Agency on our doorstep, this would create massive opportunities for lowly teams to attract the best players in the League thus injecting skills, experience, and balance to their playing lists.

This would inject a whole new dynamic into recruitment and list management, and possibly change the way clubs view rebuilding. At a minimum, I think it would have the potential to change a struggling club’s chances of a premiership immediately. And there would be a greater potential for all clubs to be “in the hunt” for a premiership when a season begins.

The logistics would need to be considered, but logistics aside, I see this as critical to creating an even competition. And so does the AFL. Why else would they give new clubs higher salary caps if it wasn’t to enhance their chances of success?



  1. Jared Newton says

    When looking over the course of 10 years I would say that’s a yes. Since the 2000 season every side has made it as far as a Prelim I’m pretty sure. I don’t reckon that happened in any other decade.

  2. It’s interesting on what is considered success. When the Cats lost 4 GFs from 89-95, I’d say “At least we made a GF.” The common reply was, “But you didn’t win them so you might as well have finished last.”

    The Cats were labelled mentally weak because they could not win a GF. Getting to one was not enough.

    Eade has been sacked because getting to Preliminary Finals was not good enough.

    So what is ultimate success in the AFL?

  3. Jared Newton says

    The ultimate success is winning a premiership but to say you’ve failed if you don’t isn’t necessarily correct. If you say that it means Carlton and Essendon have ‘failed’ for 99 years out of 115 seasons, St Kilda’s fail rate is 114 seasons of failure. It’s too simplistic.

    Each season a club sets goals, some are for a flag, others are to make finals, some are to blood some new players.

    Premierships are so hard to win. Teams that are good enough even fail to do it. Look at Essendon 1999-2001 and Port Adelaide 2002-2004.

    Each season usually gives us 4 realistic chances, some years more, some less but the equalisation of the league has meant that every side since 2000 has had a chance to play off in a prelim and that in itself is enough to keep fans around.

  4. And that’s the point. Most teams are not even in the hunt each year. Its cyclic. I think the time between cycles needs to be addressed. Richmond is now into it’s 4th five-year plan. They would not be hanging their hat on getting into the 2001 Prelim. Its too long between drinks.

    Carlton’s mantra used to be that they planned to win the premiership every year. They would accept nothing less. To the, it would have been 99 failures. Essendon had the same ruthlessness. The AFL brought in the equalisation policies to stop the Carlton’s and Essendon’s from being so dominant.

    Has that worked? You say “yes” and so would many others based on lesser criteria than a Premiership. I always argued that the Cats were successful even without winning premierships.

    But the reality is that Carlton and Essendon are 16 times more successful than StKilda. Demanding success or being happy with “near enough is good enough” is often the difference in achieving ultimate success.

    As a Cats supporter, I can vouch for that, and so will the Cats players. In Round 5, 2007 the Cats lost a game they should have won. According to Cam Mooney, Scarlett stood up in the change rooms after the game and said, “Some of you f%$#^n blokes just aren’t f%^$#n good enough.” From then on, the players accepted nothing but complete commitment to team rules and each other and openly challenged each other for not doing so. It seems to have worked.

  5. The AFL is the most equal football competition in the world because of the draft and player salary cap. All AFL clubs have an equal chance of being successful and winning premierships. The only difference between clubs is better management, which includes generating more revenue and sponsorship which provides better quality recruiting and coaching.
    Football club and team success is nothing more than being competitive with realistic hopes of playing finals. Premierships are hard to win and generally require a bit of luck with player fitness and form. I believe that most supporters understand this definition. However, I also believe that most supporters do not appreciate the detailed reasons that their team has not won the premiership is because of the poor quality coverage of football by the mainstream media.
    The standard of sports journalism by most of the electronic and print media is pathetic. Most of the media coverage is trivial and celebrity nonsense. There is very little good quality investigative journalism about the differences in club administration, coaching, recruiting and sports science etc. Most of the people including former players who comment on football for media organisations are inarticulate buffoons.
    The reason that some clubs have not won a premiership in the last 30 years since the commencement of the professional AFL is generally because of poor management and lack of patience by administrators and coaches; they have a record of ‘shooting themselves in the foot’. These clubs also often struggle to consistently generate the required levels of income to provide the resources to develop a premiership team.
    Ideas such as reversing the draft order or allowing bottom clubs a higher salary cap are not the answer.
    Clubs such as Geelong, Collingwood, West Coast and Hawthorn have raised the standards in all aspects of their club management and other clubs need to achieve these same standards.

  6. Doggies losing Ward and Demons losing Scully is not going to help them become more competitive. It may not have changed the players decisions, but I’m sure both Clubs would have liked a bit of a salary cap increase to allow them to compete on cash terms.

  7. The Cats would also have liked a bit of salary cap increase to keep Gary Ablett jnr. The Doggies and Demons losing Ward and possibly Scully because of West Sydney’s higher salary cap is not a reason that could affect their competitiveness. It should be understood that all clubs agreed to the AFL Commission policy to allow a higher salary cap and greater player list for the new clubs, Gold Coast and West Sydney; this policy will cease in a few years. I am curious that the same sympathy has not been shown for Adelaide and Fremantle, who have also lost players because of West Sydney’s higher salary cap.

  8. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The AFL realised this so have introduced equalisation policies.

    Given that it still appears that “some animals are more equal than others,” I suggest that the equalisation policies need some further adjustment. They’ve started down the rabbit hole so might as well go all the way.

    @MarkDoyle – “The Cats would also have liked a bit of salary cap increase to keep Gary Ablett jnr”. That’s what the article says.

    “I am curious that the same sympathy has not been shown for Adelaide and Fremantle.” What’s the relevance. They would come under the same scheme so no disadvantage.

  9. Clearsighted says

    Good piece.
    Times have changed but the changes brought about, have put into context the premierships bought in the past.
    And they were bought. The rich, ‘big’ teams won the rich and big prizes.
    There are always exceptions but they are few.
    I almost like the idea of the lowest ranked team being afforded a higher salary cap but the irony is, that those teams usually can’t afford them.
    It also opens the door to further corruption, which, like it or not, happens as a consequence of human weakness.
    What, for example, would a club considering its options do, to improve their chances of survival/playing finals/winning a premiership, if offered the opportunity of taking up an offer to lose/win/drop a player/kick the first goal?
    In light of this, betting in footy does not help any team.

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