Which way for the AFL? NFL or EPL? Or keeping their eye on the ball at home?

by Roy Hay

The Australian Football League is sending a deputation to the United States to find out how the National Football League (NFL) in that country manages to have a competition which is purported to be more equal than the local variety and claimed to be the best league in the world. Both notions are arguable. The pinnacle is the Superbowl. Eight teams have won the Superbowl three times or more. Together these eight teams account for 33 out the 47 Superbowl victories or 70 per cent of wins. Of the 32 teams taking part, 4 have never been to the Superbowl and 10 have reached the final once or more but have never won the title. Average attendance while still by far the largest on average of any of the football codes is down from its peak in 2007.  The majority of revenue now comes from television. The NFL has serious worries about the costs of attending a game relative to the price of an HDTV. One estimate of the cost for a family at a game, adding in merchandise and food could be around US$600, which would buy a good TV set in the USA. ‘Are we competing against ourselves’?, the NFL is beginning to worry. Franchises have only 8 home games per season. So they are considering whether new stadia should be built. There was a big debate in Atlanta about replacing Georgia Dome, for example.

Frank Costa is quoted as being concerned that Australian football will morph into the English Premier League (EPL), primarily because the same three or four teams win the league every year and that would not be good for the Australian game. There is evidence that supports his case. When Simon Kuper and Andrej Symanski wrote Why England lose and other football phenomena explained they wrote that the only factor which correlated with winning the EPL was the size of the club’s wage bill. So money talks and Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal come out on top virtually every year. What weakens that argument is that Manchester United has won more than half the Premier League titles and the factor which correlates best with that is the recently retired Sir Alex Ferguson. United has never finished lower than third in the EPL in its 21 year history, but prior to 1992-3 it had not won the English First Division since 1967. Then they appointed Fergie in 1986 and after six fallow years he started winning everything in sight.

Association football has never had a level playing field and the success of the code in holding the interest and involvement of generations of paying spectators since the 1880s needs to be explained otherwise. In Scotland before the First World War there were people who bemoaned the dominance of the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic. Rangers and Celtic have dominated Scottish football since then with the exception of brief interludes from 1948 to 1958 and 1980s, the latter when Ferguson was manager of Aberdeen. The Fergie factor yet again! They have done so through periods of success and failure of the game internationally and domestically. England was more open but only eleven teams won the first division between 1888 and 1916. Spain’s La Liga is dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, Italy’s Serie A by Juventus and the two Milan clubs. Even in Germany the Bundesliga where clubs have a membership based system of club ownership only five teams have won the title in the last 30 years and Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund who played off the European Champions League final recently have won 16 and 5 of the titles respectively. Yet the competition generates better attendances on average than the AFL or the EPL.

So what happens in these countries when winning the championship is hardly a realistic option for more than 80 per cent of clubs and why do fans still attend in huge numbers, watch on television and buy truckloads of merchandise? The conventional explanation is sophisticated marketing, corporate ownership and sponsorship and television promotion. Football is driven by capitalism and always has been according to Tony Collins, Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History. Fantasy football and gambling keep up the interest.

But that may not be the whole story. There are a whole host of mini-competitions going on in the league. These include trying to gain the places in European competitions, cup runs, EPL survival and in some cases finishing just outside the play-off places for promotion to the league. When Bob Crampsey and I were interviewing players and managers in Scotland for his research at Glasgow University in the 1970s we found managers who were paid bonuses according to the transfer fees they brought in not the league winning or promotion. Senior players knew that if they got up a division they would lose their weekly win bonus and be replaced by younger and better players. Hence on one occasion a club’s centre-half spent virtually the whole game in the opposition penalty area while the goals rained in at the other end, just so that they were pipped in the last round for promotion! Talk about tanking.

The head of the European football body, UEFA, Michel Platini is trying to introduce financial fair play and while I applaud his initiative I think it will not produce a level playing field though it might reduce some of the excesses. What it is unlikely to do is have much effect either way on the popularity of the game.

The moral of this story is that the AFL might have to spend a bit more time on what its own fans want rather than chasing after overseas ideas as it appears to be doing.



  1. Dave Nadel says

    As you know, Roy, I have always been critical of the AFL’s tendency to seek the answers to all its problems in the USA. However, in the question of equalisation, surely the NFL does hold more examples than European soccer.

    The AFL cannot organise a multi divisional competition such as exists in top level soccer because the gap between Claremont, Norwood and Port Melbourne and AFL clubs, even Greater Western Sydney, is too great. (Claremont and Norwood were 2012 premiers in the SANFL and WAFL respectively, Port Melbourne lost the 2012 Grand Final to Geelong Seconds). Without Promotion and Relegation there really is very little to play for except the Premiership (Championship)

    The AFL, like the NFL, exists in a single country and so the Grand Final, like the Superbowl, has to be the dream motivating all teams. While there are a four teams in America which have never reached the final weekend of the season and one out of the sixteen teams admitted before 2011 that has never played in an AFL Grand Final (and one other that hasn’t played on the final weekend for over fifty years) the fact is that neither the historic dominance of Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon, nor the recent dominance of Geelong can be compared to duopoly in Scottish and Spanish football or the dominance by a handful of Championship winning teams in English and German soccer. The relative successes of Green Bay, New England and San Francisco are not comparable to the European teams, either.

  2. Stainless says

    If you examine the results of the AFL/VFL over the last few decades, it’s clear that the draft and salary cap did much to level the previously lopsided playing field during the 90s and early noughties.. But their influence has declined in recent years to the point where I think the competition is as uneven as it’s been for many years.

    Why is this?

    Leaving aside the timing of the introduction of the new franchise clubs, which we all knew would take a while to become competitive, I think the major factor is that the increasingly professional nature of the competition is altering the extent to which teams can succeed on raw talent alone.

    These days, the recruitment, training, conditioning players, physically and mentally, are having a huge impact on performance. Doing these things properly doesn’t come cheap. Clubs with the wherewithal to invest in the people, equipment and facilities needed for superior conditioning are doing so, unfettered by any equalisation measures. Poorer clubs may have access to the same talent pool and operate under the same salary cap limitations, but if they can’t match the off-field investments of their richer rivals, their playing group will suffer by comparison. Unless the League creates some sort of equalisation mechanism to limit all football operations expenditure, it’s hard to see what can be done to address this.

    I don’t think there’s a really valid comparison with either EPL or NFL. Notwithstanding the Fergie Factor, EPL is really a case of whoever can afford the best players wins. I know less about NFL but my sense is that the size and wealth of the franchises are relatively equal and that therefore their capacity to invest in football operations people and infrastructure is also relatively equal. Success levels may then come down to luck (e.g a great run in recruiting talent that creates a great team over a long time) and/or that indefinable ‘culture’ thing.

  3. Barkly St End says

    Australian Football is a game where the differences in fitness and skill are glaring from one tier to the next (as someone mentioned above, the Geelong reserves defeated Port Melbourne to win the VFL premiership).

    Even the likes of Melbourne and GWS would destroy all SANFL and WAFL teams.

    In soccer, while the richest teams dominate season to season, it’s a different story when you talk about individual games. A bottom 3 club can host the likes of Manchester United with a realistic chance of getting a result, and teams from the 3rd tier (or lower) often defeat teams in higher tiers in the FA cup qualifying rounds.

    So every game, no matter the position on the table, is a good chance of being competitive.

    We can see how the Wanderers were able to come into the A-league, with a few months preparation, and win the whole shebang.

    That sort of thing cannot happen in Autralian Football – full stop – it’s a very different game.

    Bottom-line: the AFL cannot afford to sit by and watch the seemingly growing disparity between the haves and have-nots. People will stop coming to games and will switch channels at quarter time if teams are getting pumped on a regular basis.

    The answer is obvious: equalisation, equalisation and even more equalisation.

  4. Thoughtful comments all, but if AFL is unique then perhaps that is an argument for not expecting overseas models to work effectively here. What about starting with the lopsided draw? Eliminate the pre-season cup (unless it counts for something) to create the necessary space? I agree that equalisation of capacity helps produce more even games on a regular basis but how do you propose to do that? We already have the richer clubs squealing about most of the measures proposed. I suspect the Geelong model which has turned a virtual basket-case into a serial winner which does not look like bottoming out soon has more to teach us than the USA or the EPL. I do think the German membership model might be worth closer study, though circumstances there are very different in other respects (no competing codes for example).

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