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An Unequal Playing Field: The AFL’s Obsession with Increasing Revenue has Distorted the ‘Competition’

AIH399 MAKING HISTORY
DEAKIN UNIVERSITY

by Cameron Davidson

 

Executive Summary

  • This article argues that the Australian Football League (AFL) employs a strategy of deliberately compromising the competition in order to maximise financial intake.
  • It discusses historical decisions made by the AFL that betray its core goal is to increases revenue rather than prioritising the fairness of the competition.
  • It also considers the inequities that the AFL Fixture creates due to the season being set up to maximise profits and capitalise on ‘blockbusters’.
  • For comparative purposes, it explores how several overseas professional sports arrange their season.
  • The article proposes a solution that could simultaneously appease the AFL’s objective and create a fair and equal competition.

Introduction

The AFL has chosen to make growth and revenue its core objectives even if it harms the fairness of the competition. The first section of this article discusses the historical decisions that the AFL has made that prioritise money over all other considerations. The second section discusses the main problem of the AFL’s core consideration, which is the fixture. The third section discusses other professional sports and their league structures. The fourth section discusses a possible amendment to the fixture that could appease the AFL’s objective but also make the competition a fair and equal competition.

Historical decisions for financial growth

The AFL has chosen to have money and growth as its prime objectives with the search to reach these objectives overshadowing the fairness of the competition. Past decisions of the AFL have proven the above statement to be true. One example of this is the closure of VFL Park located at Waverley in Melbourne’s south-eastern residential belt. VFL Park was the second largest stadium in Victoria and was a key ground for VFL/AFL games, even hosting a grand final in 1991. In 2000, it was decided to close VFL Park due to the opening of a new stadium in the Docklands precinct of innercity Melbourne. The decision to close was made primarily because of money. Though the southeast suburbs were the fastest growing area in Melbourne at the time of the closure of the Waverley venue, it was believed that the new Docklands stadium would create more revenue due to its central location and easy access via public transport. This decision created a large amount of anger among football followers especially from the supporters from southeast Melbourne and the Gippsland area. The decision to chase more money and ignore the wants of a geographical area has cost the AFL plenty of supporters with some still refusing to go to a game due to the alienation that was caused by abandoning Waverley. The move away from VFL Park demonstrates that the AFL’s prime concern is financial intake with the League even ignoring a section of the football community absolutely vital to its security, the supporters.

Another past decision that was made by the AFL that alienated many football followers due to money and growth was the ‘merger’ (read takeover) of Fitzroy and the Brisbane Bears with the new hybrid club based in Brisbane. The decision to merge the Bears and Lions caused much heartache for Fitzroy fans. The reason why Fitzroy had to merge with Brisbane was due to the perilous financial situation the club was in and with the AFL refusing to bail them out due to their lack of financial potential. This hurt many Fitzroy supporters with many of them not returning to the AFL due to their club being taken away from them. If a large club with plenty of financial potential was in the financial position that Fitzroy were in the AFL would step in and prop them up to ensure that that club can get back on its feet and improve its financial position. An example of this is Carlton during the mid- to late-2000s. Carlton was in tremendous debt and its on-ground performances were deplorable largely due to a lack of resources. Though their position could have been perilous, the AFL stepped in and gave Carlton financial concessions that allowed them to get back on their feet. The reason that the AFL gave Carlton these concessions but did not give Fitzroy similar assistance was due to the Blues having a large supporter base with more appeal to a wider demographic than Fitzroy. This demonstrates that the AFL is driven by money and does not care about causing emotional pain to people if a decision is going to deliver greater financial growth.

A desire to maximise money and to grow the game has even affected the rule changes of past years. One example of this is the changes that have been made to the interchange system. The interchange system was changed from 4 on the bench to 3 on the bench and 1 substitute. What this rule change is hoping to achieve is to greatly fatigue the players, which would lower the amount of congestion around the ball and the amount of stoppages that occur. Why the AFL is trying to decrease congestion and stoppages is because a more free flowing game is more attractive to watch. This rule change has failed to reach its objective and there is now talk of more changes to the interchange system in the future. How this links together with the money and growth objective of the AFL is that the AFL is trying to manipulate the game into a style that it believes is better to watch and will cause more people to watch it live or on television and it will also attract new people to the sport if it is attractive to watch. If more people watch the game it will bring more money into the AFL’s coffers either through advertising and/or ticket prices. Though this rule change does seem like a good mechanism to grow the game, there is valid research to suggest that it is harmful to the key stakeholders of the game, the players. The players violently resist this change as it puts their bodies through an extreme amount of stress and may cause more injuries. This demonstrates that the AFL is intent on trying to grow the game to be able to gain more money even though it may put other stakeholders of the competition at risk of physical harm. Though there can be many criticisms made over their intent on growth and money there is also a positive side to making more money and growing the game. The positive side of making more money is that it creates better pay for the people working (players, coaches, and administrative people of clubs and league) in the sport and the growth of the competition also creates more employment opportunities as well as spreading the sport that we (supporters, officials, and players) believe is so great.

The AFL fixture

The core problem with the AFL having a narrow focus on expanding revenue and growing the competition is the inequality it creates between clubs. How this inequality is created is through the AFL fixture. The AFL fixture creates inequality as it is constructed to maximise profits at the expense of fairness. The AFL fixture creates inequality in two key ways. First, the uneven fixture leads to various teams playing different teams twice. As there 18 clubs and 22 games for every club, each club must play 5 teams twice. The return games, usually (but, oddly, not always) towards the end of the season, can and do have significant influence on who finishes in the top 8 and makes finals and who finishes in the top 4 and gets a ‘double chance’. The ‘return’ games, furthermore, can decide who gets a home final instead of an interstate final. Looking through recent history there are plenty of examples of this occurring. In the 2012 season, for instance, teams such as North Melbourne and Adelaide benefited greatly from a favourable draw. North Melbourne made the top 8 by 3 games in front of 9th, 10th and 11th position with an inferior percentage than 9th. Due to their favourable draw, North Melbourne played 3 of the bottom 5 teams twice, which greatly enhanced the Kangaroos’ chances of making the finals. Adelaide finished second on the ladder, 2 games ahead of 5th and three games ahead of 8th position. Due to Adelaide’s favourable draw they also played 3 of the bottom 5 teams twice, which greatly enhanced the Crows’ chances of making the top 4 and also greatly enhanced their chances of holding a home final. Though these are only 2 examples from the most recent season, there are many more examples of this type of inequality since more than 12 teams were in the expanded competition.

The compromised fixture also harms teams that do not get to play at certain venues. The AFL Grand Final is held at the MCG every year. What should happen throughout the season, then, is that every team should have the opportunity to play at least twice at the MCG in case they are required to play there during the finals. Any team that progresses through to the grand final already would have had recent exposure to and experience on the MCG. This would avoid a situation that occurred in 2010, when Fremantle had only played one game at the venue through the year before its cut throat semi final against Geelong. Whereas several teams who failed to play finals that year had played at the MCG seven times during the season, as a finalist without any previous experience at the ‘G in 2010 Fremantle were put at a definite disadvantage. The impact that a favourable or unfavourable fixture can have on a club is unacceptable, and change needs to occur to ensure all clubs have equal opportunity to make the final eight.

The second way the fixture creates inequality is through exposure. Because different clubs have more supporters and thus wider appeal than others, certain clubs tend to have access to the prime time positions such as Friday night. Clubs with smaller supporter bases and less appeal, meanwhile, are lumped with the least wanted time slots. This hampers the smaller clubs because they do not get the exposure vital to growing their club and capturing new supporters and sponsors. This lack of exposure through either TV audience or small crowds makes the financial situation of these clubs very difficult. This then curbs considerably what clubs can spend on football departments that may help improve the on field results. Though the AFL does offer equalisation packages to help the disadvantaged clubs, it really does not measure up to having greater ticket sales and greater exposure as it is only a short-term relief rather than a long-term solution. A fair fixture can deliver all of these things which create a fairer and more equal competition. The reason that the fixture is unfair is due to capitalising on money intake. If a draw has more blockbusters — games which sell many tickets and have greater TV audiences — then TV broadcasters will pay more money to be able to broadcast the matches. A percentage of the profits made out of these deals (the last deal was one billion dollars for five years) is fed back into the clubs to help pay for the players and other assorted employees. Though it is a must to have big-selling matches it must not compromise the fairness of the competition and create a situation that allows particular clubs to achieve more on-field success than disadvantaged competitors. Yet, this is the current situation and change must happen so there is no longer such glaring inequality in the biggest sport in Australia.

Other professional sports

To search for a better structure to eradicate the inequality that the current fixture currently allows, professional overseas sports must be discussed to decide whether their model can work in the AFL. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the first sport that warrants discussion. Each of the 30 teams plays 82 games in the regular season. Spanning much of the US mainland, the NBA is split up into 2 separate conferences with each conference having 3 different divisions. In a true ‘home and away’ season like the VFL of yesteryear, each franchise plays the other teams in its division 4 times with 2 being at home and two being ‘on the road’. The teams in the same conference play each other either 3 or 4 times. One team will play each team from one division 3 times and play the other division 4 times. Teams in opposite conferences play each other twice with one game being home and the other being away. At the end of the regular season, the top 8 teams from each conference go into the playoff series with 1st playing 8th, 2nd playing 7th, 3rd playing 6th and 4th playing 5th. There are four rounds of finals with each round consisting of seven games between two teams. After each round the teams are split. After the winners of each conference are decided the two winners then meet to decide the championship. This draw is quite fair, although the conference system always creates some minor inequalities. There might be, for instance, 10 teams from one conference whose season record suggests they should be worthy of a finals berth, but ultimately both conferences always get 8 teams to advance into the finals. Also, the top 3 teams of one conference may be better than the top seed of the other conference but they do not get the chance at the championship as only one team can be the best in a conference. This is not a system that should be implemented by the AFL because there are not enough teams to support this structure.

The Barclays Premier League (highest division soccer in England) can be used as emblematic of the approach adopted by professional soccer leagues across the globe, which clearly is the fairest way to structure a competition. There are 20 teams in the EPL every season, and each team plays every other team twice with one home and one away. Each team plays 38 games for the season with the top team winning the championship, the bottom three teams being relegated into a lower league and being replaced by the top three teams of the lower league, and the top four teams advance into the UEFA champion’s league that consists of the best teams in Europe. This fixture is the fairest fixture in world sport and is a fixture that the AFL must try to emulate. This fixture is similar to what the Victorian Football League (VFL) draw use to be like. The VFL pre-1990 used to consist of twelve clubs. Each club would play against every other club twice with one game being at home and one being away. The top 4 teams (later changed to 5) would advance to the finals with the top two teams getting a double chance. These two systems (VFL and EPL) are the two fairest systems that are/were in sport.

Resolution

Fairness in a fixture is admittedly hard to obtain, but nonetheless there are better options than the current AFL fixture. How fairness can be reached in the AFL system is by having the fixture’s main priority being based around fairness instead of money. Though fairness should be the aim money is still an extremely important part and must be factored in when devising a new draw. The proposition that I am going to place forward is not an instant fix and cannot be done straight away but in 10 years it should be a competent idea. The first major change that will need to occur is that there must be two new teams created to make a more even draw and to appease the TV broadcasters. There are five valid options for two new teams. The first option is Tasmania having its own team. This would mean that their stadium (Either Blundstone or Aurora Stadium) would need an upgrade to hold at least upwards of 35,000 spectators. If this occurred a team would be totally economically independent as it is a football state where the club would have immediate members and supporters. The reason this is known is that the local population have been pleading for an independent team for many years. A team based in Darwin is the second option. Though this is more of a risk as the population is much smaller they are also a football state and may have the population in ten years to support an AFL team. The third option is another team in Western Australia. WA has the fastest growing population in Australia and is a football state so three teams may be able to co-exist, though the state’s existing football population already support the two other teams so a new supporter base may be a difficult objective. The fourth option is Cairns, which also is an AFL-friendly area which has a population that could be sufficient enough to support an AFL team. And, finally, the fifth option is New Zealand. Though NZ is a currently untested market, in five years much more will be known as to whether AFL has any appeal in New Zealand. The Auskick numbers in NZ are currently quite good, which suggests AFL could grow into a valid sport in NZ. Personally I believe Darwin and Tasmania are the best options as it would then be a truly national game but as time goes on NZ may be a better option.

After the introduction of two teams the total teams in the competition will be 20, which then will enable the fixture to be fair. The new system will have every team once with the teams rotating between home and away each year which will equate to 19 rounds each year. Though there will be three less rounds than the current system the games of double ups between two struggling teams will no longer be an issue and the money created from only having one appearance a year between two teams will make sure people will not want to miss the opportunity to see the two teams play against one another. There also will be room in the fixture to have two byes as this is what the player’s desperately want. The finals system would maintain its current format. Though people will argue that half of the teams should make the finals system, a system with less than half the teams ensures that if you make the final eight then you deserve it. The old VFL system is an example of this with only a 3rd of the teams making the finals. As there still will be two weeks less of football action, to appease the TV broadcasters there could be a reintroduction of the state of origin carnival. The carnival can occur before the year in conjunction with the pre-season cup. This will be held over three weekends with one game each weekend between South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. As has been indicated by the football public and the players, state of origin is in high demand which means that money from advertising and TV viewing would be quite adequate for the lost rounds. This also will not conflict with the pre-season competition as it will still run as only four players from each club will be taken for state duties (approximately) and the final of the competition will be held on the Friday night and the state carnival on the Saturday night. Also the state games will be held on Saturday night only, with the pre-season competition held in separate time slots. To ensure the fixture is financially fairer, all teams will have a minimum of two primetime/blockbusters in their fixture. If broadcasters still are unhappy with the fixture, a rivalry round to end the year, or in the second last round, will occur to ensure the financial intake still will be acceptable. This proposed fixture does address the equality issues of the current fixture but cannot be implemented straight away as the expansion clubs have to settle before two more new clubs are introduced.


Conclusion

This article discussed the AFL and its goal to grow the competition and make larger profits even if it creates an unequal competition. The first section in this paper discussed the different examples of where the AFL chose to grow the game and to maximise profits, which include instances such as rule changes to make the game more attractive and the destruction and relocation of Fitzroy. The second section of this article discussed the AFL fixture and how it creates an unequal competition. How the fixture creates an unequal competition is that it gifts wins to certain clubs, which enables them to make finals and it also creates inequality through the allocation of primetime slots and blockbusters. The third section of this paper discussed overseas professional sports and their models of fixtures and how fair their models are. The last section of this paper discussed a new fixture that would create an equal competition by introducing two new teams. The current AFL fixture is unacceptable and a solution must be found so the competition finals are not dictated by the fixture throughout the year.

 

Selected websites for further reading:

Relevant AFL articles accessible from the Herald Sun website:

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/afl/afl-needs-to-go-back-to-the-drawing-board/story-fn7shz1t-1226111233493

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/afl/more-news/afl-fixture-unfair/story-e6frf9jf-1225916783370

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/afl/more-news/afl-fixture-unfair/story-e6frf9jf-1225916783370

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/afl/teams/the-great-mistake-of-closing-waverley/story-e6frf9lx-1111113306127

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/afl/more-news/the-land-would-be-golden-now/story-e6frf9jf-1225766945081

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/afl/expert-opinion/why-the-afl-should-say-sorry-to-fitzroy/story-fncqi9j8-1226316729628

Relevant AFL article accessible from the Age website:

http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/clubs-prepare-for-a-cap-on-interchanges-20121015-27ndz.html

NBA official website: http://www.nba.com/

EPL official website: http://www.premierleague.com/en-gb.html

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.

 

Citation: Cameron Davidson, An Unequal Playing Field: The AFL’s Obsession with Increasing Revenue has distorted the ‘Competition’. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/an-unequal-playing-field

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/an-unequal-playing-field