What can be done about the AFL’s compromised draw?

Date: May 23, 2014 / Posted by control

The AFL’s annual fixture is totally compromised.

We know as much because the outgoing CEO Andrew Demetriou said so in the strongest possible terms in September 2011 when he stated that it was “unashamedly compromised”. Mind you, none of us needed Demetriou to draw attention to the issue as we have long understood it to be fact.

Around the same time that Demetriou delivered his curt assessment, Paul Roos, who was between senior coaching assignments, said the current fixturing system was the biggest impediment to a fair competition.

Former Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett has stated that the AFL should have a goal of creating a fixture where each team plays the others an equal number of times. Put simply, that ain’t ever going to happen.

The AFL’s fixture imbalance seems to draw more questions and ire then some of the other major codes in this country that are also a party to compromised fixturing.

The NRL has 16 teams that play a 26-round fixture meaning that there are some clubs that meet only once in any given season.

In 2011, when SANZAR decided to move Super Rugby to a conference-style competition it did away with any prospect of a fair and balanced system. As it is currently each of the five-team conferences – split across national boundaries – plays each side in its conference both home-and-away. Beyond that each club plays four out of five teams in each of the other two conferences.

Hence, you can win the Super Rugby title and not actually play all the teams in the competition – now that is one helluva compromised draw.

Yet we do not seem to hear anywhere as much angst about that system as we do with respect to the AFL’s fixture.

Australia is not the only bastion of compromised fixturing. In the United States the likes of Major League Baseball and the National Football League both have heavily compromised draws.

So does it really matter in the grand scheme of things with respect to the AFL and can it ever be rectified so as to pacify the disgruntled fan? The short answer is …. NO!

Firstly, there is the major sticking point of how the majority of clubs have been constituted.

The only practical way to have a truly fair fixture where each club plays one another on a home-and-away basis each year is to considerably reduce the number of teams – ideally through amalgamations. That is pretty much impossible for the AFL to achieve as the constitutions of the bulk of clubs that make up the competition require a mandated majority from the membership to make such a prospect reality.

In some cases the required vote is 75% if a club is to up-stumps and amalgamate, or indeed, relocate. In the past the AFL has tried to broker amalgamations – remember the Ross Oakley driven merger between Footscray and Fitzroy in the 1980s? It may have been desirous for the AFL but it was not met with the same degree of positivity by the clubs’ respective memberships.

Club relocation does not necessarily eradicate fixturing inequities, but even if it did, remember what happened when the AFL leant on the Kangaroos to move north to the Gold Coast?

As long as the AFL has as many clubs as it has – 18 currently thanks to the Commission’s expansions in Western Sydney and the Gold Coast – it will never be able to produce a balanced and equal set of fixtures.

Some people argue that the pre-season competition should be done away with and simply start the premiership season earlier.

 Good in theory perhaps but where would you actually play the matches in February with the likes of the MCG, SCG, Gabba and Adelaide Oval all possessing contracts with the various state cricket boards and thus ruling out those stadia as venues. Would it be practical for the nine Melbourne-based sides to simply play at Etihad Stadium during that part of the season?

And just how early would the season need to start and finish anyway for each club to play each other both home and away?

Without any byes – and that would be impossible over such a long period – the regular season would have to run 34 weeks. Add to that four weeks of finals and you are up to a 38-week fixture. Throw in two byes for each club and you can round it out at a 40-week season – a whole nine months!

In essence a utopian fixture is merely a pipe dream.

Another cause of angst for the fans is the leg-up that a club such as Collingwood seems to garner by virtue of its dream draw each season at the MCG.

This season Collingwood has been allocated nine home matches at the mecca of the sport with its other two home games programmed for Etihad Stadium against Fremantle and Western Bulldogs – two low drawing clubs supporter-wise.

The Magpies also get to grace the MCG on five other occasions – a total of 14 games out of its 22 this season – because other clubs have the ground as their primary home or they petition the AFL to play games there against Collingwood so they can improve their financial bottom line by hosting games there rather than at the 53,000-seat capacity Etihad Stadium.

The other major factor that impinges on the ability to have any kind of draw that approaches equality is the geographic nature of the competition. Half of the 18 clubs are based in metropolitan Melbourne with another – Geelong – a comfortable drive down the highway.

Hence, this season for example, Carlton and Collingwood travel beyond their state’s border on five occasions whilst the likes of Fremantle and West Coast have to fly across the Nullarbor ten times during the home-and-away season.

The fact remains that the AFL draw will always be far from ideal. However, having said that, when was the last time that a premier emerged and was an undeserved winner of the code’s Holy Grail?

In recent years Hawthorn, Geelong and Sydney have each triumphed in seasons where they were the best team in the competition and chances are they would still have carried that mantle even if the draw was perfect.

First published on The Roar – www.theroar.com.au – on 22 May 2014