It’s a classic footy question: would you rather see your team win by 100 in a one-sided contest or lose by one point in a classic match. Ask a coach and 99 times in 100, they’ll take a 100-point win. Ask a league administrator and they’ll take the close match every time.
This is the fundamental tension that exists between football clubs and football leagues: the leagues aim to create a good competition, while the teams want to win. Throughout the sporting world, leagues have experimented with a range of tactics to keep the competition even when while teams have sought to exploit every competitive advantage to build future success. Unfortunately, sometimes this tension becomes too great and the wire snaps.
The current discussions of the equalisation problems in the AFL are fundamentally flawed because they are too narrow in focus. The draft and salary caps have been the main ways the League has used policy to promote equalisation, but that approach ignores some of the fundamental forms of inequality between teams in the game. Addressing inequality will always be a messy business, but to do so effectively, we have to understand that equal does not always look the same.
A Short History of Equalisation
Football administrators have acted on their drive to ensure the competition is as even as possible almost as long as the league has been around. While the very early era of the VFL allowed free player recruitment and movement between teams, it was coupled with low limits on what players could be paid, though under-the-table payments were common. Recognising this, the VFL formally ended its amateur era in 1911. Legal player payments caused an on-field disparity between the wealthy and poor clubs, and so the first attempts at “equalisation” was introduced just four years later.
Equalisation measures can take a range of forms: from drafting restrictions, to salary caps, to revenue sharing. The VFL of 1915 instead chose to introduce metropolitan zoning, where each club was allotted an area in metropolitan Melbourne to which it had exclusive recruitment rights. Players outside Melbourne could still be competitively recruited and there was no limit to player transfers or total salaries, so the wealthier clubs exploited the loopholes to gain competitive advantage.
But that restriction was not enough, and 15 years later, the VFL introduced a maximum player wage, which clubs again found their way around through payments from club supporters, in-name-only jobs and generous gifts. Players from the country leagues and the Victorian Football Association, the VFL’s bitter rival, were lured to the VFL with large signing bonuses and the offer of city jobs. So again, the league responded with the introduction of new rules.
The 1966 equilisation measures were to last until the league went national. In addition to metropolitan zoning, it introduced country zoning for rural Victoria and southern NSW. Country clubs could demand a transfer fee, compensating them for the loss of their stars. The League continued to tinker with trading rules: introducing the option to trade players for money, a limited free agency trial for players with ten years’ service to a club, and introduced a sliding scale of match fees. Clubs continued to use extra-football payments, and exceptions were built into the limits for captains, interstate recruits and players with more than seven years’ experience at the club.
But then, when the VFL decided to go north, its recruitment and salary restrictions were challenge outside the league for the first time. Silvio Foschini, who played with the Swans in South Melbourne, did not want to move to Sydney. His appeal to transfer to St Kilda was denied, so he challenged the decision in court. Justice Crockett of the Victorian Supreme Court determined that the VFL’s zoning, clearance, transfer and poaching rules were an illegal restraint of trade.
The consequences were significant. The VFL overhauled their player transfer rules. The twelve VFL clubs established the VFL Commission to oversee the League, including player recruitment and transfer. One of the first things it did was implement a team salary cap. The salary cap was the maximum amount any single team could spend on its whole playing roster.
It also later introduced a national draft for players outside metropolitan Melbourne. There were a number of quirks and exceptions as new teams entered the competition, until 1992, when a full, national draft was held for the first time. The concept of the draft was simple: teams would have equal opportunity to draft players from around the country based on where they finished on the ladder that season. The team that finish on the bottom would have the first pick, the team that finished second-last the second, and so on. Teams that finished poorly would have the chance to rebuild with the best upcoming players.
New clubs being introduced and creating lists from scratch proved a difficult challenge to this system: it needed to allow them sufficient opportunity to build a team that had a reasonable chance at success. It is arguable that the Fremantle Dockers had such limited success in early years due to fairly limited draft concessions, while both Adelaide and West Coast did well early because their concessions were more generous. Getting the balance right is yet another high wire act.
The draft and draft concessions, and the salary cap were the twin cornerstones of the League’s attempt to bring competitive balance to the organization. The integrity of the system was essential. But for a competition in flux, getting the right rules in place that would ensure true equality – between teams operating in different regions and teams with different revenues – was a case of trial and error. And it still is.
The Northern states have always proved a challenge for the AFL. As early as 1904, its predecessor was playing games for premiership points in the hope of promoting the game in NSW (In that case, Essendon v. Melbourne. Good to know for trivia nights). But the strategy was difficult to get right and despite almost 75 years of continual effort, the Australian Football Council made limited inroads into the Rugby states.
When the VFL decided to expand, the northern states were first on the agenda. Taking on the strong local leagues of the SANFL and the WAFL was a challenging first step, so instead they created a “national” competition through including first moving the Sydney Swans north. By the time the competition expanded again, ahead of the 1987 season, the WAFL bent over backwards to get one of the available licenses. The other, of course, went to the Brisbane Bears.
But while the Eagles had early success – largely attributable to favourable draft concessions in their entry years, which allowed them to recruit directly from the WAFL – both the Brisbane Bears and the Sydney Swans faced existential crises pretty early in their existence. Both clubs struggled with retaining players, as the “go home” factor for players from other states was strong. Additionally, opportunities for third party endorsement deals were limited in states without a strong football culture.
Over time, the AFL used a number of measures to address these structural problems for the Northern clubs. One was the salary cap concession. This was originally designed to allow northern clubs to offer higher salaries in order to more effectively compete against the “go home” factor that favoured clubs in the traditional states. It was later modified to reflect true cost of living differences, then phased out over a number of years after the last collective freak out over advantages given to the northern states, after Lance Franklin was traded to the Swans. (The AFL’s response to the Franklin trade and punishment the Swans’ received for following the established rules in a way the AFL didn’t like, is a different matter).
The most recent incarnations of this attempt at balance were draft concessions given to the newly-created GWS Giants and Gold Coast Suns teams, and the creation of the Northern Academies. The draft concessions were more generous than those given to the late-90s additions to the league, and allowed each club to build a strong list early. Though neither has made the finals yet, they are on a more promising trajectory than the Dockers were at a comparably time.
But the most contentious equalization measure at the Academies. After a draft in which no NSW players were taken, the League was looking for a way to encourage talented young players in the state to take up—or stick with – Aussie Rules. With limited resources to invest in this project, the AFL decided to offer the Northern Clubs the opportunity to recruit and train young players in their regions, with the reward of being able to preferentially draft them via the same bidding system that applies to the Father-Son rules (where they must be able to match another club’s bid for a player).
The Academies addressed a number of problems at once. It provided a pathway for elite talent in NSW and Queensland, where players don’t have access to a TAC-Cup-like development program. It gave the Northern clubs the ability to develop players for whom the “go-home” factor was less likely to be a concern. It promoted junior football participation in the northern states at no cost to the AFL. And it helped address GWS and Gold Coast’s lack of access to father-son picks.
All of this was fine and dandy until GWS started to perform well this season, and stands to benefit from an especially NSW-heavy draft next year. Suddenly, the Victorian clubs was crying inequality because GWS’s recruiting zone includes the Riverina. Indeed, it is a benefit for GWS and arguably unfair. But “unfair” only seems to be an issue when non-Victorian clubs benefit.
The VFL Hangover
The problem with all this, of course, is that removing all benefits from the Northern clubs does not create a level playing field. The benefits have largely been created to address fundamental structural inequalities in the system. Some of these are unique to the Northern clubs: disadvantages that exist when you play the game in a non-traditional state.
There is the obvious one: the AFL Grand Final is played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. When interstate clubs make the final against a Melbourne-based team, that is an extraordinary advantage: the local side has more opportunities to train on the ‘G, and over the season has more opportunities to play there and to adjust their style of play to the peculiarities of the ground.
The gap between teams can be significant. For example, over their three recent premierships, Hawthorn has a net advantage of 28 season MCG games compared with their opponents (2 vs 11 in 2013, 3 vs 13 in 2014 and 1 vs 10 in 2015). That isn’t to say the Hawks wouldn’t have won all three flags without that advantage, but the existence of the advantage is important.
So too is the travel differential between teams. Victorian teams have a clear and demonstrated advantage when it comes to the number of games they play close to home, as demonstrated in the table below
|Club||Number of 2016 H&A Season games out of home state|
|Western Bulldogs||5* including one home game played in Cairns, Queensland|
|Melbourne||7* Including two home games played in Alice Springs, Northern Territory.|
|Hawthorn||8* including three home games played in Tasmania|
|North Melbourne||8* including three home games played in Tasmania|
|GWS||13 *including three home games played in the ACT|
|West Coast Eagles||10|
No Victorian team has more than six regular home and away season games interstate, except those who have chosen to play a home game interstate (of course, the need to play games interstate, especially in the case of the poorer clubs, is an equality matter of its own). No non-Victorian teams have fewer than 10 games interstate. There is a significant travel gap that provides a distinct advantage to all Victorian sides.
The opportunity for big gate takings are also grossly unequal. Obviously, the biggest clubs in the league benefit the most from gate takings, but so to do the clubs that have the opportunity to play them as a home game in their opponent’s home city. This is provides an opportunity for huge revenue. A mid-tier Victorian team that plays a couple of home games against the big Victorian clubs gets a major financial boost. Victorian teams also get a disproportionate number of marquee games.
There’s also the matter of Father and Son selections. GWS and Gold Coast, without the legacy other clubs in the competition have, miss out on these drafting opportunities, and with Freo, West Coast and Adelaide no longer able to take players whose fathers played for affiliated WAFL or SANFL clubs, the pool is significantly smaller for these teams than for Melbourne clubs (as well as Sydney and Brisbane, who benefit from the father-son rule applying to the Melbourne incarnations of their sides).
You could argue that Victorian clubs have more competition than their interstate rivals though that ignore the competition from other codes, especially in NSW and QLD. Perhaps the best position to be in in that case is as a dominant club in a traditional football state, like the Adelaide Crows or the West Coast Eagles.
The simple fact is that working out these advantages is very messy. It can’t be done easily or perfectly. The best we have are approximations. But even the best approximations demonstrate a clear disadvantage for the new northern state clubs: all the worst things about being an interstate club, with none of the benefits of being one of only two AFL teams in a traditional footy state.
Accepting inequality – and its attempted remedies
Of course, some of these inequalities are inherent or virtually impossible to change. The point of this isn’t to say we should move the grand final from the MCG, or force Victorian clubs to travel more. It’s to recognise that there is fundamental inequality in the game.
Instead, if you’re interested in making the game fairer, it doesn’t necessarily mean all the clubs having exactly the same conditions. That’s impossible. It’s about weighing the various benefits and attempting to even them out. Is the combination of more travel + playing in a non-traditional football state (including the go home factor) + lack of Father Son picks + the grand final disadvantage worth less than the value of the Riverina recruiting zone for GWS? Obviously, that is a subjective question, but I’d argue no. Obviously, other opinions may vary. That’s why these conversations need to be had frankly and openly.
But Eddie Maguire and Co’s current crusade get rid of the Academies—and his claim to be champion for equality—are an incomplete at best and cynical at worst attempt to make the game more fair. Any true attempt to do so must acknowledge teams do not compete on a level playing field, and develop policies from there. Anything else doesn’t fix inequality between teams, it entrenches it.