Not only is the AFL showing some signs of age with how it is run, but it’s also under threat from external forces.
The writing is on the wall:
- Globally, soccer has more money than it knows what do with, and it’s eyeing Australia
- Since failing to take Australia by storm in the 90s, basketball has recruited a billion or so Chinese fanatics, and is expanding.
- Both soccer and basketball continue to have more junior participants than footy, even in Melbourne.
- Thanks to the internet and TV deals, supporting Manchester United or the Miami Heat is easier for Aussie kids than ever before.
- Migrant communities are leaning more towards the global sports than the indigenous code.
So how can the league survive? Here’s my simple 3-step guide:
1. Cull the league. Hard.
Forget a two-tier ”relegation system” – It would just be delaying the inevitable. The sporting landscape is too cluttered to support 18 teams in a country with Australia’s small population. It is financially impossible. The talent pool isn’t there. The quality of the game suffers every time a new team joins. In the long term the realistic and sustainable split is Melbourne (4 teams), NSW (2), Queensland (2), Geelong (1), Tasmania (1), South Australia (1) and Western Australia (1). A neat, 12-team league with enough support to ensure a good following and financial viability for every team.
Chances of this happening: 0.1%
Melbourne would plunge into riots and anarchy if it lost half its teams, and there would be calls to form a rival league if Head Office even brought up the word ‘merge’.
2. Promote the league as an endurance sport.
Historically, the AFL has marketed itself as gladiatorial combat between the strongest men on earth. The reality is that there is nothing world-class about AFL players other than their endurance. On average, a sprinting NBA player covers 7.4m per second, which is 0.3m per second faster than an AFL player. Nic Natanui’s Draft-Combine-record standing-vertical-leap of 78cm wouldn’t even place him in the top 25% of NBA draftees. And remember, the average NBA player is the size of Shane Mumford. Physically, AFL athletes simply don’t measure up… except for their mindblowing endurance. The league should be putting itself on a pedestal as the world’s number one endurance sport.
Chances of this happening: 50%
This will depend on whether or not the league can swallow its pride and admit that its current players are only “fishbowl” elite athletes? Even with the inevitable influx of Sudanese kids into the league, endurance will remain the best bet for the AFL to distinguish itself as an elite sport.
3. Simplify the rules.
The AFL has too many in-game situations where skill errors are tolerated and the rules simply state: ‘Screw it, give the ball to the Umpire and let’s just go back to a 50/50 contest.” The holding-the-ball and out-of-bounds rules are comically complex. Not only do they make the sport seem arbitrary, they also slow the game down considerably and make it difficult for an uninitiated person to follow the action. Other major sports use the rulebook to punish skill errors and make an umpire’s job more about rule enforcement than rule interpretation. That’s how it should be in the AFL – If someone can take you to ground while you’re holding the ball – boom! – you’ve been caught. That’s your fault. You should be punished. No excuses like “but I was trying!” Last to touch the ball before it went out? Free kick against you, my friend! These changes are obvious, elegant and would make the game much easier to follow.
Chances of this happening: 10%
The league and the fans are too stubborn about tradition to consider such changes. What they generally don’t see is that some traditions are better than others. Losing traditions like the drop kick or really tight shorts are for the net gain of the game.
So there you have my simple and effective survival plan. Make the league sustainable in accordance with Australia’s size, market it according to your strengths to avoid being shown up by the other sports, and make the games flow more with easy-to-understand rules. With these moves the AFL could prepare itself for the inevitable fan shift towards truly global sports like soccer and basketball. The AFL would be just as simple to follow as they are, have the ‘endurance ball sport’ factor to lean on, and would have a balanced Australia-wide following.
So what are the chance of all three happening? Crunching the numbers, I came up with 0.00005%. Effectively zero.
Like I said… the AFL is completely doomed.