…and how to save the AFL in 3 easy steps

Not only is the AFL showing some signs of age with how it is run, but it’s also under threat from external forces.

It's the Schrödinger's cat of sporting leagues

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’.

Try not to pillage too much, tonight, folks

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.

The only time in his career this man wasn't running

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.

And the overall health of my eyeballs

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.



9 thoughts on “…and how to save the AFL in 3 easy steps

  1. As doomed as the AFL is, atleast there’ll be a season next year. More than what can be said for more “elite” sports overseas.


  2. The AFL will be fine.

    Sure there are some club’s struggling with money, but in comparison to Manchester United (the biggest club in the world just about) who have a debt of $700 million or something similarly ridiculous, it’s not that bad.

    The new broadcast rights will ensure the league is viable for the foreseeable future (despite the players holding out on a bargaining agreement).

  3. The difference with Manchester United is that their liquid assets are worth over a billion dollars, not to mention “intangibles” like Brand Value and endorsement value. Besides, there will always be a billionaire or syndicate of billionaires to bail them out if things go awry.

    The same, however, cannot be said for a club like North Melbourne… or Melbourne… or Fremantle… or any number of AFL teams who are 5-10 mediocre seasons away from folding. With the impending free agency and new teams, I would argue that those 5-10 seasons are more likely to happen than not happen.

  4. I never noticed this one. Been eagerly awaiting it for quite some time!

    Firstly, Soccer clubs have far worse monetary problems than AFL clubs. As has been mentioned above, Manchester United has astronomical debt. True, they will survive regardless, due to their world-wide brand and appeal and therefore sponsor and owner opportunities. However, just four seasons ago, Portsmouth played their last game as a top level club in the FA Cup final. Yes, they were good enough to make it through and subsequently win the FA Cup, but couldn’t pay their players as the club went into administration. Some AFL clubs have issues with cash, but nothing of the like where they can’t pay their players.

    The two poorest-performing clubs financially, North Melbourne and Port Adelaide, have both won premierships in the last 16 years, which, with 16 clubs for the majority of time since Port Adelaide’s inception into the league, is the benchmark.

    With the league’s recent $1.25billion deal, club safety is ensured for quite some time.

    Figures released in 2011 show that AFL ranked third in the world for average-attendance to sporting matches. With an average of nearly 38,000 spectators per match, football outperforms the much-spruiked English Premier League (EPL). Unsurprisingly, America’s National Football League (NFL – gridiron) is the top performing league, with 67,509 fans per match.

    When compared to Spanish Leage La Liga, the top two teams of which earn thrice the revenue generated by TV rights of Manchester United. One game had 47 TV viewers last season not involving Barcelona or Real Madrid. La Liga negotiates TV rights deals club-by-club rather than collectively as the AFL does. Whilst Barcelona and Madrid earn 125million euros per year solely from TV rights, most of the rest of the league rate a meagre 15-20million euros. It sounds like good money, but in a league where salary cap is unheard of and a sport where success is bought, the rest of the league (that is, everyone but Madrid and Barcelona) has no chance. Therefore, in a generations time, even more fans will support the top two because when they were choosing their club as a child, these were the two that would win. At least AFL’s poorer clubs that ought be ‘culled’ have a chance to win.

    Secondly, you say the AFL should market itself as an endurance sport rather than gladiatorial. Roman Gladiators were strong, brave and good at what they do. In my opinion, AFL is the bravest mainstream sport in the world. Few others are played in such a 360-degree environment; both the rugby codes, gridiron and to an extent basketball and soccer are all played with the defending team facing the attacking team. In these sports, brave acts of gladiatorial proportions aren’t possible like this:

    I’m sure all sports have occasional moments of similar courage, but given the physical nature of AFL, this happens most weeks. Rugby (League and Union) are similarly physical, involving tackling and the like, but neither requires the courage (or, as you mention, aerobic endurance) as AFL. The only other sport I can think of that offers a (very) rare moment of similar courage from its usual line-vs-line front-on play is gridiron when the player runs to receive a kick from the quarter back. He runs back not knowing what is coming up behind him. The big difference is that this can happen to any AFL player at any time, and that gridiron players where protective gear to safeguard injuries.

    Bravery and endurance are just two aspects of the AFL game that the aforementioned basketball and soccer don’t have. Another is anaerobic endurance. Basketball players are the epitome of explosive. However, with just a 28m court, it is unnecessary for them to develop longer sprints into their game; in AFL, with 150m grounds, it is probable that a player will have to sprint 100m+ at any given time. Some players would run sub-11sec 100m. 2011 Richmond player Robbie Hicks could run 10.6sec. These, combined with ball-skills and aerobic fitness, amount to truly world-class athletes.

    Finally, in response to the claim that the rules should be changed, the AFL is what it is. Should the three-point line move closer in so more people score more often to offer more of a spectacle? Should the offside rule be scrapped to help with goal-scoring?

    What other sports have rules where a person is tackled to ground for a turn-over? Not either of the rugby codes, nor, I believe, gridiron. If you’re tackled to ground in soccer, depending how ‘comical’ you accentuate your dive and fake an injury, you are duly rewarded more often than not, not the tackler.

    The AFL is trialling in the NAB cup (preseason competition) a rule whereby the last team to kick or handpass the ball before it goes out loses possession and the opposition kicks in from where it went out. It is highly unpopular with the fans of AFL. The main argument against being that AFL is a ball-player sport, where the umpire and rules are supposed to protect the player going for the ball. This rule brings with it an element of protecting the space the ball is running into rather than collecting the ball yourself so that the ball will run over the line and your team will win a free-kick. This does nothing for the aestheticism of the sport.

    If you’ve read this far, well done :-). I apologise for the essay-length reply.

  5. @Anthony.

    Of course that was me! NicNat’s dunk was nice. It was nowhere near NBA Dunk Contest standard.

    re: AFL

    I think the main thing you’re overlooking is cultural change outside of the sporting arena.

    Australia’s demographics are undergoing change not seen since 1788. Middle-Eastern, African, Asian migrants are settling in record numbers and are, to put it delicately, “outbreeding” Anglo-Australians by a factor of 2-to-1.

    To now, the AFL has relied (too?) heavily on parents passing their devotion to their kids and the fact that in Winter months there simply wasn’t an alternative sport out there for kids. It was footy or nothing.

    Nowadays there are countless other sports outperforming footy in junior ranks and migrant parents with no pre-set devotion whatsoever. Outside of the schoolyard pressures, a Sudanese kid has no more reason to follow AFL than he or she has to follow tennis or cricket or soccer or baseball. Mum and Dad aren’t taking them to the footy. The biggest pressure will come at school as kids want to play footy at lunch. But compared to even a generation ago, more and more kids will play soccer at lunch.

    AFL attendance figures will continue to rise in proportion with Australia’s (Victoria’s) growing population. And let’s face it, Australia is a sporting country… of course attendance figures are super impressive… there’s little else to do in Melbourne in Winter.

    And let’s not forget, removing Victoria from the equation… AFL is Australia’s #2 sport. It is not as robust as it seems.

    But as the junior participation rates filter through, as Mums continue to choose the “less dangerous” soccer for their kids, as kids have easier and easier access to watching Van Persie slamming home goals and Rondo slicing through defences… those attendance figures will plateau and (I suspect) drop.

    You may continue to believe the AFL is the bravest mainstream sport going around. That’s your decision. I choose Rugby. Either of them are impressive, absolutely. My main point is that the AFL needs to market to its strengths. But more on that in a column coming soon!

    Finally, the rules. As I said, I cannot think of another sport with so many ‘Screw it, let’s go back to a 50-50 contest’ rules. There’s a reason for that. It makes a sport more accessible and easier to understand if there is a definitive outcome from a play.

    Of course there are technical rules in all sports. Rugby Union was difficult to understand when I first started following it. I don’t honestly expect the AFL to follow my advice on rule changes. I’m simply pointing out that if Marc Murphy kicks to Bryce Gibbs on the Wing, and shanks the kick horrendously, Gibbs has the option of (effectively) letting the ball go out and knowing his team will have a 50% crack at it. The “space the ball is running into” only enters the issue if it’s been spat out of a contest. If a player can’t keep the ball in play, that is their fault.

    It is arbitrary to go back to a 50-50 contest in that situation. There is no logic behind it other than the fact that 80 years ago the skills were so bad that the ball probably went out of bounds a lot more frequently. Nowadays, with improved skills, we can surely expect our players to keep the ball inside the boundaries of play.

    The AFL has a “soft” boundary line. The only other sport I can think of with a similar setup is gridiron… and… well… you know what I think about that sport.

    Thanks heaps for your feedback, and I’d definietly be keen to hear your thoughts on cultural change. I think it’s something the AFL is finally addressing with youth participation programs and migrant outreach programs… but I think the overarching change towards soccer (in particular) and basketball has begun for migrant populations. If you believe that Australia will always be predominantly white, then I’d understand believing the AFL is bulletproof… but I don’t think for a second that Australia will be predominantly white forever.

  6. All fair points. However, AFL is doing far more in-school and in-community programs that I’m aware of that soccer in Australia. Having worked (albeit briefly) in Primary Schools this year, and seen, through the Sport & Recreation subject I did at school myself, the programs the AFL runs, I’m sure it will continue to flourish with the younger generation. For all his flaws, Andrew Demetriou has marketed and grown the game in ways and numbers previously unheard of.

    A statistic which I cannot backup but heard from a reliable source is that Victoria is the fastest growing state in the country and within 50 years will, should this trend continue, out-populate NSW. If this is the case, football will continue to grow in numbers in its heartland.

    A damnation on soccer is that, in one of the previously untapped high-populace areas of Gold Coast, the club they rushed to bring into their league so as to beat the AFL’s equivalent team, folded last week after horrifically poor attendances, membership numbers and standard of play. A realistic show of the international community’s view of soccer in Australia is that we received one vote for our 2022 world bid. Soccer, in horse racing terms, would have to do a Kiwi to overtake AFL in the next 50 years.

    In the past five years alone, the AFL has implemented some new rules for the betterment of the game both short and long term which have riled many supporters of the game. These include the hands-in-the-back rule, the rushed-behind rule, the substitute rule, the sling tackle rule and the concussion rule. I’m sure you’re familiar with these. These rule-changes prove that the AFL isn’t stuck-in-the-clouds as such and are very proactive when it comes to changing things they see need changing. The substitute rule was brought in to counter the excessive speed at which play had evolved. This (hypothetically) will reduce both soft-tissue injuries and collision injuries. Similarly, previously legal ‘sling’ tackles, where two clear motions are used to grab and then throw the tackled (and therefore usually defenceless) player to the ground, have become illegal and punishable at the tribunal. To die-in-the-wool supporters, this is a cop-out, making the game ‘soft’. To parents considering what sport their child should play, this is a saving grace. Die-in-the-wool supporters, being as they are, will continue to support the game. The AFL is hoping that the second group, conerned about safety and wellbeing, also begin to support.

    No disrespect intended, but the AFL governing body, with their millions of dollars at the ready to pour into research, would know and understand more about the trends of the game in relation to the general public and population of the country than you or I and therefore will better understand the ways to use them in football’s favour.

    AFL is also taking baby steps into other markets. India is likely to hold a preseason match next year. China has done previously. Admittedly these attempts are thus-far laughable in terms of raising awareness of the Australian code, but I’m guessing the original steps of soccer into Australia, possibly with the influx of Greek and Italian immigrants in the period between 1930 and 1970 would have been similarly small. Soccer hasn’t yet flourished as a code in the 60-odd years since its probable introduction, but as you say, it is getting there. There’s reason enough to suggest that AFL is marketable on an international level. Obviously this wouldn’t happen to any big degree within 50 years, but there’s time enough there for AFL to grow even further on its own soil. With bold forays into high-growth areas of rugby heartland, the AFL shows it is aggresive in its push to market the game. I believe this will work in the long term to stabilise the code and help it flourish for generations to come.

    On a side note, the AFL won an international award last year, beating 400 other organisations from 125 countries from a high-esteemed panel of judges including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Former British PM Tony Blair, Olympic Gold Medallist Michael Johnson and London Olympic Chairman Lord Sebastian Coe for its community “Flying Boomerangs” program, aimed at helping young Indigenous Australians. That in itself deserves a tick for marketing.

  7. Also, solely on the out-of-bounds rule, with the acres of space where the ball can roll and the unpredictability of the bounce of the ball, it’s unfair to suggest every single kick should be exactly precise or a turnover will be effected. In soccer, clubs are prepared to have long shots etc which often fly metres wide of their target because a turnover in soccer isn’t much of a punishment; it’s unlikely to result in a goal given the low-scoring nature of the sport. On basketball, not to take away from the breathtaking athleticism, but throwing accurately and catching a round ball is a much simpler task than kicking an oval-shaped ball from your hands. Kicking a round ball would be much easier too, especially off the ground where there isn’t as big an error-factor of the space between the ball leaving your hands and reaching your foot, yet the world’s best soccer players often show us even they can’t master the skill.

    In Gridiron and both Rugby codes, most teams have one or two players to kick the ball who practice the skill almost entirely. Even they don’t always get it right. Given that more often than not, a turnover results in a goal in AFL, it would be very unfair to bring in such a rule to the AFL. I also disagree that the 50/50 contest that ensues with the current rule is a blight on the spectacle of the game. Team sports are contests between two sets of players fighting it out for a win. This is epitomised in every throw-in and ball-up in the AFL.

  8. Pingback: AFL players are not impressive athletes | Mike or The Don

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