With the dawn of GCS and GWS, the expansion of the AFL to 18 sides is a shake-up not seen in our indigenous game since it went national in the 1980s.
In the media and in pubs around the nation, predictions centred around the expansion have ranged from giddy exuberance to doomsday prophecies.
Depending on who you believe, GWS and GCS will either:
fail to win over crowds in NRL territory and will languish on the field with their ragtag bunch of mercenaries and lightweight youngsters… OR…
will start to build a genuine fan base North of the Murray, and in 5-10 years will be contenders as their lightweights become heavyweights and the money seduces the superstars
Reading over countless articles and theories relating to GWS and GCS and the current expansion, I cannot help but wonder if people are forgetting one critical point: the calibre of the product itself.
If you consider the AFL and the game itself a product, then expansion carries a very pronounced risk:
Dilution of talent.
Prior to expansion, the AFL had 16 teams with roughly 40 senior players apiece. That’s 640 players who, according to their own clubs, are capable of withstanding the rigours of the modern professional game. There are highly refined selection processes and full-time scouts in place to make sure that those 40 blokes are the absolute best available to any given team. Those 640 players come from the extremely limited AFL talent pool. We are a nation of 23 million where only half the population even cares about AFL, even fewer play and even fewer play at a high enough level to consider turning pro.
Let’s not kid ourselves: there are not thousands of blokes down in the VFL or WAFL or SANFL, guys who are not listed by any AFL side, who are AFL-calibre players. The simple fact is that if they were AFL-calibre, they’d be on someone’s list. The current leading goalkicker in the VFL is listed by an AFL club, but can’t get a game in the big league and doesn’t look like he will soon, either. The SANFL leading goalkicker is a year removed from Country Footy, and former Magpie Jack Anthony is kicking goals in the WAFL but still isn’t good enough for the Dockers.
So it is disingenuous to suggest that there are plenty of AFL-calibre players out there who are missing out.
Sure, there are the occasional exceptions like James Podsiadly, but he was a rare fringe player, listed and delisted twice before being picked up by Geelong in a Rookie Draft and getting a chance with an already-elite club.
The key point remains: On the whole, Senior AFL Lists represent the best of the best, and Rookie Lists represent the best in young talent Australia has to offer.
So are we supposed to believe that in the space of two years, there is an immediate 11% increase in the number of people capable of playing AFL at it’s highest level?
The game simply has not expanded at that rate in junior ranks to suggest that there has been an 11% jump in available top-level talent.
Even if we believe that GWS and GCS have the best youngsters, that means that in five years time there’ll be players at other clubs who are “past it” still running around the park, since no-one of AFL calibre has come through the ranks and taken their role in the team.
The AFL is risking diluting the product with inferior talent, and if this happens people will notice.
The NBA in America experienced this a few years ago with rapid expansion. Despite being better equipped to handle expansion than the AFL (Due to smaller team sizes and a significantly larger talent pool), the NBA struggled to fill the rosters with NBA calibre athletes. Instead we got mediocre expansion teams… teams defined by relocations, trades, glimpses of hope and unrealised potential. It took years for the talent pool to catch up, and even now, purists will argue that the NBA could afford to lose at least ten teams (out of thirty current teams) for the benefit of the overall average talent on display. Other professional leagues in North America and Europe tell a similar story:
You need talent to sustain expansion.
However, it is now inevitable that in the space of two years, we have two new AFL clubs forced upon us. Eighty brand new and supposedly AFL-calibre players. And perhaps GWS and GCS will be fine, talent-wise, with the recruiting systems they have in place. But other AFL clubs, particularly struggling clubs like North Melbourne or Port Adelaide, will suffer. At the moment they have a list of 40 blokes, a few exceptional talents, maybe 30-odd players who are definitely AFL-level, and a few who are stretching themselves to the limit to be in the AFL. All of a sudden, with a diluted talent pool, their aging players have to hang around a little longer than they should… their exceptionally talented players are still there, so are the solid players… but the ‘stretch’ players are taking up more of the list.
Imagine your team, after a couple of injuries or suspensions. Instead of calling up a bloke who’s been in and out of the squad… they have to call up an untried rookie instead. Or instead of calling on a bloke they think might be ready, they don’t have any such player and have to ask the 32 year old to tag the 23 year old gun from GWS. If the Tamblings and Stantons of the league frustrate you with errant kicking now, imagine relying on a bloke who is VFL-calibre to make a pinpoint pass late in an AFL game.
640 players to 720 players is an 11% increase in just two years. The sheer mathematics should be making fans uneasy. Combine that with a relatively small talent pool for a major sport, and the potential result is a sport with 11% reduction in overall player calibre. Sure, we have the Dustin Martins, the Tom Scullys, the Marc Murphys and the elite young players to look forward to… and perhaps with 18 men on the park it won’t be as noticeable if 1 or 2 isn’t up to scratch (compared, with, say, a subpar NBA basketballer making up one-fifth of the lineup)… but simple maths tells us that expanding the competition before there the talent pool to bolster the ranks is fraught with danger.
Working in it’s favour is the fact that right now the AFL has a tremendous equality in the competition. Every team has played in a Preliminary Final in the last decade or so, and teams rarely languish in the cellar for more then five years at a stretch. The AFL is not like English soccer, where only a handful of clubs are ever real chances for the title. If a lack-of-talent dilutes the league quality, the effect will be spread out over multiple teams and (perhaps) less noticeable.
So ultimately, does expansion and talent dilution matter at all?
Well I believe so, and here’s the central point:
With the introduction of a Free Agency from 2012, the AFL will have the same number of elite players, spread more thinly across more teams, with better options elsewhere and the means to demand a trade: A recipe for unrest. Players will congregate towards either money or success. The elite players will play at the major clubs or the AFL-subsidised wealthy clubs. The lesser clubs with the smaller support bases will be left behind.
Even today in the AFL there are occasional games where the North-of-the-Murray taunt about “seagulls fighting over hot chips” analogy isn’t too far off mark. If the talent isn’t there, and expansion dilutes the game, we may see more of these type of games, poorer skills, fewer brand new fans, and struggling teams. As teams struggle on the field, they will struggle off the field. They will relocate or merge. They will cut football department spending or go into administration.
The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, both in terms of talent and financially.
So ultimately, the expansion of the AFL and the potential reduction in the average calibre of the product itself raises two questions:
Could this, combined with a Free Agency and through the monopolisation of talent, sound the death knell for some currently struggling clubs?
If all 18 teams manage to stay afloat, could the lowering of average talent levels impact upon the ability of the indigenous game to attract new fans in the face of global giants?
Both are questions worth asking, even if the AFL doesn’t want to listen.