In the course of 2014, the competition's haves will be forced to hand over some of their hard or poker-machine won earnings to the have-nots.
Much as the haves resent any transfer of wealth, they've accepted a degree of equalisation in the interests of the competition. It's just a question of how the AFL's will will be done, which socialist mechanisms are deployed, and how much the rich have to cough up. There's no need for Peter Gordon and James Brayshaw to Occupy Etihad.
Inevitably, the debate - and eventual settlement - will be influenced by what happens on the field. The push for a more level playing field is as much about wins and losses, and whether the weak can compete on the field, as dollars and cents. Port Adelaide's climb up the ladder last year was significant, since it showed that the poor could indeed prosper if it recruited well, hired the right coach and fitness expert. But Port was the exception. Melbourne, Greater Western Sydney (despite being the AFL's baby), the Bulldogs and St Kilda remained mired in the nether region of the ladder, while the Brisbane Lions - the league's strategic disaster - weren't much better.
It was recognised a few years ago that there was some correlation between the amount teams spent in their football departments and success. Collingwood, Geelong, Hawthorn, West Coast and Sydney all spent heavily since the mid-2000s, while the Dogs, Port, North and Brisbane were tight. The Dees upped their spending in 2012-13, without any benefit. St Kilda spent big on players, not so much on coaches and support staff, and was a bad bounce away from a couple of flags. Carlton, once the pin-striped suit of the AFL, is convalescing after some bad investments; soon, Bruce Mathieson's pokies will restore it to full financial health. Essendon, another aristocrat, was likewise on the mend (on the field) before the supplements implosion.
In this year of equalisation, the playing fields themselves will be more even than they've been in the past few years. The gap between winners and losers won't be as pronounced. The ladder order isn't ''rapidly fadin'' (nor ''the first one now/will later be last'') as Bob Dylan put it, but the obscene gap between Hawthorn, Sydney and Fremantle and the Dees, Giants, Saints and Dogs will narrow. On the field, we have been living through an unusually unequal period. Last year, GWS and Melbourne were below the standard of a typical bottom team, with percentages barely above 50. St Kilda plummeted, while the Dogs and Lions were salvaged by late-season surges. In 2011, 2012 and last year, the bottom three teams (bar St Kilda in 2013) have had percentages in the '60s and below.
Inequality on the scoreboard - the measure that the public really watches - has been exacerbated by the expansion of the competition. GWS and Gold Coast were not competitive in their first couple of years, skewing the ladder. Their introduction also harmed some of the lower echelon clubs, since it deprived them of the best talent. The teams with mature talent - Hawthorn, Geelong, Collingwood, Sydney, Fremantle - weren't as easily overtaken. Free agency was a further free kick, provided a club had salary cap space; Brian Lake went from the Dogs to Hawthorn, Brendon Goddard left the Saints for Essendon, and while ''Buddy'' and ''Daisy'' went for mega-bucks, they didn't even consider the bottom teams.
But the wrinkles wrought by expansion should be smoothed this season, because the bottom teams will surely improve. Melbourne, energised by Paul Roos, will finally have a semi-competent midfield, as Bernie Vince and Dom Tyson join second-year mids Jack Viney and Jimmy Toumpas. Nathan Jones won't be the lone ranger. Jesse Hogan, a teenager with Jonathan Brown traits, will boost the forward line, and Mitch Clark, if he ever plays, can be a potent ruck/forward.
GWS has gained Heath Shaw and Shane Mumford, plus some handy foot soldiers and has highly talented kids entering their second and third seasons. The Giants might not win many games, but they will compete for far longer in most.
The Saints are confident a coaching change will reverse their slide, although they have forsaken Nick Dal Santo and Ben McEvoy and are in total rebuild mode. Dal Santo's defection suggests the poor aren't entirely powerless. Dal Santo opted to play for impecunious North, rather than a well-heeled Essendon, while the Roos also managed to recruit Geoff Walsh, Leigh Tudor and Cameron Ling to their no-longer threadbare football department; the Roos also will be paying closer to 100 per cent of the salary cap - a position that should be mandatory for almost every club. It is ridiculous clubs such as North were spending precious dollars on altitude camps in Arizona while spending hundreds of thousands less than the maximum on players.
For the first time in several years, North will be subject to great expectations. The Dogs also appear to be on an upward trajectory and Port enters the season expecting to hold its ground and play finals.
The top sides, meanwhile, have had less access to elite players, with the exception of the Swans, who have added Kurt Tippett and Lance Franklin over two post-seasons in acquisitions that have outraged their rivals. Collingwood has given up Dale Thomas and Heath Shaw. The Cats have seen a slew of retirements; once ahead of the pack, Geelong of 2014 can only hope to be the first among equals.
In 2014, the ladder should ape what has been happening on the field: It will compact, reducing the space between combatants. But this crowding won't be an unseemly blight on the game, and will be welcomed by the game's government.