Fewer blockbusters, bigger crowds? Photo: Paul Rovere
Now that the new AFL dispensation is in place, a certain amount of goodwill is flowing its way, and its ears are open to entreaties, there is one matter it should deal with immediately - the perversity that is the AFL draw.
North Melbourne chairman James Brayshaw called for it to be addressed last week and Richmond coach Damien Hardwick backed him up on Tuesday. Hardwick made it about the toll of a 22-match season on the physical and mental resources of players. Given his experience with the Tigers, he might also have been thinking about the way the long season drains coaches.
Brayshaw had made it about integrity. At this level, the AFL is especially vulnerable right now. When there were 12 teams that played each other twice, 22 games made logical sense. Now there are 18 teams, that play 12 other teams once and five twice. Their schedule is not so much a draw as what former Fitzroy president Dyson Hore-Lacy once called a "scheme of arrangement".
Until this year, the fixturing of the five doubled up games was partly random, but preserved two Collingwood-Essendon games, for instance, and the derbies. This year, the draw was seeded. But that hardly made it any less ad hoc.
In its present form, the draw looks makeshift at best, and expedient anyway, meant only to meet a contractual obligation and impossible to make fair. For a big, lucrative and self-important sporting competition, it is a continuing embarrassment.
So what to do? Thirty-four rounds would be too many, plainly. For telecast purposes, 17 would be too few. Brayshaw's proposal is for 20, consisting of 17 round-robin matches per team and three themed matches - blockbusters, derbies - that do not change from year to year. It is not perfect, but it at least has a degree of consistency and rigour. It is a modified form of conferencing. One day, it might lead to proper conferences.
The bugbear, of course, is money. Fewer matches would result in reduced TV rights income. Brayshaw argues that a little less of an already vast amount would be no skin off anyone's nose, a brave stance since he leads one of the more impecunious clubs.
There would be pushback from clubs, big and small. The big clubs, for whom every match is a money spinner, would rail against lost income. The small clubs would rail against lost fixtures against big clubs, their only money spinners. But these concerns could be remedied by a proper equalisation policy.
The players would be put in a bind. Their body, the AFLPA, argues for more money and no more games (see toll, above). The Brayshaw way, there would be fewer games, but less money. The players would have to choose what mattered most to them.
In time, the Brayshaw plan might prove to be win-win anyway. The consensus is that we are now in the jaded part of the season. The finals race is down to 10, the premiership race is to three. The rest are playing for time and perhaps draft picks. There will be St Kilda-Fremantle style upsets, but not many, which is why they are called upsets.
More is not always better. Scarcity creates its own demand. In a shorter season, the anticipation concerning each match would be proportionately greater, and in time might prove just as valuable to sponsors and advertisers. The AFL might even decide to stretch a 20-match schedule over 24 weeks. That would spare it the bother of having to manufacture timeslots into which whole matches disappear without trace, as happens now. The competition would be leaner and keener.
The AFL, like other sports, is in the middle of dealing with thorny matters of integrity. It is also extremely jealous of its reputation. Every season, the draw appears on the table, and every season it is swept off again. Addressing it now would be small but important step in safeguarding a fair competition.