For all its championing of a national philosophy, the AFL is never happier than when the establishment clubs in the game’s heartland are doing well.
Which is why the league’s money men would have been looking forward to this year not long after last season finished.
They could see a big September box office action on the horizon, and three traditional drawcards - Essendon, Richmond and Carlton - playing big roles in it.
Essendon is desperate for JasonWinderlich to return. Photo: Getty Images
The Bombers may have been thrown out of the 2013 finals in shame, but had been playing for top spot on the ladder only a month previously, and with penalties delivered and a proven coach in Mark Thompson at the helm, the prospects looked good.
Richmond had finished the minor rounds fifth, and while upset on elimination final day, the Tigers - with a very handy draw - appeared set to build on those considerable foundations.
Even the Blues, while only in the finals by default, had proven in that same September upset their capacity to rise to the occasion, and had pilfered another big drawcard in Collingwood’s Dale Thomas.
But only a couple of months on, it’s already clear the AFL’s marketing men are going to have to search elsewhere for their showpiece finals in 2014. It may not even have any of those three one-time powerhouses clubs to spruik. As for all three, well, write your own ticket.
The lower reaches of the top eight are supposed to be a stepping stone towards bigger things, but a third of the way through 2014, the Bombers, Blues and Tigers all appear to be striding in the other direction.
Carlton goes into Monday night’s clash against St Kilda with both its chairman and coach having declared it is in a rebuilding phase. Were Carlton to drop a 17th game to the Saints in their past 20 clashes, at 2-6 this season they would need 10 wins from their remaining 14 games to be part of finals action. Or, more bluntly, a miracle.
Richmond’s draw was supposed to be a major leg-up for the Tigers this season, but on his weekend off, coach Damien Hardwick might well have been still contemplating costly losses to Gold Coast and the Western Bulldogs, which have left Richmond with a similar mountain to climb.
The Tigers were better against Geelong last week, and have Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney over the next fortnight, but they will need to take plenty of confidence as well as the match points out of those engagements with Essendon, North Melbourne, Fremantle and Sydney to follow.
Not that Richmond will be quaking in its boots at the prospect of taking on the current version of the Bombers. At 4-4, the Dons are clearly the best prospect of the “once were warriors” trio for higher honours, which perhaps doesn’t say a lot about those beneath them right now.
Someone needs to send out a search party for the Essendon that blew North Melbourne away, was within a couple of minutes of beating Hawthorn and played Carlton for a set of witches hats in round three.
Because over the past five games, the Bombers have morphed into a lacklustre group that can’t seem to string any coherent football together for longer than a quarter, has kicked more than nine goals only once, and is moving the ball with all the speed of a treacle drip.
About all that can be said for Essendon’s last two performances is that it escaped with two wins. But are the Bombers winning ugly in the tradition of good sides, or simply not good enough?
The returns of smart forward Jason Winderlich, a strong-bodied midfielder in David Myers and ruckman Tom Bellchambers in structural terms can’t come quickly enough. Bellchambers would allow Paddy Ryder to play forward more, and Myers to provide badly needed help for Jobe Watson, Dyson Heppell and Brendon Goddard.
But they alone aren’t the whole solution. In attack, key targets Joe Daniher and Jake Carlisle have a total of 11 goals between them, and the lack of a small forward to help lock the ball inside 50 is being felt more frequently.
And in midfield, the continued failure of David Zaharakis and Jake Melksham, and the falling away of Ben Howlett’s form, leaves Essendon - in what has become a recurring theme - without either enough depth or quality around the ball to mix it with the ladder leaders.
Just how far Essendon is off the pace will be clearer this week, with Sydney looming on Friday night, an assignment now likely to be tackled without Paul Chapman thanks to a couple of indiscriminate elbows.
To be frank, neither the Bombers nor Carlton look much closer to a premiership than when either won their last.
Richmond, meanwhile, has spent the past five years building something of substance only to be confronting the unpalatable possibility that its campaign may have peaked well short of the base camp necessary to launch an assault on higher honours.
It’s been a long stint in the wilderness for all three clubs. And if last year proves in retrospect the tease it currently looks, that’s an even bigger kick in the teeth to some increasingly disgruntled fan bases.
AND WHILE I'M AT IT...
WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE
Social media didn't take long to fire up early in the Port Adelaide-Fremantle game after Power forward Angus Monfries claimed a "goal" with a kick off the ground.
Once those watching recovered from the shock of a video review actually turning up conclusive evidence that Fremantle defender Michael Johnson had in fact been the man who got boot to ball, Monfries became a target on Twitter for his attempt to con the goal umpire.
What remains puzzling, though, is why those happy to label the Port Adelaide player a "cheat" almost certainly haven't been as riled by the scores of incidents each weekend when defenders who've attempted to smother a shot at goal routinely claim "touched" knowing they've missed the ball by some margin.
Does the fact one tactic might grant a team a goal as opposed to the other potentially denying an opposition one make it any worse on the moral culpability scale? Wouldn't have thought so.
BROKEN FINGERS AND RECORDS
While we're on the subject, it's worth pointing out there are plenty of times defenders rightly claim a shot has been touched and don't get a just decision, along with some sore digits as a result.
Ask Bulldog Dale Morris, who did get hands to a shot from Melbourne's Dom Tyson but still had to concede a goal, an episode which raised questions other than the usual lack of relevant footage.
"I knew I touched it, that's why I was so adamant about it going to the umpires and calling for a review," he told SEN radio on Sunday. "I was actually calling our midfield down to get ready for the kick out."
But Morris conceded the central umpire didn't look like initiating a review until his passionate plea. "The central umpire could see I was so sure I'd touched it that he went up to the goal umpire and asked: ‘Are you sure?''' So perhaps this means defenders might now start fitting in some acting classes in order to convince the umps they have a case worth pursuing.
In the meantime, as AFL officials and broadcasters continue to plead cost when it comes to installing goalpost cameras at all venues, and others insist a "Go-Pro" will do the trick, we'd like to ask the networks the same question asked of Chelsea Roffey on Saturday night. "Are you sure?"
BAD VIEWS BEARS
The "historic" Bears strip that Brisbane donned for Saturday night's clash with Essendon at the Gabba was certainly an effective reminder that as garish as some new club uniforms have been, 1987 wasn't exactly a cutting edge time for football fashion either.
And what the present Lions probably also didn't count on was the crowd of more than 26,000 taking the time warp to extremes by replicating the distinct lack of atmosphere which used to accompany any game at the Bears' old Carrara home.
The clinking of glass and silverware of the corporate lunches flown up from Melbourne used to be a very audible backdrop to Bears games. And even that might have been preferable to the deathly silence gripping the Gabba as the Lions and Dons turned in a stinker.