THE AFL claims it has delivered greater fairness and made its marquee Friday-night timeslot even more attractive for broadcasters and supporters in its 2013 fixture.
After criticism during this year’s campaign that some clubs, particularly North Melbourne and Adelaide, benefited by playing the weaker teams twice, the AFL has moved to ease these concerns.
This year’s top-four clubs - Sydney, Hawthorn, Collingwood and Adelaide - will only play the bottom-four clubs - Greater Western Sydney, Gold Coast, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs - once. The exception is the Swans and Giants twice staging their cross-town clash.
The 10 clubs which did not make the finals will have a maximum of two return matches with the top-eight teams from this year while, where possible, the eight finalists this year will have a maximum of two return matches against the 10 non-finalists.
The season begins with a split round on Friday March 22 when the Adelaide Crows host Essendon. The Dockers and Eagles will stage a derby a day later, while the remaining clubs begin a week later over Easter when Carlton and Richmond clash at the MCG.
AFL general manager broadcasting, scheduling and legal affairs Simon Lethlean said he was happy with the overall outcome of a fixture featuring 198 home-and-away matches.
"Every year the average is three clubs come out of the eight and three go in, so you can’t pick who they are going to be. You can’t divorce yourself from those teams that are in the eight because they could be there again," he said.
"I think we have looked at it as transparently as we ever have about who is playing who twice and tried to assume as best we can whilst still trying to achieve all these things like big match ups, the big crowds, all those contractual obligations and the broadcasts.
"I think it’s the best type of model of fairness and commerciality and everything else that I have done in four or five years. But who knows? Someone might be playing a side that falls well below where we thought they would have been and might get an easier run."
AFL chief operating officer Gillon McLachlan said Friday-night and Saturday twilight fixtures were stronger.
"Friday night is the strongest Friday-night fixture I have ever seen," he said.
To help achieve this, five of this year’s struggling clubs - Western Bulldogs, Melbourne, Port Adelaide, Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney - will not appear in the most commercially important time-slot of the weekend.
However, the eagerly-anticipated clash between Collingwood and a Carlton team now led by Mick Malthouse will be staged on a Sunday afternoon in round two.
Other key features of the fixture are:
* To maximise attendances and television audiences, Carlton and Richmond will meet in rounds one and 21, Hawthorn and Geelong in rounds one and 15, Carlton and Collingwood in rounds two and 15, Collingwood and Hawthorn in rounds three and 21, Essendon and Collingwood in rounds five and 19, Richmond and Essendon in rounds nine and 23 and Carlton and Essendon in rounds 11 and 22;
* There will be two Friday-night matches at the SCG, with the Swans hosting Geelong in round four and Carlton in round 14;
* There will be six matches in Tasmania. North Melbourne will host the Swans (round three) and Port Adelaide (round six) in Hobart, while Hawthorn will host Fremantle (round four), GWS (round eight), Brisbane (round 14) and Western Bulldogs (round 17) in Launceston;
* There will be two matches at TIO Stadium in Darwin. The Bulldogs will host the Power in round 10 and Melbourne will host Brisbane in round 17;
* Richmond will attempt to finally secure a win against the Gold Coast in Cairns in round 16;
* There will be two Monday-night matches. St Kilda and Carlton will clash in round seven at Etihad Stadium, while the Eagles will host Richmond three weeks later;
* The ‘Dreamtime at the G’ clash between Richmond and Essendon will be in round nine;
* Collingwood will travel to Brisbane for a Friday-night clash in round 10;
* The grand-final rematch between Hawthorn and Sydney will be in round seven at the MCG;
* The Western Bulldogs will attempt to turn their multi-cultural round clash against Essendon into a Sunday-afternoon blockbuster;
* Hawthorn will face its fellow finalists in the opening seven rounds;
* The mid-season break will be spread across rounds 11 to 13, with six matches to be played in each round;
* All Victorian clubs to travel interstate on a minimum of five occasions;
* All clubs to play at least one match at the MCG.
McLachlan said in an ideal world the entire opening round would have been held on the weekend of March 22-24 but the unavailability of the MCG due to cricket commitments - it needs to be available for the final of the Sheffield Shield - meant this was not possible.
He said the AFL was seeking "constructive solutions" for future seasons with the state government and cricket authorities.
McLachlan said if this issue was resolved it would allow the league to appease its players and factor in two byes.
"Our players are crying out for a rest. In the discussions we have with them, in the conversations, it’s priority one, two, three for them," he said.
Lethlean said the move to have the top-eight teams from this season play each other more regularly next year would not be to their disadvantage.
"I think, for one thing, it’s giving people what they want to see, which is the best clubs playing each other," he said.