High flyer ... Jack Riewoldt practises his marking for tonight's big clash against expected top-four finisher, Carlton. Photo: Pat Scala
By choosing to open its season with last Saturday's GWS-Swans derby, the AFL wisely focused the spotlight on its northern expansion. This was not just a bloke with a fancy new jalopy taking it for a spin around the block but sound commercial sense.
Inevitably, there were complaints from parochial southern fans after the Giants were granted a stand-alone weekend game. However, GWS's ''respectable loss'' and, particularly, the massive pre-game publicity justified the scheduling.
The only person in Sydney who might disagree is Israel Folau, whose game-long impersonation of a small child trying to find his mother in a large shopping mall loaded the guns of the sceptics. At the very least, it emphasised the obvious point Folau should be honing his skills in a lower grade, as he would be if his name were Nathan Smith and he were earning a rookie's wage.
Tonight comes the AFL's usual pipe-opener between Richmond and Carlton. An occasion - followed by an entire weekend - that will demonstrate how the AFL is paying for its elaborate western Sydney invasion. Like the NRL, the AFL's opening round fixture is self-consciously rigged to maximise attendances. Unlike any other code, the outcome will be turnstiles spinning like weather vanes in a hurricane.
On consecutive nights, the MCG will be close to capacity for Richmond-Carlton and Hawthorn-Collingwood. Four of the game's best supported Melbourne clubs playing before a combined audience of up to 180,000. Three are premiership contenders, the other, Richmond, tantalising a large and morbidly obsessive group of supporters with the promise of competency. Add big crowds for North Melbourne-Essendon and Fremantle-Geelong, and the tribute to the late Jim Stynes at Melbourne-Brisbane, and the total round attendance is expected to reach 370,000.
Which provides one justification for the AFL's lavish spending in Rooty Hill. Even more compelling is the $1.2 billion, five-year media rights deal that begins this year. Although with that cash comes compromises that have the potential to alter entrenched viewing habits.
For the first time, every AFL game is being shown live on Fox Sports, including the four also on Seven. While the AFL has gradually increased the number of ''live against the gate'' games in recent years, no one is certain what impact the ability to remain in your underwear without missing a game will have on attendances. Saturday night games have also been put back from 7.10 to the less family-friendly time of 7.40 to suit broadcasters.
The average AFL crowd dipped from 38,417 in 2010 to 36,425 (7,139,272) last year, largely because of the introduction of Gold Coast Suns. Small crowds for GWS games will bring that number down further. But clubs, which rely on fans through the gate for revenue, will keep a sharp eye on gate figures for other matches. Even allowing for the fact the media rights deal provides compensation for any empty seats, the live TV coverage leaves one empty.
The introduction of GWS provides another challenge. With the Gold Coast still callow and Port Adelaide struggling despite a bright pre-season, the new nine-game draw is likely to produce a large number of lopsided and, thus, not particularly appealing games.
As in the NRL, a strictly enforced salary cap helps to ensure an even competition. Yet the boom-and-bust cycle of the draft can create disparity. Teams are usually either in the ''premiership window'' or rebuilding from the bottom and at a competitive disadvantage. One honourable exception is the Swans, whose ability to recycle experienced players is such they should be rebadged as the Sydney Greens.
Still, if the AFL faces new challenges, it does so from a position of strength. A-League aficionados defend small attendances on the basis that many European competitions do not attract huge crowds either. Which is an unintended compliment to the mass audiences who gather for AFL.
It should be remembered the AFL tabled a $23.6 million loss last year, with the expense of new teams and seven-figure payments to struggling clubs hurting the bottom line. But its total revenue ($343 million last year, even before the new rights money kicks in) is enviable. If the native game can retain its enormous gate receipts despite the strictures of a new media deal, it will continue to set the bar at dizzying heights.