The Pies once again top the ladder.

The Pies once again top the ladder.

With the storm of football equalisation brewing on the horizon, Collingwood will start the season as much as $7 million ahead of its round-one opponent, North Melbourne.

The Pies are poised to set an unprecedented early season standard by ticking over to 70,000 members by the time the team runs out at Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

The extraordinary figure is a mile ahead of those smaller clubs at about the 30,000 mark such as St Kilda (30,000), North Melbourne (29,000), Melbourne (29,000) and the Western Bulldogs (24,000).

It's understood Collingwood will bank between $10 million and $12 million before the season starts just on the current membership figure, and that is expected to soar higher.

The club is certain to surpass last year's record of 73,600 set at the end of 2012, and believes only a bad start to this season on-field would stop it from breaking through the previously untouchable 80,000 barrier.

On 80,000 members, the Pies could take in up to $16 million.

It is understood North Melbourne would bank about $5 million on its current figure of 29,000, so it's conceivable that St Kilda, Melbourne and the Dogs would be near the same figure.

Effectively, it means those clubs are giving up about a $7 million head start before a ball has been kicked.

Never has such a wide financial discrepancy been more relevant, with the AFL and its clubs coming together in a think tank to close the gap between the league's rich and poor.

Placing a cap on football department spending, the AFL bringing forward its ownership of Etihad Stadium, an in-season mini-draft and the possible sale of the AFL logo on the front of jumpers have been some of the ideas raised throughout the contentious debate.

But Collingwood insists the role membership can play as a weapon in football's arms race has gone undervalued.

Pies chief executive Gary Pert said a membership-based operations model was the only way clubs could guarantee long-term financial sustainability, and that fans were the key stakeholder capable of making a significant impact on equalisation.

''Having a big supporter base is one thing, but it's only when those supporters become members does it allow those clubs to be able to invest and compete at the level of the so-called bigger clubs,'' Pert said. ''Supporters just don't realise that an increase of 5000 or 10,000 members to an AFL club can mean the difference between that club being able to invest in coaches and retain players and build their football operations.

''It can be the difference between that and just trying to survive every year - membership can literally have that impact.

''We've seen lots of clubs, including Hawthorn, Essendon, West Coast, all the clubs that are strong financially, have all invested and grown their memberships.''

North Melbourne is hopeful it will make more headway in membership this year, with Brad Scott's team coming off a finals appearance in 2012. ''We're extremely optimistic about achieving 35,000 members this year, which would be a great result for the club. We are a thousand members ahead of the same time last year,'' chief executive Carl Dilena said.

Two years ago, Collingwood would not have dreamt of securing 70,000 members by the end of the year, let alone by the start.

''It's an amazing result,'' Pert said.

And the Pies are now reaping the advantages of that remarkable surge, which began after the club revamped its entire membership operations based on feedback from supporters in 2008.

The club has made the finals, two preliminary finals, a grand final and won a premiership in the last five years.

''If you were able to talk to any AFL club now, if they knew that sort of money was coming through the door every year, it allows you to pretty aggressively plan for what you need to do in your football department - as well as your membership services for the next year, which allows you to bring in even more numbers the following season,'' Pert said of the $12 million injection from memberships.

''The numbers that have come through our growth in membership in the last five years [have] allowed us to get the best coaches, the right amount of coaches, and allowed us to invest in the redevelopment of the Westpac Centre so our facilities will be as good as any sporting club in the world.''

Collingwood thinks it is realistic that the club will reach in excess of 100,000 members in the next few years and has an unofficial target of increasing that figure to 150,000 by 2017.

''And the way we want to do that is have about 80,000 game day members and 70,000 non-game day members,'' Pert said.

The breakdown of the Pies' current 70,000 members is 66,000 match-day members - including three-game membership holders - and 4000 non-game-day members, who support the club financially in return for other benefits that don't involve a reserved seat at Collingwood games.

Pert said the Collingwood brand now sat comfortably among the most high-profile sporting clubs in the world, including English soccer giant Manchester United, with average crowd of about 75,000 for home matches.

''At 80,000 members we would blow out most of the large sporting clubs around the world. It would certainly put us right up there in the top echelon,'' he said.