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The new deal

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Illustration: Mick Connolly

PETER Gordon saved old Footscray's name in 1989 by rattling tins and creating a Barack Obama-style groundswell of what he called ''micro donations'' from ordinary supporters. In his second coming as president of the Bulldogs, he is also tapping into the well-heeled and reaching into his own far deeper pockets to ensure that the Dogs don't find themselves in quicksand again.

Footscray had what then seemed insurmountable debt of $1.5 to $2 million when this impassioned lawyer orchestrated ''the Save the Dogs'' campaign. Today, the club's debt is closer to $10 million, yet it is not facing the same existential threat. The wolves aren't at the Dogs' door.

Gordon notes that the debt the Dogs had in 1989 was equal to ''100 per cent of the club's actual revenue and this year's it's less than a third''. But the more pertinent difference is this: That, in 1989, the league was walking the Dogs down the aisle in an arranged marriage with Fitzroy and actively sought to reduce the number of [Melbourne] clubs. In 2012, the AFL has a safety net that protects the vulnerable - read small - clubs.

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Socialism - not a word Gordon likes deployed in a football context - has ensured that there are still 10 teams in Victoria and quite a few outside of this state. When Gordon left old Footscray in 1996 and it re-branded as the Western Bulldogs, the AFL was dealing with the fallout from ''the Melbourne Hawks'', which was subsequently seen as the (failed) merger to end all mergers.

In the decade after Gordon's exit, every single club played in a preliminary final - including Richmond and Fremantle. Collingwood rose from ruin, Carlton fell into disrepute for several years. The Dogs were within a kick of that first grand final since 1961 in his first season of exile, when the Saints lost to Adelaide, Melbourne made a grand final in 2000 and was a regular finalist under Neale Daniher. North Melbourne, foiled in its attempt to take over Fitzroy in the year it won the 1996 premiership, won a second flag in 1999; Port Adelaide, later to prove the most impecunious of non-Victorian clubs, was premier in 2004.

The years from 1997-2006 were the heady days of football socialism. There was a competitive balance in the competition, courtesy of the draft and a salary cap that was actually enforced. But socialism had its limits. Some clubs were more equal than others, as the blockbusters and free-to-air television coverage confirmed. While the AFL sought to compensate by handing the poorer clubs a cheque - and by sending them to Canberra and Darwin - it could not control what clubs spent outside of player payments. So began the football department ''arms race'', in which development coaches would multiply, recruiting budgets exploded and the once humble fitness coach was re-invented as ''director of sports science''.

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Illustration: Mick Connolly

The clubs with money and smarts found ways to gain a critical millimetre of advantage. Collingwood, the heaviest spender in football, would not miss the finals from 2006 until this year. Sydney - a club without vast funds but which was consistently in the top four football budgets - would remain thereabouts and win a second flag this year without the need to bottom out. Geelong, with a home ground goldmine, became the Corio Bay Packers - a provincial powerhouse, Hawthorn, too, turned dollars into wins, while West Coast proved recession proof.

In 2012, the ladder is heavily biased towards the clubs that are best resourced; more worrisome, the Dogs are down, the Demons haven't played finals since 2006, North has muddled along and Port has become nouveau poor. This week, the fixture will hand Collingwood seven Friday night games, the Bulldogs none. If this is partly due to results, does anyone doubt that the Pies, Essendon or Carlton would be so deprived of prime time if they were holding up the ladder?

The new inequality, apparent for a few years, is suddenly a hot topic, with Sydney chairman Richard Colless raising the question of how clubs can be better supported. ''I'm certainly of the view that there is a reasonably direct lineal correlation between football spending and success on the field,'' said Gordon, whose club spent about $5 million less on football - largely excluding player payments - than the Pies and Eagles behemoths this year.

Fairness?

Fairness? Photo: Matt Davidson

The trading and free-agency period exposed a troubling disparity that is seldom spoken about - the higher amounts that the weak clubs must pay to recruit or retain players when they are down the ladder. Angus Monfries is receiving around $1.5 million over four years at Port; Essendon offered much less over two. Chris Dawes gets a hefty contract from the desperate Demons, while Mitch Brown is offered $400,000 or more for four years by the Saints. Conversely, Brian Lake has donned brown and gold for far less than the Dogs were paying him.

The AFL is wondering how it might restore equality and fraternity, without ditching liberty. It has already revamped its funding models, handing more dough to the Dogs, Saints, North, Demons, Port and Richmond from 2012-14. The Tigers won't need it if they win games. The others will, no matter where they finish.

One proposal that has been raised within club-land is what has been called ''a luxury tax''. Under this form of ''New Socialism'', the rich can spend whatever they like on football - hiring a coach and career adviser for every player if they wish - but they would be taxed once the outlay reaches a certain number. If the Eagles' footy budget exceeded $20 million, for instance, they would pay the AFL, say, 25 cents for every dollar over that amount. The theory is that no one wants to stymie innovation, or equalise to the point teams lose any sense of individuality, but that, equally, they have to be competing on something like level terms.

Over the next few weeks, the US will decide which form of free market capitalism it wants. ''Communist'' China will choose its leadership and chart a new course at the National People's Congress. The AFL, more akin to social democratic Norway, is trying to navigate the next phase and maintain an egalitarian competition without killing initiative. It has already allowed the players greater freedom of movement - Kurt Tippett excepted. How it handles finer points of this new socialism has become the game's big question.

17 comments so far

  • Many weekends I'd notice the Bulldogs game result wouldn't even get a mention on the nightly news. After bitterly complaining to my wife she'd just say "no one cares about the bulldogs".

    How can clubs like the Bulldogs get members or raised themselves from the bottom if they're invisible in the press? Ironically the only news they get is about how poor they are.

    Commenter
    Badger
    Date and time
    October 29, 2012, 8:22AM
    • Jake

      These discussions continually omit the biggest single issue with club finances - the stadium deals. They are not the fault of the clubs rather the AFL.

      For example the Dees get 20,000 to the MCG and write a cheque in the order of $50k. Teh Cats get 20,000 to Kardinia park and make $500k. West Coast provides a more stark example.

      West Coast spends $300k a week - $15m a year! - more on their footy department than Melbourne. Their stadium deal is extraordinary as they get all the revenue from corporate boxes, advertising at the ground etc. That inequality means the AFL is compelled to re-distribute money. So stop calling it a handout.

      Until the AFL even this up and until you journos start pointing it out - instead of saying look at the poor struggling clubs - the sooner it will be rectified.

      Commenter
      The Oracle
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 8:36AM
      • 100% correct, although it is complicated.

        Do the AFL own the Giants new homeground?(did they buy/lease the Olympic Park showgrounds?).

        The demons do not have the supporter base to justify playing out of the MCG. Although it is their traditional home. Ironically Essendon, who have apparently the most generous deal at Docklands from all reports want to get out of it so they can put more bums on seats at the MCG. Collingwood, because of their big supporter base, do well out of being based at the G.

        Melbourne just needs better administrators and some sustained success. Look at Hawthorn.

        Commenter
        Barney
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 29, 2012, 1:27PM
      • Well stated Oracle, the clubs have no input into stadium deals. Also, Friday night games traditionally attract big crowds in Melbourne, regardless of who plays, however clubs like Footscray are completely absent from this lucrative timeslot. And before all the pompous Colliwhatsit,and Essendung fools who think they own Fridays and purchased Anzac day start squealing, look at the draws 3-4 years ago, when the Dogs were flying and others weren't, you will still find they had minimal appearances at prime time, yet were filling Etihad on the rare occasion they were granted equal status within the draw. Good point about the media too, Badger, but for sides like the Doggies that has been the norm for a long time now hasn't it?

        Commenter
        Saxier1
        Location
        Bendigo
        Date and time
        October 29, 2012, 1:39PM
    • The AFL should be looking at a two division comp. If only the matches throughout the year
      could be half as exciting as the recent finals.

      This idea would potentially make most of the games in a first and second division a good deal closer. This means that the top teams could play each other maybe three to four times in a season. More people would attend the second division matches as well because they would be more even. A close match at school level is much more interesting that some of the blow outs we've had recently.

      There are only a handful of even games worth watching under the current system.

      If the AFL is going to compete with all the other sports, local footy and other exciting entertainment it has to deliver a more interesting even game.

      Commenter
      Rod
      Location
      the Coast
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 9:25AM
      • Not a bad idea Rod, you could also allude to the English multi-division setup, where some of the most exciting games of the year are when relegation threatened sides fight out an entire season instead of shutting up shop half way through the season (e.g like the Bulldogs did this year). Similarly, the prospect of promotion into Division one is a great incentive for the smaller clubs to remain competitive all season. The resultant reduction in clubs (in each division) could the address the current farcical lopsided draw anomalies and enable each side to play each other twice per season (ie one "home and one "away" game. Whilst this may not appeal to Eddiewood, it should be pointed out that the competition is not entirely owned by Collingwood and Essendon just yet; they have only purchased Anzac day, favourable draws and media coverage thus far.....

        Commenter
        Saxier1
        Location
        Bendigo
        Date and time
        October 29, 2012, 1:52PM
      • Note that Carlton, Essendon and Richmond would all be in Division 2 for 2013 fighting for promotion to Div 1. No so called blockbusters against Collingwood, Geelong and Hawthorn - well no games against them at all. Instead that would be playing in front of small crowds against GWS, GCS, Port etc.

        Commenter
        Viv R
        Location
        Adelaide
        Date and time
        October 29, 2012, 2:22PM
      • Viv,How many of us are tired of all the hype before a " blockbuster" only to be disappointed by half time. Don't fly over just because two teams used to play well against each other. Just because it's called a blockbuster does not mean that the game will be close. Anyway each of us can choose how we spend our time and money.

        Commenter
        Rod
        Location
        the Coast
        Date and time
        October 29, 2012, 4:57PM
    • Cause and effect? Do rich teams make finals or do teams that make the finals find themselves obliged to spend bigger bucks retaining their staff?

      The real problem is the AFL-players negotiated salary floor that means everyone must pay a minimum 95% of the cap. This is why the poor clubs have to grossly overpay their players just to make the minimum. And why they are forced to throw big money contracts at ordinary footballers.

      Port Adelaide should have the right to pay 70% of the cap this year reflecting the youth and unproven nature of their list. Instead they must pay 95% of what Hawthorn do.

      Commenter
      Kris
      Date and time
      October 29, 2012, 10:32AM
      • Sorry Oracle, but a handout is a handout no matter how you try and dress it up with fancy words. The clubs that do not produce results can not raise sufficient revenue to sustain the club should be the the Darwin Theory. There are at least the Clubs based in Melbourne that should have their licences withdrawn. There are three clubs outside of Victoria that should have their licences withdrawn. This would give a competition of 12 clubs and this would allow a fairer draw and hence a fairer competition where each Club plays all the other Clubs twice. On top of this if you make all the Victorian Clubs travel as much as the non Victorian Clubs by being forced by the draw to play in FNQ, NT, Canberra and Tassie. Progress demands that the weak succumber and most importantly that Victorian Clubs are no longer treated as sacrosanct.

        Commenter
        Keith Richard
        Date and time
        October 29, 2012, 11:07AM

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