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Time for the AFL to grow up? Be careful what you wish for

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The recent revelation by the AFL that nine players earned more than a million dollars last year has many within the industry calling on the code to publicly declare the earnings of every single player.

One of the arguments gathering momentum is that because corporate executives and other sports around the world, including the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, IPL cricket and soccer in Europe, have their player earnings listed publicly, the AFL should follow suit.

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One talkback radio caller took the time to phone in to state he doesn't believe the AFL, as an industry, is ''mature'' enough to handle this sort of full transparency.

Whatever you make of the argument, the point of ''maturity'' is completely off the mark.

The AFL has matured as much as any sport. It currently has record crowds - on average, the fourth highest of any competition in the world. Recent years have seen record membership numbers that other sporting competitions within Australia would die for.

Throughout its history it has introduced a range of policies, such as the equalisation policy, to ensure the survival of clubs, an evenness of competition and an uncertainty of results. This has led to record TV broadcasting rights deals - the highest of any domestic competition in Australia.

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And now it's embarking on a new era, which includes an elite competition for women and the trialling of a game that it wants to sell overseas.

There appears to be a trend of thought that if sporting competitions don’t transform into fully-fledged businesses with free, unrestricted player transfers, mid-season drafts and publicly listed player earnings then it lacks maturity.

But maturity can be viewed in other ways.

Maturity should be far less about following the herd than being able to identify which new, overseas innovations to embrace, and which unique historical quirks of our game to uphold.

We should also tread very carefully when observing the common practices of overseas sports, for their markets are very different to ours. In America, it’s not overly uncommon for franchises to be sold right from under the nose of the loyal fans and relocated to new markets. Players can be transferred from one team to another with the click of a finger. Is this the blueprint of maturity?

Part of what makes the AFL the country’s biggest football code is its historical connection to the grassroots. The tribalism, the passion, the enduring sense of loyalty that leads many players to knock back bigger contract offers from rival clubs to stay at the club they love. It’s part of what keeps some of the game’s oldest clubs in the competition alive today.

If we want to link maturity to the complete, unfettered commercialisation of sport, we should be careful of what a fully mature AFL might look like.

For a start, a fully matured AFL most probably won’t have nine clubs in Melbourne. No, a commercially mature organisation would be expected to stand on its own two feet. As such, the AFL would more likely take on a more economically rational model that would see just a few teams in each major market of Australia.

This would mean more than a few teams would not survive. Millions of fans would be left without a team and hundreds of players would be left without a club to play for. This is a gloomy outlook, but then again, we’ve always known that being mature is not always fun.

Sam Duncan is a Fairfax Media columnist.

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