A general consensus over the current state of the AFL is that there are far too many changes and confusions regarding its rules. The Holding the Ball rule has always been a massive point of contention, ducking for a free kick is always going to be divisive and the deliberate out of bounds rule seems to be adjudicated differently every week. While there is a whole debate over the ‘State of the Game’ and thus an outcry for the heads at the AFL to try and fix the game, it’s just as easy to argue that there needs to be a balance over the on-field changes, and the off-field changes. As the AFL spends every hour tinkering with how the game is played week in and week out, they need to take a step back and look at more intangible features of their organisation, and how they need to prioritise off-field issues before they keep making changes to the game itself.
The ‘State’ of the Game
A lot of people have cried for the game to go back to the days of old, that it is far too fast-paced and midfield reliant, leading to congestion and the so-called ‘Death of the Key Forward’, this is all well and good until you delve deep and actually analyse the current state of the AFL. There has been all of this talk of an implementation of Starting Positions, allocating players to their areas of the ground, freeing up congestion and allowing for a higher scoring, free-flowing game that is far more exciting to see. It may sound good in theory, but who’s to say that this will supposedly save the game. First and foremost, the AFL is a business and their top concern is revenue and how they can keep increasing it, the same goes for every club in the competition. This past week, the AFL has finally cracked 1 million members for the first time in its history across all teams. To contextualise this, 1 in ever 25 Australians is a member of an AFL team. That’s the first indicator that the ‘State of the Game’ isn’t as dire as some would have you believe. As for actual revenue for the AFL, they reported a net surplus of $48.8m in 2017, an increase from the deficit of $17.8m in 2016. Total revenue increased from $133.6m to $650.6m, with the new broadcasting deals having a lot to do with this. It’s evident with these numbers that the AFL is in as good a position as ever, to make changes and improvements due to the financial power they now find themselves in.
Many of these vocal critics also comment on the watch-ability of the AFL, saying that the congestion has led to low scores, inaction from the key forwards and therefore fans are turning away from the game. However, when looking into 2017’s viewership figures, it’s easy to see how this could be so wrong. For the Grand Final between Richmond and Adelaide, 3.5m people tuned in to watch the match, which was the most watched event on Australian TV across all of 2017, including other sporting events and reality TV shows. There was well over 16m viewers for the entirety of the 2017 AFL Finals Series, and the total match attendance was 6.7m, a new record. Even just from a sheer entertainment factor the game is still entertaining. The 2018 season is shaping up to be one of the craziest, with upsets happening every single round. As it stands, just 8 points separates 3rd and 11th, and the final spots in the top 8 are up for grabs, it’s genuinely anyone’s guess how the season plays out. Even round 20 featured 5 games that were decided by no more than 4 points, a record. How’s that for entertainment? The revenue that the AFL has made, the high numbers in memberships and views indicates that the game isn’t in a dire state like the detractors would like you to think.
What needs improving?
Administratively, there is a lot to be desired for the AFL. While the game itself is fine and is no need of dramatic changes, off the field there is work that needs to be done. As it stands, free agency needs a lot of work especially with the latest free agency news that has emerged. Gold Coast’s Tom Lynch has made it clear to everyone of his desire to leave at the end of the season when he becomes a free agent, preferably to a Victorian club. Currently, Richmond and Collingwood are the favourites to land his signature but it does show a bad state for free agency in the AFL. Gold Coast have done nothing but struggle since their inception and are going to lose arguably their best player in free agency, and there’s nothing they can do about it. On the flip side, Richmond are the reigning premiers and are likely to go back-to-back, and Collingwood are contending for a top 4 finish, and could easily do so had it not been for the numerous injuries that they have amounted. The AFL has to regulate this for the sake of competition, before teams like Richmond and Collingwood kill any parity in the AFL, which has been a highlight of what has been a rollercoaster of a season. It’s likely that Lynch would command a fee upwards of $1m per season, in the realm of a Buddy Franklin or Tom Boyd contract, which of course the Tigers and Magpies can afford, the best way to combat this would be to restrict the kinds of offers top 4 teams can make. If a team is in the top 4, they can no longer make an offer of over $800k to another team’s free agent. This would allow a lesser team to make a bigger offer for a player like Lynch, and allow a player of his caliber to join a team that needs him more than Richmond or Collingwood, creating a more even spread of talent and maintaining the competition in the AFL for years to come.
Another change that has been talked about is the introduction of a mid-season trade period. The AFL’s trade period itself is already unusually short, running over a period of two weeks, meaning that teams have as little time as possible to organise their trades should they make any. That’s fine, but sometimes teams are left wanting as negotiations should take weeks to pan out correctly, decisions like this cannot be rushed. The NBA’s trade period runs until the middle of February around the time of the All-Star Weekend, and Soccer’s transfer window runs throughout July and August. What sets those two sports apart from AFL, is that trades and transfers can be made in the middle of the season. The NBA’s deadline isn’t until the middle of February, meaning that well over half the season has been played out before teams can no longer make trades. Soccer reopens the transfer window in January again, to allow teams to bolster their ranks. The AFL would surely benefit from reopening the trade period in the middle of the season, to allow teams to make any necessary moves, and it can easily work. Recently, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded players such as Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder for pieces including Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood. This trade reenergised their squad and allowed them to make a better push for the Finals. As for soccer, Barcelona were able to finally purchase Philippe Coutinho for a reported £142m, which solved the dilemma of limited attacking options especially with Ousmane Dembele missing significant time through injury, and it allowed Liverpool to sell an unsettled player and be compensated accordingly. Mid-season trade periods simply allow for greater flexibility for teams. Imagine you are Geelong, and Patrick Dangerfield is injured for the season. Under the current system, they have to roll over an accept it, but if there’s a mid-season trade period it can allow them to move some assets and gain a replacement for Dangerfield, so they are not left in the dirt. Picture, that you are Adelaide in 2017 and you know your problem area is the midfield, and Rory Sloane keeps getting tagged out of games. You are now able to approach Carlton and make another play for Bryce Gibbs, this time with a revised offer. Carlton can get what they want for Gibbs, and Adelaide gain some reinforcement in the midfield as they look to push for a premiership. It’s something the AFL should seriously be considering, as opposed to starting positions and congestion.
What needs to be prioritised?
While there are some changes that need to be made on the field, namely with rules and interpretations of these rules, the dramatization of the position of the AFL as a game is laughable, as there is no need to drastically alter the game. The reason soccer for example works so well as a whole, is that the core of the sport has remained the same, and any changes have improved on the logistical side of the game. The AFL’s constant need to change the on-field rules has created chaos and confusion, and should be the least of their concerns, as revenue, viewership numbers and membership numbers have indicated that in spite of what people may suggest, fans are more than happy to cheer on their favourite teams either from the stands, or on TV.
What does need to be focused on, is at an administrative level. The AFL needs to take a serious look at the fairness of their Finals Series, as too often the teams whose home ground is the MCG as favoured unfairly and has rendered ladder positions obsolete. The AFL also does need to have a look at introducing a mid-season trade period, so as to allow teams the flexibility needed to either make a run for the flag or help rebuild their list. These aspects have been a roaring success for other sports across the world, and other sports across the world have focused on improving off the field as opposed to dramatically changing the game itself, it’s time the AFL does the same.