SPORT -

Blowing the whistle on AFL and free kicks for Vics

As early as 1980, the East Perth Football Club applied to join the Victorian Football League (VFL).

A year or so later, the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) approved a composite club application to join the VFL.

History shows that neither application was successful.

These are intriguing historical facts cited by those who champion the current model of the Australian Football League (AFL).

They believe in the A in AFL and that it is the only true model that could have developed and prospered into a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Among those who beg to differ are folk with a living memory of the halcyon days of football pre-AFL, where the standard of the game across the WAFL, SANFL and VFL was largely equal, and where the elite of those leagues mixed in regular interstate and State of Origin matches.

These folk believe several things:

*The AFL is a compromised Vic-centric competition that favours Victorian clubs;

*It handicaps non-Victorian clubs that must travel every second week;

*It is entirely dismissive of records of non-Victorian clubs and players;

*If it wasn’t for the other States, Victorian football would have died a very public death;

*New non-Victorian teams virtually saved the VFL from financial ruin by paying multi-million-dollar fees to join the league.

These views are rusted on. The youngest of this “demographic” would be at least 40.

Among those who do swear by VFL-to-AFL evolution is Robert Dalton, a loyal Collingwood fan and someone who feels strongly about football’s transition from State leagues to national behemoth.

Dalton doesn’t hold a position in football. He isn’t a sports commentator or a published author on sport. He’s an Indigenous man who works in a high-level government position.

His Northern Territory origins place him in a neutral position on the subject.

Dalton sees the “A” in the AFL as a natural progression from the VFL.

“The AFL was a natural evolution of the biggest strongest State-based competition – the then VFL,” he says.

“The VFL was already being broadcast nationally and interstate players were already treading well-worn paths into the competition from WA and SA.

“The abolition of zones and the advent of the draft and salary cap regulated even the worst of the old Victorian club politics, and opened new avenues for NT, NSW and Queensland players – Wayne Carey and Nathan Buckley, for example.

“No-one was kidding themselves when the “V” got replaced with the “A” in that now all States could be equally represented but, equally, everyone knew that SA and WA and their State leagues weren’t there as an economy or a population base.

“To this day, neither State has prosecuted an argument that they are nothing more than two-team towns.”

Let’s take a look back at history. There was once an organisation called the Australian National Football Council (ANFC), a formally recognised national governing body for  football formed in 1906.

The ANFC owned the laws of the game and administered and managed interstate football and players.

By the mid-1970s, a mid-week 12-team (WAFL, SANFL, VFL) night series competition had gained widespread popularity.

This was played in Adelaide and was covered by television.

It hit a roadblock when, strategically, the VFL withdrew its teams to form its own night-series competition.

At that point, South Australia had emerged as the de facto base from which a national football league could develop.

Sometime during this era, money from Victorian clubs started to appear.

Star players from WA and SA were lured east on big bucks. Their original clubs were offered transfer fees as compensation.

This would skewer the level of competition between the States during interstate football (until a Subiaco Football Club official devised the rules for State of Origin in 1977).

This practice would nearly bankrupt the Victorian clubs and created something of a production line “meat market” for the WA and SA clubs.

Football was in a cyclical freefall.

In the mid-1980s, the Victorian clubs voted to form an independent commission, the VFL Commission.

This had several implications for football. Primarily, it would save Victorian football from itself, and it would wrest control away from the ANFC, and WA and SA.

Football’s power base had now shifted toward Melbourne.

In just a few years, football became what we have today – the AFL.

It has developed into a multi-billion-dollar organisation, an elite-level, world class football competition with professionalism in club administration and player management.

It is a league that shares ideas and intellectual property with world famous football clubs across Europe and the United States; that asks everything of players in terms of on-field skills; and boasts attendance rates that sit in the top five in the world per capita.

“Whether or not the newly created AFL in 1990 was ‘good’ for WA and SA was irrelevant next to the viability of the competition,” Dalton says.

“Interstate sides had arisen as early as 1987 and were seen as serious teams. For example, West Coast seriously challenged Collingwood for the right to face off with Essendon in the 1990 Grand Final, but for one wayward kick by Peter Sumich.

“To this day, there are serious questions about the ability of any other State to carry the comparative amount of teams as that in Victoria. ‘Eight Victorian AFL teams are too much!’ is the cry, but let’s look at the facts.

“The WA teams are going OK, principally due to their being in a two-team city with a mining boom under-writing the money and population. Beyond that, no-one knows what’s next.

“The SA teams have one going OK and the other (Port Adelaide) stands as the perfect example of how hard it is to transition from a State competition to a national competition and stay competitive.

“The two Queensland teams aren’t really going well at the moment, on or off the field.

“The NSW teams are flying at the moment; whether that from an artificial injection of value or a decent club culture is for a more informed judge. I would note, of course, the savagery of the Sydney Swans’ defence of the Cost Of Living Allowance and the Brisbane Lions’ performance since its withdrawal.

“Regardless, the game is in its healthiest and wealthiest period to date, and can easily underwrite the game’s investment in the less-developed States. It would be madness to tinker with a tried and true model that grew organically from the mighty VFL.”

Dalton makes some valid points and given Australia’s relative small population, and that it is divided to share in four national, professional football codes, it is perhaps an agreeable model.

As an exercise in futility, I have devised a model of what my “AFL” would look like:

1986

*Four financially stable clubs from the VFL, WAFL and SANFL to form an “AFL” (12 teams)

*Retains South Melbourne/Sydney Swans (13 teams) *Admit a team from Brisbane (14 teams)

*Top five teams qualify for finals series

*Solidify this model for 5 years

1990

*Admit one team from Tasmania (15 teams)

*Admit one team from the ACT (16 teams)

*Top 6 teams qualify for finals series

*Solidify this model for 10 years

2000

*Admit second team from NSW (17 teams)

*Admit second team from Queensland (18 teams)

*Top eight teams qualify for finals series

2010-15

*Stagger the inclusion of two more teams – from Darwin and the NSW Riverina (20 teams)

*Top seven teams qualify for finals series

*Teams qualifying eighth and ninth play-off in a “Wildcard Weekend”

*Winner progresses to finals series.

Notes

Relegation/Promotion:  To avoid disenfranchising fans of WA, SA and Victorian clubs, put in place a relegation/promotion system, where seasonally poor performing clubs would be relegated to their original State leagues. For example after two seasons at the bottom of the AFL ladder, East Fremantle returns to the WAFL with that season’s WAFL premiers taking its place. The newly promoted club will then have two seasons in the AFL to prove its worth. The Tasmanian, ACT, NSW and Queensland clubs wouldn’t have to face such measures due to their historically small population base.

Darren Moncrieff

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