For some years now, the issue has sat in the middle of the AFL boardroom as obvious as a snorting rhinoceros. Yet it has been ignored, conversations being conducted around and over the harrumphing beast as if it wasn’t there. Now, though, the game’s rulers are beginning to shift uneasily in their seats. The piqued pachyderm is pawing at the ground and threatening to run amok, stampeding them and reducing the boardroom table to splinters.
The issue, of course, is the state of Victorian football, specifically the 10 teams it fields in the Australian Football League. For the sport’s once-proud heartland is very slowly being transformed into a kind of footballing backwater, almost incidental to the main game. Victoria provides the vast bulk of the players, the vast bulk of the crowds and TV ratings and 10 of the 16 teams, but enjoys a disproportionately small share of the spoils. And never, these days, a premiership.
Several clubs are leading a hand-to-mouth existence and only borderline viable — the Kangaroos, Carlton and Melbourne among them — yet Adelaide and West Coast players could get fit lifting the huge bags of money that slosh around the offices of West Lakes and Subiaco.
The AFL, and some of the more optimistic observers in Victoria, have said for maybe a decade: no need to panic, these things go in cycles. What goes around, comes around. Everyone will get their turn. Soon enough, all those heathens from Sydney and Brisbane — not to mention those upstarts from Perth and Adelaide — will be at the bottom of the ladder and natural order will be restored. The true powers, Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon and Richmond, will resume their rightful place among the elite.
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But, as AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou acknowledged in a hugely important interview on ABC radio on Saturday, that optimism appears to have been sadly misguided. There will be no cycles, there will be no inverting of the ladder, as if by magic, just because the law of averages, and the league’s socialist drafting policies, dictate that a club will win a flag every 16 years, and play in the finals every second year.
The six non-Victorian clubs — West Coast, Fremantle, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Port Adelaide — will continue to spend far more time in the top eight than they will in the bottom eight. And they will enjoy this disproportionate success because they have a far greater number of members and sponsors. Which means more money to fit out better gymnasiums, buy more up-to-date sports science equipment, recruit more staff and all those small things that add up, at the end of the year, to a sizeable whole.
This season, Melbourne and Richmond, both 1897 VFL originals, are sitting in 15th and 16th positions, having been unable to muster a win between them in nine rounds. West Coast is at the top. The last two grand finals have been contested by West Coast and Sydney. In 2004, it was Port Adelaide beating Brisbane. In 2003 and 2002, Brisbane knocked off Collingwood; the year before that, the Brisbane boys dusted off Essendon. We have to go back to the first year of the new millennium to find a Victorian side (Essendon) that has hoisted aloft the premiership cup. Eight of the last 10 premiers have been non-Victorian.
Demetriou told the ABC the league had been examining this issue for the past few months. “We’ve believed it is a cycle, but history is now starting to go against that belief,” he said, in a startling moment of candour. Sensing growing discontent in the heartland, Demetriou said fans of Victorian clubs might start to think twice about supporting their clubs if non-Victorian sides kept dominating the finals. “Supporters have to believe at the start of a season that their team has a real shot at playing in finals,” he said.
An inquiry, he said, would now be set up by the league to determine how this inequity might be resolved. Quite how the league can legislate to give Victorian teams a better chance at winning is difficult to gauge. But it will be one of Demetriou’s great challenges. For if the AFL loses the confidence of Victorian football fans, and loses the state as its beating heart, then the national game will be in tatters. As though, indeed, it had been charged by a rampant rhino.