The AFL has a serious problem with its pre-season competition, the NAB Cup. While supporters generally like the knockout-event (the lack of close-checking results in more free-flowing match-play) the competition is not overly popular with coaches. The situation has come to a head with the AFL investigating comments made by Sydney coach Paul Roos that he allegedly told a player to miss a goal so that Sydney did not progress through to the next round of the competition.

In launching an investigation of Roos, the AFL has shot itself in the foot with its lack of tact as well as blatant inconsistency. The Age’s Caroline Wilson put it perfectly this morning when she asked:

How on earth could Paul Roos and his club be punished for losing a game that means nothing to Sydney’s fans, when Carlton deliberately lost games of football and destroyed for many fans the integrity of the last two months of the home-and-away season?

While Roos’ alleged comments certainly don’t help the situation and no doubt weren’t wise, Roos is merely a symptom of the AFL’s bungling of the pre-season competition – rather than a cause.

It was only just over a decade ago that around 65,000 fans turned up to Waverley Park in 1996 to watch St Kilda defeat Carlton to claim the pre-season premiership. Since then, viewer interest has steadily dropped.

One of the major reasons for the lack of interest isn’t the notion of the pre-season competition, but rather the scheduling of matches by the AFL. Instead of being a competition for clubs to use as preparation and for fans to enjoy, the AFL has used the pre-season competition as a plaything to enhance its national and international ambitions.

Earlier this year, Collingwood played Adelaide in Dubai. The cost to stage the game is believed to be in excess of $200,000 (one expects that Demetriou’s first-class plane ticket to Dubai would itself have been more than $15,000). The crowd in Dubai appeared to be around 2,000, although AFL estimates were higher. Perhaps they used the same counters as the Melbourne Grand Prix. Exactly what benefit was derived from the experiment remains a mystery, unless you can count the AFL executive all having a nice holiday.

Last week, two of the AFL’s glamour teams — Geelong and St.Kilda — played a match in Canberra. The television broadcast implied that the crowd was less than 5,000. The decision to play in Canberra was surprising given that the AFL has already experimented with the city and the experiment was a complete failure. Why then would the AFL schedule a marquee pre-season match in a market that will never support a new club in front of a relatively small crowd? The match could have been played in Geelong or at Telstra Dome in front of 20,000 die-hard fans starved of footy over the summer months. It would also have saved the clubs a packet in needless travel expenses.

When the pre-season competition was successful in the 1990s, virtually every match was played at Waverley Park. The matches were all televised (currently, only half the matches are seen on broadcast TV) and were treated fairly seriously by clubs and supporters alike.

It’s difficult to treat a match seriously when it’s being played in torrential Darwin rain between two Melbourne-based clubs. Quite simply, the AFL can’t complain that clubs don’t treat the competition seriously when it goes out of its way to make the competition a logistical nightmare.

While the AFL continues to throw stones at Paul Roos it forgets that it lives in a mighty large glass house.

Peter Fray

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