Patrick Devery writes:

Season 2011 has been a stinker. Too many games have been woefully one-sided; only one team can win the premiership; four others have performed admirably; and you can forget the rest.

This trend is not only alarming, it is becoming institutional because divisions have opened between footy’s haves and have-nots that will never be bridged, regardless of AFL policy.

The problem is two-fold.

One, while the salary cap applies to on-field staff, no limit is placed on off-field spending. Well-off clubs are free to bolster their coaching, fitness and administrative staff while the others struggle.

I don’t believe regulation should be introduced to cap off-field spending but, increasingly, the well resourced clubs will dominate the competition.

Which brings me to the second prong of the AFL’s problem — one entirely of its own making.

Next year, the 18th club will be introduced into the competition. That means there will be 828 players, senior and rookie-listed, on club lists; 828 footballers being paid to play at the highest level.

That number is far too high.

The most noticeable outcome from the AFL’s almost evangelical desire to expand — one that will become its legacy — is the thinning out of talent. Too many average footballers are playing at the highest level.

In this environment, rather than levelling the playing field, the draft and salary cap only serve to heighten to divisions between the clubs in regard to off-field spending. When the talent is threadbare to begin with, the operational side of football clubs — the facilities, medical staff and expenditure, coaching infrastructure etc — becomes ever more important.

Port Adelaide, for example, will always struggle to develop and retain playing talent because the club has become a basket case. Draft concessions, AFL bail-outs and the salary cap can’t change that.

Aside from adopting a European soccer-style divisional system, featuring relegation and promotion (a system that will do nothing to redress the imbalance at club level in my opinion), there is only one course open to the AFL that would maintain the integrity of the competition.

That is to reduce the number of teams.

Imagine, just for a moment, if the Australian Football League consisted of 10 teams. One each in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania. Victoria (still the lifeblood of the sport) would have five teams: three in Melbourne; one coastal (call it Geelong if you like); and one central Victoria (based in Ballarat).

Each team would play the other twice in a season, once at home and once away. The ridiculous inequities of the current draw would be done away with.

If the current list sizes remained, that would mean 460 players would be featured in the sport’s elite competition – almost half of the number that will be running around in 2012. Resources would be channelled into just 10 clubs, not 18. Off-field spend amounts would be radically equalised with less clubs fighting for the same resources. Equally as important, a super-club in Adelaide, Perth or Launceston (or Hobart if you are a Cascade drinker) would be just as attractive to young footballers as one of the Melbourne clubs because of the equalisation of resources and facilities.

There would be 18 rounds of fierce home-and-away competition from teams (at least in theory) on very level footings in terms of talent. Finals football would feature the four, five or six teams (depending on which structure was employed) best performed in this new, streamlined competition. The quality of the football (or ‘brand’ if you are that way inclined) would be outstanding.

The game would have as many bases around Australia as it currently has except for the addition of a permanent team in Tassie. So the “national” aspect of the AFL would be retained, even enhanced.

Would there be problems with such a system? Just off the top of my head try a few of these:

  • Which clubs would stay and which would go? Think about the fight in WA or SA let alone the bloodbath that ensue in Melbourne if such a system was adopted. And would the reduced club numbers call for mergers, the destruction of some clubs or the creation of new ones? Would any club like to permanently relocate to Tasmania or central Victoria and wave goodbye to Melbourne forever? How many fans would this disenfranchise? (And we know how much disenfranchised fans terrify the AFL.)
  • Could an 18-round home-and-away competition generate the same revenue from broadcast rights as the current draw?
  • Would the “markets” that football codes prattle on about such as Gold Coast, Western Sydney, North Qld etc be opened up for those rival codes, fracturing the AFL’s fan base in what it sees as growth areas?
  • Would having just ten teams have a knock on effect on under-age participation with places on an AFL list almost twice as hard to come by?

Despite these issues (and myriad others I have not raised), I believe the 10-team competition has far more pros than cons.

Will it ever happen? Of course not. It is a pipe dream — the AFL has not shelled out countless millions of dollars in south-east Queensland and west Sydney just to pull the number of teams back.

But it’s a nice dream. One that might be worth reflecting on when Collingwood are 100 points up over GWS at half time next season.