Bring back the soul to the AFL
By Oliver Fitzpatrick
Could an English Premier League style promotion/relegation system in the AFL fix the growing disconnect between the community and the sport?
After watching the AFLW from local suburban grounds alongside passionate supporters, there was a sense that the men’s AFL was missing something. The AFL has become so professional that clubs are on the verge of losing their identity. Melbourne clubs all play at the same two grounds and have lost some of the tribal support that came from fans living in their team’s suburb and walking to the ground to see their team play. The AFL is an isolated, elite league that is extremely separated from grassroots football. There is less and less community atmosphere at grounds and games often lose meaning as the end of the season approaches.
This can all be changed; imagine watching your local country or suburban football team have the chance to play against AFL teams. The English Premier League has a promotion/relegation system and is one of the most-watched leagues in the world. This system rewards clubs that succeed in lower leagues with the opportunity to play at the highest level. It may be fanciful thinking, but could a promotion/relegation system work in the AFL?
Top league (the AFL)
This league will consist of 12 teams who play each other twice in the home and away season (once at home, once away) — keeping the season at 22 games. The current top-eight finals system is retained and two teams will play for the AFL premiership in the grand final. The teams that finished in the bottom three will be relegated to the second tier (AFL2).
2nd League (AFL2)
This league will also include 12 teams who play each other twice (once home and once away) in the regular season. However, in this league, the teams that finish 1st and 2nd on the ladder automatically win promotion into the AFL for the following season. Teams that finish 3rd to 6th will play off for the final promotion spot in a knockout system (3rd vs 6th, 4th vs 5th and the winners play off). In this league, the bottom 4 teams will be relegated to their respective state leagues.
From this point, leagues will be split into each state to avoid excess travelling for poorer clubs with smaller fan bases.
Top State Leagues (‘State Name’1)
Each state will have a top league (equivalent to the current VFL or WAFL). This runs the same as it currently does — teams play a season and finals series as normal. The difference is that the premier for SA, Vic and WA are all automatically promoted to AFL2. The premiers from NSW, Qld, Tas and NT will play knockout matches to determine the final promotion spot to the AFL2. Three teams are relegated every season from each top state league. The number of teams in each state league always remains constant.
For example, if 3 Victorian teams are in the bottom 4 of the AFL2, then only 1 team is promoted to the top Victorian league from lower Victorian leagues (to replace the promoted premiership side). Whereas if no Victorian teams were relegated, then 4 teams would be promoted to replace the 3 relegated teams and the promoted premier.
Lower State Leagues
Leagues are now divided within states into regions and traditional areas. This already works in the VAFA in Melbourne with promotion and relegation. The premier from the top league of each region then plays a final series against other premiers to determine who is promoted into the top state league. There may be many leagues in a region — Division 1, 2, 3 etc. Premiers move up divisions within the same region and likewise for relegations.
The AFL draft will stay, but will only incorporate teams in the AFL and AFL2 — the newly promoted sides into the AFL2 will have the first selections (random order) and then the draft will progress up the two ladders as normal.
Advantages of this system:
More incentive to win for teams near the bottom at the end of the season
Currently the 18-team competition has only eight finals places. This means that often as early as round 10 or 11 there are teams who know they won’t play finals and actually have an incentive to finish lower (to get better draft picks). The promotion/relegation system would add much more meaning to games in the second half of the year, as top teams continue to try to make finals and bottom teams try to avoid relegation. There would be no more ‘Kreuzer cup’ matches where teams are happy to lose and instead, each win would mean a chance to play in the top league and compete for the premiership the following year.
Opportunities to build clubs at the grassroots level
The AFL can feel very detached from its fans — clubs are playing at generic stadiums away from their traditional homes. Clubs have less control over their ‘brand’ and it can often feel that teams have lost their unique identity. This would be fixed with the introduction of relegation/promotion. As in the English football leagues, fans would have a local team that they can support (i.e. the town or suburb they live or grew up in) whilst also going for a team that competes in the big leagues. At the moment, this isn’t really possible as teams in the lower leagues never have the opportunity to move up and whilst a local premiership is a good reward, wouldn’t it be great to see your team challenge for spots in the top state leagues against AFL players? Additionally, it would promote participation in the AFL at a grassroots level — there would be more exposure to games and more relevant games to go to at local suburban and country grounds. Finals series and promotion play-off games would be much more exciting if you knew the winner would be playing in a top league the next season.
The top league will be better quality
Having only 12 teams means the bottom teams will be much better than in previous years (the bottom team is the 12th best in the country, instead of the 18th). All teams in the top league will at least have had a decent season the year prior (because otherwise they would not be in the top league). This means that the top league will be much more competitive. An end of season match between the top and bottom teams will be much more exciting — the bottom team is 12th, so not as bad as in previous years, and they also have a lot more to play for in trying to avoid being relegated. Whilst there will be 24 teams who draft players and so there may be more spreading out of quality players, the very best teams will remain in the top league and this will also attract better players in the end.
One of the biggest complaints in the AFL currently is that the draw is unfair, some teams travel interstate more often, play more games at home against interstate teams and have longer breaks. This system would maintain a 22 game season, but would make every team play every other team at home and away once for the year, taking away the unfairness of having to travel more than other teams.
Potential Issues with the Promotion/Relegation system
Smaller Crowds/TV audiences for some games
An obvious reason why the AFL might not be interested in adopting this system is that they would be nervous that a big club such as Collingwood got relegated to the second league or even state leagues. The AFL relies on well-supported clubs and blockbuster games (ANZAC day, Carlton vs Collingwood, etc.) to attract big crowds and TV audiences, which is their main source of revenue. It is possible and likely even, that in some seasons there won’t be as many big-game clashes between two teams with large supporter bases. If a team that was formerly in the SANFL were promoted into the AFL then they would obviously attract smaller crowds and TV numbers than teams with much bigger supporter bases. Although, this could be compensated for by the novelty of going to see a rank outsider compete against a cashed-up AFL side — the neutrals would love it. Also, if two big teams were demoted at once, there would still be big rivalry games in the lower leagues and they would continue to attract large crowds and TV audiences. Look at Newcastle in the Championship — they are historically a top club, but were relegated last season. This season, despite being in the Championship (the second tier), their crowd numbers are still amongst the biggest in all of England and haven’t dropped from previous years.
Fans Losing Interest If Their Team is out of the Top League
A possible issue with this change is that fans may not be as passionate about their team if they never manage to get promoted to the top league and have a chance to win the AFL premiership. Once again, this is similar to the English Premier League where usually (Leicester being the exception) there are only 4 or 5 teams who can realistically win the title. However, the EPL is much more heavily stacked in favour of rich clubs — there is no draft, no salary cap and there is prize money for finishing higher on the table and earning qualification for continental leagues. So, it would be unlikely, just as currently is the case, that teams in the AFL would be able to sustain dominance as they do in the Premier League. The draft will still even out the competition and the salary cap will level the playing field, as it already does in the current system. Additionally, moments such as the Bulldogs winning the Premiership last year after 62 years of waiting would be even more special if a lot of that time was spent battling in lower leagues.
It would certainly make for interesting viewing to have this system in place. Imagine watching Collingwood play Richmond in the AFL2 promotion final, or seeing Fremantle beat West Coast in the last game of the season to avoid relegation. Or the fairytale story of a humble Tasmanian club battling its way up into the AFL2 and playing against well-developed AFL sides. For the time being, these matches will have to remain in the imagination. This system is incredibly unlikely to ever happen, but what an entertaining league it would be if it did.