Monday, 11 February 2013

Fixture Reform- Principles [1/5]

We have posted before on this blog about the need for the AFL to reform its business. To ensure the strength of the competition throughout its ranks, to retain the mix of clubs, its history and traditions, and to retain the involvement and participation of the broader football community. This means creating a system where all teams have a reasonable expectation of success within a not too distant time frame, and all fans and supporters are embraced, and the voices of a few do not over-ride the whole.

Accordingly, the proposal below (and to be added on in subsequent posts) is our offering to the debate on reform to the AFL competition. We welcome your comments.

NOTE: We had written this quite some time back, but delayed publishing looking for the 'right time'. This was to be last week, but the Superbowl Monday traffic pushed it back to this week... and with the events of Wednesday and Thursday, that seems like a great decision.

There are many reasons for change inside the AFL - draft tampering, tanking, rules around rookie-listing, and so on. The one that gathers the most popular support though, is for ‘making the fixture [1] fair’. In the context of most football followers, that means every team playing the other, either once in a 17 round structure or twice, home and away, in a 34 round monster season.

We at the FootyMaths Institute think the AFL ‘draw [2]’ should be structured to meet that end, as best as possible with an 18 team competition, AND it should also be free from the other fixes imposed by the AFL. It is clear that the fixture is rigged to generate revenue for clubs and the league, to drive up membership of select clubs, and relegates others to scratching out existences.

We believe that the playing schedule should not only be made fair in terms of balancing out teams playing home and away, but also fair in terms of ‘opportunity’. The opportunity to meet popular clubs home and away each week, as well as the opportunity for free to air television coverage to boost brand awareness and supporter base.

We believe that the schedule should also be removed from any notion of ‘soft draws’ and preferential treatment to some clubs, at the expense of others. We also believe that the competition should also not convert to any tiered structure, involving promotion/relegation or otherwise.

Our proposal below is clear, transparent and removes the gerrymanders of the current fixture, but still leaves open the AFL to schedule blockbusters into appropriate dates (itself a formm of gerrymandering of the draw, but we consider this proposal a first step to balance). It instills an essence of randomness to each seasons draw, and it does so in a simple, structured and untainted way.

We also believe the other structures in the AFL should remain the same; 
     - a season based on 22 rounds, 
     - with the current top 8 finals system, and 
     - the draft employed in its current state.

Also, the AFL is now the pre-eminent sports competition in Australia. It dominates the media in all states, bar NSW and Queensland. Its televised product is the most expensive annual sporting product in Australia. It is the only truly national competition with multiple teams in each state (barring Tasmania and the Territories).

It is our belief that the AFL is such a sporting juggernaut within Australia, and is now so powerful and financially secure, that it can now finally fling-off the crutches it has used to hold itself up and set itself free – namely that it is time to ditch the gerrymandered fixture.

From our assessments, we believe the below are unworkable systems the AFL should avoid:
A- A season where each team plays others only once, for a 17 round season [3].
Playing teams once a season would not be preferred as per our previous blog post, 'A Very Good Year?'.

B- Fitting 18 teams into a home and away structure involving 34 rounds [3].
This would result in too many games, too much wear and tear on players and playing surfaces. Clubs would need larger lists to provide more support to the playing stocks to cover fatigue and injury.

C- Conferencing the 18 clubs into 2 groups of 9 teams [4].
Possibly a workable system, though 9 teams means 8 or 16 rounds per season in each conference. And there is also a bye each week for each conference. And as there is a bye, to completely play out each team against the other (home and away) it turns into an 18 week season. All of which is shorter than we have now, or if you play teams only once each.
You could ‘solve the bye’ problem by having inter-conference games, but there is an issue around “who plays who and where” that returns the ‘draw’ back to a ‘fixture’. 
D- Conferencing or separating teams based on fixed criteria, such as geography, fan base, commercial power etc [5].
We believe that any conferencing of teams into tiered divisions should be avoided. Perceptions of premier conferences, either via a promotion/relegation system, or via pooling the powerhouse clubs together.
Those type of structures will only reinforce and entrench imbalance.
Equally, conferencing on geographical location should also be avoided in a competition so heavily Melbourne-focused as the AFL is. Splitting teams this way will create one Melbourne-centred conference and the others regionally-based, and travel requirements could be unbalanced.

The most effective way to create a balanced draw is to employ a 3 conference system of 6 teams in each group. 

The conferences are selected by the previous seasons complete ladder, with each conference seeded for balance. Each conference has two of the top 6 teams, two of the middle 6 teams, and two of the bottom 6 teams in it.

Conference teams play within each conference home-and-away (10 games), and also 12 inter-conference games, for a 22 weeks season. The only ‘fixing’ of the draw is to ensure each Melbourne team travels approx 5 times per year and retains 11 home games per year.

Finalists are selected from the conference winners, and they are guaranteed finals places and double chance slots. The remainder of the 8 is filled by awarding ‘wild cards’ to the next best 5 teams, and continues as per the current final eight system.

At the end of each season, the conferences are combined into a complete 18 team ladder (as per now) and this ladder is used for
     - re-drawing the following seasons conferences and,
     - allocating the  draft order for the next draft.
It has no influence on who is allocated to finals positions. 

In the coming days, we will release further detail on this proposal. 

1. We use the term ‘fixture’ to denote that the games are fixed by the AFL into its uneven, unbalanced state.

2. The term ‘draw’ is used as a more equitable result where teams play each other on an equal footing.

3. An 18 team competition means each team plays 17 other teams. Play them once = 17 game season. Play home and away = a 34 game season. 

4. Probably the most popular format being discussed, but it retains a few holes that most commentators haven't thought through (our opinion).

5. Again, another popular proposal, possibly mooted by those thinking of mirroring US conference systems. The key problem with this is the very Melbourne-centric nature of the AFL... an inherent imbalance in travel requirements that is not known in US systems.


  1. I am with you on the 3 groups of 6 system, though I would contend the ideal solution would be for the system for determining these conferences not be geographic, but based on the previous year's ladder.
    So 1-6 is one conference, 7- 12 is another, and 13-18 the third.
    Each year these conferences change.
    So teams that finish down the ladder play two games against other teams that finish down the ladder, and similarly top teams play each other twice as well. This helps the AFL maintain their blockbuster fixture (yes, I deliberately use the word) as well as being more fair than the existing verions.

    1. I see where you are headed... but -
      How do finalists get selected? 2 or so from each group?... are you saying to throw a bottom team or 2 into the finals? Why reward that?

      This is almost what the AFL have done now, and it really only reduces the blow-out games... which is a different tinkering of the draw... to effect results (and the cosmetic look of the game) and not to make the draw fair and even.