Saturday’s grand final between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs has reinforced why equalisation must continue to underpin the AFL, according to former AFL commissioner Colin Carter.
Carter, the former Geelong president and a governance specialist, understands intricately how many of the world’s leading sporting competitions operate.
Carter penned a report for the AFL in 1999 titled The basis for competitive advantage in football, which took a look at the foibles of European soccer and the private ownership model of the US where billionaire owners can often be more keen on a financial return than winning.
What could be argued is that had the AFL, for instance, gone down the path of private ownership, which it had flirted with in the 1980s, and perhaps even scrapped the salary cap, it’s doubtful whether Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, who each almost merged with other clubs and had long battled financial pressures, would have ever had the chance to clash in a grand final together in this modern age.
“Both Melbourne and the Bulldogs are funded to be able to spend the same amount on their player group and their football department that our wealthy clubs can. This has no parallel in, for example, European football competitions or US baseball,” Carter said.
“In those competitions, the best players finish up at the wealthy clubs where they would be paid multiples of what the less wealthy clubs could afford. If we ran our competition as they do, where would players like Max Gawn and Marcus Bontempelli be playing now?”
Rival skippers: Max Gawn and Marcus Bontempelli.Credit:Getty Images
Carter said the decision to centralise AFL broadcast rights, as opposed to having clubs broker their own deals, had helped to allow clubs such as the Bulldogs and Demons to eventually prosper.
“Because the AFL takes all of the media revenues, and none accrue directly to the clubs, the AFL is in a position to provide distributions to all clubs such that all of them can afford the salary cap. That is a massive start,” he said.
“In most competitions, the difference between what clubs can pay players is huge. And so, in our competition, even less wealthy clubs have been in with a chance and often made finals. For instance, Brisbane and Port made preliminary finals last year.
“Then, competition between clubs is also influenced by other expenditure and it is only in the last couple of years that the AFL has instituted the soft cap which seeks to contain non-player football costs to a level that all 18 clubs can afford. Even with that, wealthy clubs can still compete on the basis of quality of facilities. There are, as yet, no limits on how many lanes can be added to the swimming pool.”
While the ingredients of a successful club are varied, including having excellent management, strong coaching and clever recruiting, the level of financing is arguably the most telling.
Carter, who recently completed a report into the merits of a 19th club, based in Tasmania, suggested even more could be done to ensure all clubs had a fighting chance of making a grand final.
“And so, competitive balance is a continuum. Are we doing enough or not enough to give everyone a fighting chance and create uncertainty of outcomes each week? The wealthy will always have advantage but has that advantage been trimmed enough to provide acceptable evenness of competition?” Carter said.
“In the Tasmania report, we mention that the NFL pools a portion of every club’s attendance revenues and shares this pool equally. The AFL has not gone that far, at least as yet. The NFL model is astonishing.”
The AFL has long looked to the NFL as the beacon for equalisation, even though all franchises bar the Green Bay Packers are privately owned. In his 1999 report, Carter noted the NFL’s “equalisation strategies largely eliminate structural advantage”.
“This means that most of the differentiation between teams over the long term must rely on organisation capability. Teams that have beaten the odds and achieved better than average success – like Dallas, San Francisco and, over the past decade, Denver – are likely to have developed superior organisation systems,” Carter wrote.
“In summary, strategy in professional team sports is at several levels, but the most important is at the level of competition strategy. This is because competitive differences between teams are real and long-lasting. Some competitions pursue strategies to over-ride these differences and level the playing field. Others do not.
“Unless this is understood, the … competitive prospects of Miami, Manchester, Madrid, Munich, Milan, Marseille or Melbourne in their own football competitions can never be properly assessed.”
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