Which way for the AFL?

Which way for the AFL? NFL or EPL or keeping their eye on the ball at home?

Roy Hay

The Australian Football League is sending a deputation to the United States to find out how the National Football League (NFL) in that country manages to have a competition which is purported to be more equal than the local variety and claimed to be the best league in the world. Both notions are arguable. The pinnacle is the Superbowl. Eight teams have won the Superbowl three times or more. Together these eight teams account for 33 out the 47 Superbowl victories or 70 per cent of wins. Of the 32 teams taking part, 4 have never been to the Superbowl and 10 have reached the final once or more but have never won the title. Average attendance while still by far the largest on average of any of the football codes is down from its peak in 2007.  The majority of revenue now comes from television. The NFL has serious worries about the costs of attending a game relative to the price of an HDTV. One estimate of the cost for a family at a game, adding in merchandise and food could be around US$600, which would buy a good TV set in the USA. ‘Are we competing against ourselves’?, the NFL is beginning to worry. Franchises have only 8 home games per season. So they are considering whether new stadia should be built. There was a big debate in Atlanta about replacing Georgia Dome, for example.

Frank Costa is quoted as being concerned that Australian football will morph into the English Premier League (EPL), primarily because the same three or four teams win the league every year and that would not be good for the Australian game. There is evidence that supports his case. When Simon Kuper and Andrej Symanski wrote Why England lose and other football phenomena explained they wrote that the only factor which correlated with winning the EPL was the size of the club’s wage bill. So money talks and Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal come out on top virtually every year. What weakens that argument is that Manchester United has won more than half the Premier League titles and the factor which correlates best with that is the recently retired Sir Alex Ferguson. United has never finished lower than third in the EPL in its 21 year history, but prior to 1992-3 it had not won the English First Division since 1967. Then they appointed Fergie in 1986 and after six fallow years he started winning everything in sight.

Association football has never had a level playing field and the success of the code in holding the interest and involvement of generations of paying spectators since the 1880s needs to be explained otherwise. In Scotland before the First World War there were people who bemoaned the dominance of the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic. Rangers and Celtic have dominated Scottish football since then with the exception of brief interludes from 1948 to 1958 and 1980s, the latter when Ferguson was manager of Aberdeen. The Fergie factor yet again! They have done so through periods of success and failure of the game internationally and domestically. England was more open but only eleven teams won the first division between 1888 and 1916.

Spain’s La Liga is dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, Italy’s Serie A by Juventus and the two Milan clubs. Even in Germany the Bundesliga where clubs have a membership based system of club ownership only five teams have won the title in the last 30 years and Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund who played off the European Champions League final recently have won 16 and 5 of the titles respectively. Yet the competition generates better attendances on average than the AFL or the EPL.

So what happens in these countries when winning the championship is hardly a realistic option for more than 80 per cent of clubs and why do fans still attend in huge numbers, watch on television and buy truckloads of merchandise? The conventional explanation is sophisticated marketing, corporate ownership and sponsorship and television promotion. Football is driven by capitalism and always has been according to Tony Collins, Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History. Fantasy football and gambling keep up the interest.

But that may not be the whole story. There are a whole host of mini-competitions going on in the league. These include trying to gain the places in European competitions, cup runs, EPL survival and in some cases finishing just outside the play-off places for promotion to the league. When Bob Crampsey and I were interviewing players and managers in Scotland for his research at Glasgow University in the 1970s we found managers who were paid bonuses according to the transfer fees they brought in not the league winning or promotion. Senior players knew that if they got up a division they would lose their weekly win bonus and be replaced by younger and better players. Hence on one occasion a club’s centre-half spent virtually the whole game in the opposition penalty area while the goals rained in at the other end, just so that they were pipped in the last round for promotion! Talk about tanking. The head of the European football body, UEFA, Michel Platini is trying to introduce financial fair play and while I applaud his initiative I think it will not produce a level playing field though it might reduce some of the excesses. What it is unlikely to do is have much effect either way on the popularity of the game.

The moral of this story is that the AFL might have to spend a bit more time on what its own fans want rather than chasing after overseas ideas as it appears to be doing.

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