AFL Players’ CEO Matt Finnis joined representatives from the AFL and clubs on an equalisation fact-finding mission to the United States in August last year. The delegation met with representatives from the Major US sporting bodies including the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA) and franchise owners to investigate how these sports strive to maintain a level playing field.
Above all else sports fans value unpredictability and an even contest.
In the NFL they call it any given Sunday and in Major League Baseball it’s called hope and faith.
These concepts refer to the ideology that at the start of every season and on any given Sunday, a sports fan should have genuine hope and faith that their team has a realistic chance of making the finals.
With the growing gulf between the richer and the poorer clubs in the AFL and the strengthening correlation between football department spend and on-field performance, we are seeing less unpredictability in our game.
Analysis of year-on-year statistics shows that bigger spending AFL teams are now consistently winning more games and playing in more finals matches than smaller spending teams – an emerging trend which, if left unchecked, could have serious implications for the vibrancy of our competition.
The impact of inequality is not something just felt by teams, it directly impacts players and as a players’ association it is a priority of ours to ensure that every player who enters the game has an equal chance of success, regardless of which club they are drafted by.
The purpose of this trip was to investigate how other sports maintain predictability or equality within a largely unequal landscape.
Currently the principal equalisation measures that operate within the AFL are based on restrictions on players – salary cap, a draft system and limited free agency – pleasingly feedback gained from the trip suggested a greater balance between equalisation levers placed on other stakeholders as well as the players is required.
Whenever a debate like this arises there is often resistance from the wealthier parties who are reluctant to compensate the smaller franchises or be subject to any restrictions. However the mindset in the US is that the team owners are actually partners in a shared enterprise of conducting a successful sporting competition.
Each team’s success is directly linked to the fortunes of the others. The Yankees would not be the financial power house were it not for the competition provided by the other teams.
The US pro sports team owners understand that all clubs operate in different climates and this creates inequality and the same environment exists within the AFL. We have a fixture; not a draw, clubs operate within different demographics, they have varying histories, some clubs gain more than others for their stadium deals and there are ten teams within Victoria.
Various formulas of revenue sharing, expenditure limitations and qualifications and distributions were presented by the codes and no one model is a perfect fit in the AFL, but a combination of these is likely to provide the answer. Whilst the various representatives approached the trip with varying motivations, everyone was united in their focus on the importance of the bigger picture and how to maintain the health of the game.
This has provided a solid foundation for a collaborative approach to reforming key economic arrangements within our competition over the coming 12 months.