Equalisation in the AFL: a historical look

Equalisation in the AFL: a historical look

Recent attempts by the Australian Football League’s Commission to further strengthen its equalisation policies have come under considerable scrutiny in the media over past years. Talk of spending caps, debate over cost of living allowances and the freedom of players to move within their labour market have generated significant disagreement around what the impact may be upon the level of competitive balance throughout the competition.

The AFL has held equalisation as a primary objective for quite some time now – going right back to when it was the amateur suburban league known as the Victorian Football League. The Coulter Law, a uniform maximum individual player wage of three pounds per match (roughly the equivalent of $227 in 2013 prices), was introduced in 1930. However, this was poorly enforced, doing little to curb the excessive payments the richer clubs were paying to induce the most talented players to join their team.

Zoning was also a key policy throughout most of the VFL’s existence. Metropolitan zones were introduced in 1915, where each team was allocated a particular district of suburban Melbourne, allowing them exclusive access to the young talent coming out of those areas. However, the wealthier clubs took advantage of the fact that players from the country teams were not included in the zoning laws, and were able to entice the best players from those areas, in the form of signing-on fees or extra perks.

In response, Country Zoning laws were introduced in 1967, on the basis that the zones were to be rotated between the clubs. However, clubs such as Hawthorn and Carlton invested quite a lot of time and money into making their zones as productive as possible, through advanced development of the
up-and-coming young footballers  and were (unsurprisingly) unwilling to give up their access to these zones. Accordingly, competitive balance decreased, with Hawthorn, Carlton, Richmond and North Melbourne being the only premiers between 1967 and 1983.

The disparity between the top and bottom clubs led the VFL into a bit of strife in the mid 80s. With no salary cap in place at the time, there was a bidding war between the VFL clubs trying to catch up with the big boys of the competition – a lack of financial prudence, and a ‘win at all costs’ mentality led to Collingwood, Footscray, Fitzroy and Geelong all being technically bankrupt by 1983.

It was clear that previous equalisation attempts had been unsuccessful, and so the VFL turned towards methods that had been implemented in North American sporting leagues – the zoning system was abolished, and a salary cap was introduced in its place in 1985, as was a reverse-order player draft in 1986. These two implementations also coincided with the nationalisation of the league and subsequent name change to the AFL – resulting in the biggest shift in the landscape of Australian football in its history.

The salary cap has eliminated the bidding wars of the past, which has not only ensured the financial stability of most of the AFL clubs, but has also led to an increase in the overall competitive balance of the competition – as studies by Ross Booth have alluded to. In the past 15 seasons, every single team has made it to a preliminary final at the very least (with the exception of the two recent expansion sides – Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast), and only three have failed to make it to the Grand Final, the major event of the year.

It’s evident that the AFL commission has gone to great lengths to ensure the evenness of the league.  My next article will look at why this is the case – and also the issues currently on the agenda.