The good folks at AFL House must have mixed feelings when they look at the ladder.
On one hand, it shows the payoff for years of hard work and investment.
Mechanisms like the draft and salary caps are producing a regular turnover in finalists (the once-in-a-generation Hawthorn are the exception) and equalisation funds redistributed to North Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne are being used by the clubs to make them more competitive.
Then there’s more than $100 million in investment – and some manipulation of the draft rules – that are helping produce on-field success for Greater Western Sydney and, to a lesser extent, Gold Coast.
All of these factors point to the long-term competitiveness of all the teams – in other words, if you are down now, it is increasingly likely you will get a chance at the top in a few years’ time.
This is important, as competitiveness is the special ingredient shown across sports globally as the single most important factor for a league and its clubs in creating sustainable revenue and profit.
This may not be much consolation if your team is near the bottom this year, but your chance should come around – as long as clubs don’t make too many poor decisions.
But there is one cloud on the otherwise sunny horizon.
And that is the size of crowds at games.
The last year without expansion teams was 2010, and total attendance for the season was just over seven million fans.
This is a number that has never been reached with an 18-team competition.
More concerning is that total attendances in 2015 for the 16 clubs around in 2010 have dropped by close to a million fans.
This is one of the natural consequences of a more even competition.
As the clubs with less followers rise to the top, the increases in matchday attendance that they experience is more than offset by the drop in attendance from fans of the bigger clubs as their teams become less competitive.
The drop in crowds can represent a big loss in match-day revenue.
While the losses are felt most keenly by the traditional powerhouse clubs like Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon – although obviously there are other factors at play here – smaller clubs also feel the pain when they collect dwindling gate receipts from visiting fans.
Given the fragile financial state of many AFL clubs, this causes pain in club land.
The pain is partly offset by increased broadcast and sponsorship distributions from the AFL, but it also means the clubs become more dependent on the policies and largesse of AFL House.
I don’t know many businesses that see increased dependence on HQ as a good thing.
The challenge for the AFL is to decide whether they need to do anything or not.
Do they allow the special draft and salary cap conditions given to the expansion clubs to wash through and assume that a ‘pure’ draft and salary cap will mean the powerhouse clubs will rise again, bringing attendances with them?
Should we look at total crowds over a 10- or 15-year cycle to test the success of a more even competition? Or should they put major programs in place now to grow attendances?
I would be inclined to act now, to make sure that the fans who are walking away are still available to be drawn back, before they are permanently lost to other sports or other leisure time activities.
Last year was dubbed the year of the fan, but maybe it’s time to make every year the year of the fan and give their experience the same level of attention that has been so successfully directed to other parts of football, and week in, week out, give the players the joy of playing in front of big crowds.
I’m told it’s one of the biggest thrills in sport.
Dr Colin McLeod is an Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne. He spent six years as the general manager of marketing and corporate affairs at the AFL from 2004 to 2009.