So massive are the commercial considerations of the AFL draw these days, that the not insignificant matter of just which clubs appear to have fared well or not on the field, often appears to be something of an afterthought.
It’s why for close to a decade now I’ve been doing my own analysis of each year’s fixture to find out just which teams might already have been given a handy leg-up for next season.
After Thursday’s release of the 2019 AFL fixture, we know there’s more Thursday night football next year, that Collingwood is the new king of Friday nights – a slot from which Carlton and St Kilda have been completely banished.
But perhaps there are significant trade-offs which might make the Pies’ 2019 significantly tougher than it was this year, or indeed help the Blues and Saints get back on track.
I concentrate on what AFL clubs generally agree are the most important five factors in assessing whether or not their fixture is favourable.
They are which five teams are to be played twice, the number and destination of road trips, games in a home state versus an interstate opponent, and not six-day breaks in isolation, but consecutive short preparations. That category takes on more significance now, with a quest for greater scheduling flexibility seeing eight clubs having to cope next season with some five-day breaks.
Any of those factors on their own are not the full picture. Added together, using a points formula in which the lower the score the better the draw, I believe they give a pretty accurate summation of which teams have done well or otherwise.
So who’d be happiest with their schedule for 2019? I suspect given the way they finished last season, and a large base of talent remaining from that premiership campaign of only two years ago, the Western Bulldogs would be pretty comfortable with their lot.
While they remain unhappy from a revenue point of view about missing out on Good Friday, my formula has the Bulldogs with the third-easiest fixture in the competition. The Dogs make only five road trips, play their first five games in Melbourne, and apart from Collingwood, don’t play twice any team which finished higher than eighth on the ladder.
I suspect the other big winner (not for the first time) out of the fixture might be a team from the other end of the ladder, Richmond.
By my formula, the Tigers have a better draw than at least four other clubs, including Essendon, which didn’t even reach the finals. It’s an anomaly of sorts if you remember they finished last season two games clear of every other contender on top of the table.
Only five road trips (and only two of those considered long-haul flights) and the last seven games on the MCG is a great result for an already great team. Although Richmond will have to counter two separate lots of consecutive six-day breaks throughout the course of the season.
And the toughest tasks? Well, Melbourne will have known it was in for a much harder fixturing road in 2019 given its top-four finish, but it has by my reckoning the hardest draw of 2019.
That’s partly of the Demons’ own making, with two “home” games against Adelaide and West Coast to be played in Darwin and Alice Springs.
But Melbourne also fared worst on the “play twice” count as well. Four of its five rematches in 2019 are against teams from this year’s top eight, including the other three preliminary finalists.
The Demons are happy commercially with more games against traditional rivals in better time slots, and 13 of their 22 matches destined for free-to-air television. But this fixture has put the acid on them in performance terms. They’ll need to live up to their up-and-coming billing.
Fremantle appears to have been dealt a reasonably harsh hand, also for a club which finished only 14th on this year’s ladder with just eight wins.
The road trip factor always makes the lot of the WA teams more difficult, but besides that, the Dockers will also have to negotiate one lot of consecutive six-day breaks and, of course, two derbies against this time a reigning premiership team.
Then again, the Dockers could rightfully take some inspiration from their bitter local rival. This time last year, I judged West Coast to have ended up with the most difficult fixture in the AFL.
Of course, what appears in November to be an unfavourable or handy draw may change markedly by the time next season rolls around with the ladder more fluid than ever. But there’s been, in my mind, some significant pointers to teams which might surge up the ladder with some fixturing help in the last couple of years particularly.
When the 2017 draw was released, I rated Essendon, Port Adelaide and Richmond – none of whom had made finals in 2016 – as having the three best draws in the competition. The Bombers and Power both got to September, and Richmond won a very unexpected flag.
A year ago, I rated North Melbourne’s fixture as the easiest and Collingwood’s third-best. The Roos, an almost universal tip for bottom two, finished 2018 in ninth spot just outside the finals. Not many, meanwhile, had the Pies in their top eight. And you know the rest.
So perhaps the gap between clubs now is narrow enough to make any little edge gleaned through its season schedule count for just a bit more.
And consequently, perhaps some of those clubs right now counting their potential dollars via more lucrative opponents and timeslots might not be the same ones tallying up the match points come the end of round 23 next season.
* You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at his Footyology website