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Ten challenges for the AFL

Ed Wyatt

Ed Wyatt

Written on Saturday, 04 June 2011 20:18

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The AFL is sitting pretty with its new billion dollar television rights deal, but I'm pretty sure Andy D and his posse aren't sitting around lighting Cohibas with hundred-dollar bills. Australia's number one sports league is certainly in good shape, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of challenges ahead.

Personally, I like to look at the big picture, which means five or ten years down the road. I've seen a lot of changes in the AFL since I moved to Melbourne in 1999, and there will be plenty more by the time the new rights deal finishes in 2016.

Here are ten challenges facing the AFL in the not-so-distant future:

1. Collective Bargaining Agreement. Possibly the biggest challenge facing the league, albeit one that can be solved quickly and easily if negotiations with the AFLPA are fruitful. Andrew Demetriou may have called the players' demands "lazy," but he knows how important this next CBA is. He also knows the players are united like never before and that AFLPA boss Matt Finnis could be on the verge of a "Marvin Miller" moment. Miller - the most influential sport labor leader in history - helped Major League baseball's union, the MLBPA, become one of the strongest in the world.

Gut feeling: The AFL gives just enough to make the players happy, yet make them realise where their bread is buttered.

2. Betting. Wagering on games is never going to disappear. Not only have the AFL and its clubs raked in millions of dollars thanks to the gaming industry, but remember, this is the "Lucky" country - a gambler's paradise - where we lose more dollars per year punting than any other country in the world. The perceived intrusiveness and ubiquity of the gaming industry in and around the AFL seems far more insidious to me than the threat of match fixing.

Gut feeling: Blatant promotion of gambling at grounds and on broadcasts is lessened, but the ability to wager on AFL matches remains the same.

3. Fixtures. With all the talk about salary caps and equalising football departments, the fixture remains one of the great disparities in Australian football. Next year there will be 18 teams and still 22 rounds, so you tell me how to schedule that fairly without splitting the league into conferences (see #5 below). Throw in the necessary "blockbusters" and "rivalry rounds" and the fact that Collingwood rarely travels outside of Victoria and you've got one hell of a mess.

Gut feeling: This remains the most contentious issue in the AFL.

4. Finals. The AFL bought itself a breather by announcing that the eight-team system will remain in place for the next two years. Beyond that - and depending on when further expansion happens - there will have to be some changes.

Gut feeling: A ten-team Finals system is not too far away.

5. Conferences. I wrote about this in BackPageLead almost a year ago. I don't see conferences (or divisions) happening in the next five years, but if two more teams are added, it might make sense.

Gut feeling: It's not a natural thing for Aussies to adopt, and the sheer number of teams in Melbourne makes it unwieldy, but a 20-team league cries out for a split.

6. The Kangaroos and Port Adelaide. Two basket cases that will need to be addressed in the coming years. Port is in dire straits at the moment, and the Kangaroos have been on life support for a while.

Gut feeling: The AFL wants two teams in Adelaide, so Port will continue to be propped up. The Kangaroos will eventually end up in Tasmania.

7. Greater Western Sydney. No Ablett, no picturesque background shots of beautiful beaches, no state-of-the-art stadium. And all in the middle of hostile territory dominated by rugby league. The AFL is pumping millions of dollars into the Greater Western Sydney Giants and they'll need every cent to make this thing work.

Gut feeling: There's too much at stake to let GWS fail, but it won't be a happy honeymoon a la the Suns.

8. Concussions. Fortunately, Australian Rules pales in comparison with American football on this one. But how the AFL handles its concussed players is becoming more and more pertinent every year, especially when research shows that long term effects can be life-threatening.

Gut feeling: Little change until we see a serious injury or a lawsuit from a former player.

9. Stadia. As my BPL colleague Kyle Sheldon wrote earlier this week, it might be time to build a boutique stadium in Melbourne for those matches that don't attract huge crowds. There's also the issue of clubs making money at Etihad and the convoluted new stadium in Perth situation.

Gut feeling: Again, few changes on this front. Can't see a boutique stadium coming into play for another ten years.

10. Games in HD. This is certainly not a priority, but as television sets and broadcast quality gets better, the AFL won't want to be left behind. It's already disconcerting to watch AFL in standard def or bogus high definition, then flip channels to an NHL or NBA game in stunning HD.

Gut feeling: As long as "My Kitchen Rules" airs in standard definition, the footy will too.

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