Starting the AFL from scratch: What would footy look like?

Imagine if we had a number of years without footy and the AFL as we know it died (we hope this doesn't happen! But bear with us). What would happen if we were given another chance to establish the competition?

What to discuss? To start with, what about the ongoing viability of 10 clubs in Victoria? Or the fact the Grand Final is locked in at the MCG every year? There's also regular concerns about the fairness or otherwise of the draw, calls for Tasmania and the Northern Territory to have their own teams, while there is always regular debate about the state leagues, draft, salary cap, AFLW and stadia.

This is a hypothetical look at what the AFL would be like if it was started up again from scratch, with four ESPN journalists, as well as two respected AFL columnists, offering their thoughts.

Competition structure

Jude Bolton: If I was to restart the competition from scratch, I'd reduce the number of teams to avoid diluting the talent pool. For there to be a vibrant, healthy competition, it would make sense have only six teams in Melbourne and one in Geelong, two each in Perth, Adelaide and Sydney and one team in Tasmania and Queensland (this would incorporate NT).

This would provide 15 teams in total.

Rohan Connolly: Logic suggests 10 teams in one state and eight from the others isn't a sound structure. But we are what we are. And I strongly believe cutting a swathe through the ranks of Victorian clubs and creating new ones through mergers is simply not viable. There is too much competition now not only from other sports, but other forms of entertainment, for new teams in a traditional heartland to be properly embraced. They would be ceding established clubs critical impossible head starts which would never be reeled in. A competition can only ever be as strong as the depth of support for it.

Given that, and the imperative to be a truly national league, I'd actually be inclined to go the other way - add Tasmania and Northern Territory to the mix and go with 20 teams. Yes, they might all operate on smaller budgets than those we've become used to. Then again, perhaps a bigger competition offers more opportunities for revenue?

Dan Brettig: For many years I was an advocate of stripping back the number of Melbourne teams for the betterment of the national competition, but the rapid growth of the Victorian capital to a point where it will soon be Australia's largest has rather outstripped that thought. Instead, I would like to see the AFL simply admit defeat on the Gold Coast and relocate the club to Hobart. In my view the league's two biggest missteps came in underestimating the value of Fitzroy and then overestimating the solidity of the Gold Coast. A shift to Tassie would show a willingness to rebalance.

Niall Seewang: If you take the emotion out of it, it's obvious 10 teams in Victoria is far too many. And with a new competition hypothetically starting, there'd be no links to the old VFL competition, so a few would have to be cut. I think it'd make sense to keep four clubs in Victoria - one based in the west of Melbourne (incorporating Geelong), and three inner-city teams that would have links to geographical areas across the state.

As well as this, retain two teams in WA and South Australia, but only a single side in each of Queensland and NSW. To make it a truly national competition, I think Tasmania and the NT would also have to be included, making it 12 clubs in total.

Jake Michaels: I reckon we'd be cutting quite a few teams. If the league was brand new it would probably have to start with only eight teams. Victoria would still hold the majority, given the prominence of Rugby League in NSW. I would say two teams from Melbourne and one from Geelong makes sense. Sydney would have one club (again, the NRL reign supreme in this region), as would Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart (like Geelong, it's an untapped sporting market).

Matt Walsh: There's simply no way one city would play host to nine teams, that's for sure. Two in Melbourne (one for the sprawling east and one for the north and west), one in Geelong, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and two each in Sydney (yep, persevere), Perth (keep the Fremantle aspect as well as a 'Perth' based team) and Adelaide (likewise with Port) for a total of 12.


Bolton: Having 15 teams poses a challenge in that playing everyone twice would make the season too long. So I'd like to see each club play each rival once. There would be a bye round for each team and also the opportunity for one additional revenue raiser (such as an additional Derby, Showdown or marquee game). Therefore, it would be 16 rounds with four weeks of finals.

Connolly: We do have to have as equitable a fixture as possible. With 20 teams, it's easily achievable. We have a 20-round season (incorporating a bye) and every team plays every other team once. At 19 games, it's only a little shorter than we already have.

Brettig: If we accept that the number of clubs should not decrease, it follows that a more equitable draw should be found than the hodgepodge all have endured rather than enjoyed for too long. A conference system of two groups of nine playing each other twice, plus a selection of cross-conference fixtures to preserve the big rivalry fixtures such as Adelaide vs. Port and West Coast vs. Fremantle, would work nicely. As for the split of Melbourne clubs - the Magpies, Bulldogs, Bombers, Kangaroos and Blues form the northern group, the Cats, Demons, Tigers, Hawks and Saints the south.

Seewang: With only 12 teams in my newfound league, it's a perfect opportunity to incorporate the most equitable and fair fixture available - 22 rounds featuring one home and one away match against each rival.

Michaels: With eight teams in the competition, a 14-game regular season, where every team plays each other twice (once at home and once away) makes the most sense. It also ensures evenness and promotes fairness in the competition.

Walsh: A 12-team competition is perfect for a 22-round season, as every team would play one another twice. Broadcast money remains much the same, as does the calendar. Perfect.

Finals structure

Bolton: With a 15-team league, you could retain the current final 8 structure, which I love. But the Grand Final could be rotated: payed at the MCG every third year, followed by two alternate venues in either Perth, Adelaide, Sydney or Brisbane to drive revenue and greater fairness.

Therefore, hypothetically a seven-year period could look like this in terms of hosting the final day in September: Year 1 (MCG), Year 2 (Gabba), Year 3 (Optus Stadium), Year 4 (MCG), Year 5 (Adelaide Oval), Year 6 (SCG), Year 7 (MCG).

Connolly: I like the current final eight system. In the AFL era, it is clearly the best we've had and suitably rewarding of a strong performance during the regular season. As for the Grand Final, a best-of-three series may return more premiers who are the best-performed sides of the season. But it also removes the sense of drama which accompanies the possibility that even the perfect season could be ruined by a poor performance on the one day which matters most. So I'd leave the Grand Final as a one-off.

I would, however, scrap the agreement that the MCG must be the venue, clearly the biggest handicap against non-Victorian sides being able to win a flag. In this scenario, highest-qualified team hosts, no arguments.

Brettig: I loved the old final six, with its various vagaries, and as a Crows supporter I'll never look down my nose at the McIntyre final eight! However I accept the format used for the past two decades is undoubtedly the most equitable, especially given the advent of a pre-finals bye. One thing that would be worth pondering is adding one more final - a wildcard game between eighth and ninth, to sit in that finals bye week.

Seewang: With a 12-team league, I want the finals to only feature the truly elite teams, so I'd be keen on a final 5. But there's a twist. Rather than the old model of locking in the MCG to host a single Grand Final, which is incredibly unfair for non-Victorian teams, I'd introduce a best-of-three Grand Final series, with the highest-ranked side given the opportunity to host Games 1 and 3, with the lower-ranked club hosting Game 2. This might mean some Grand Finals are played at boutique stadiums, but with two or three 'grannies' per year, there's still plenty of opportunity for fans to watch their teams in action and the TV broadcasters would love an extra blockbuster or two!

Michaels: The AFL loves to take ideas from professional sports in the United States and if the competition was starting fresh, an NFL-inspired final series might be something they look at. The trouble is, there wouldn't be enough teams to really make it work. Instead, in the early years, the top four teams would play in the finals. The bottom four would miss out. First plays fourth and second plays third, the winners meet in the final. Yes, the 'final', not the Grand Final.

Walsh: Too often mediocre teams make finals in the current structure, and that's allowing just eight of the 18 teams in! I would chop finals down to a top three, with a fourth spot being offered to a wildcard winner. Structure is simple: 4th vs. 5th is the standalone Week 1 wildcard, the winner of which plays first in Week 2, while 2nd and 3rd face in the other semifinal. Whoever finishes top hosts throughout - including the Grand Final. Highest ranked team (if first loses), hosts instead. No second chances here.


Bolton: The draft is pivotal to allow clubs the opportunity to access talent through proven pathways. Personally, I'd raise the draft age to 19. I wouldn't have liked it as an 18-year-old aiming to be picked up by an AFL club but it would allow the draftees to focus on school and personal development which would assist their football and balance in the long-run.

I also believe the Academy systems have uncovered talent in non-traditional areas. This needs to be continually fostered through both funding and draft access. But the points system, although seemingly fairer, doesn't pass the pub test for me. Fans should be able to sit there and discuss a talented youngster's potential without the need for a draft calculator. Scrap it and just allow clubs to draft a maximum of two academy players any one year and offer a rookie list position to others.

Connolly: I don't have any issue with the current set-up, particularly when it comes to help fostering talent in non-traditional areas. Perhaps, though, those clubs currently without their own zones could be given them, whilst still retaining the draft concept. After all, we still had metropolitan recruiting zones in conjunction with a national draft from 1986-91.

Brettig: One only needs to spend any amount of time in regional Victoria to realise the old zoning areas still carry much deeper loyalties than any more recent efforts to align certain clubs with certain regions. To that end, a limited return to zones, affording each club a priority pick or two in their area, would help recreate the old bonds. This should apply even more strongly in non-Victorian clubs, affording a bigger complement of and incentive for local talent and perhaps reducing the risk of "go home" decisions in early or mid-career.

Seewang: The draft is one of the AFL's cornerstones, so I would retain it as a key pillar of the new start-up league. I'd keep the same age restrictions as present, as well as retaining the multicultural zones for each club. Growing the talent pool in non-heartland states will still be essential, so I'd also give the Queensland and New South Wales clubs extra assistance in this area.

Michaels: For such a physical sport, expecting 18-year-olds to step in and be ready-made AFL players is unrealistic. We would likely see an American football approach taken where younger athletes play at a lower level against similarly aged opponents before turning professional. Each state would be able to set up its own academies to attempt to develop talent.

Walsh: I've always been a fan of raising the draft age. There is too much pressure put onto the shoulders of 17-year-olds to physically and mentally deal with the leap into professional footy. Keep them in a development league until they're 20, and when we've seen a little more physical development, recruiters can then draft them into the AFL.

I'd abolish zones altogether and make sure draftees sign four-year initial contracts, but I'd also keep father-son, which is a unique and much-loved quirk.

State leagues

Bolton: Flying state league clubs and their staff around the country would be too much of a financial burden in a new competition. I would keep the current state-based competitions but allow for more opportunities for curtain-raiser games. Reduced AFL lists to ensure reserve players top up in state leagues to keep the competition and interest up.

Connolly: I suspect an AFL reserves competition would weaken the various state leagues to the point of irrelevance. And I'm not sure the game's future can afford a yawning gap between the elite tier of football and the next. I think an obvious next level like the VFL needs to be maintained, and clearly, state leagues in places such as Queensland and NSW vastly improved.

Brettig: Simple. Get the feeder clubs out of the SANFL, WAFL etc and reconstitute the reserves competition for all AFL clubs. As with zoning, such a move would help repair the game's former fabric.

Seewang: Bring back the reserves competition - that's what I'd do with the state leagues. I'd want every AFL club to have a team in a national reserves comp, based in the respective state league across the nation.

Michaels: The state leagues and junior competitions are pivotal for the success of any sport and it would be no different to the AFL if it started today. I don't see much changing in this space.

Walsh: Abolish them. Have a seconds competition for the AFL and be done with it. Too often poorer state league teams don't challenge teams and players who are vying for a spot on an AFL 22. I'd expand AFL lists to 55-60 players to accommodate a seniors and a reserves. That's a total of 720 players - not far from what we have on lists today.

Salary cap

Bolton: The salary cap has been a strong lever used by the AFL to drive a fairer competition. This needs to remain, however, the cap would be reined in until competition was vibrant and healthy. I think we won't see the massive contracts of previous years. Marquee or genuine A-grade players will still command significant deals but a reduced number of games would mean clubs would be less likely to tie up large parts of their salary cap.

The cap would grow at the same rate as the competition revenue grew, so players benefited from the efforts they put in and are tied to the overall success of the game.

Connolly: An absolute must, particularly so now with the devastating economic fallout likely to exacerbate the gap between rich and poor. Nothing has enshrined the relative evenness of our competition like the cap and the draft. Retain at all cost.

Brettig: Rather than tinkering with the players' side, a stricter cap on football department spending would be desirable. In the current circumstances it looks more or less essential anyway.

Seewang: Like the draft, this is a key aspect of an equalitarian competition and one I'd want to retain. Starting a competition post-coronavirus might mean a drastically reduced salary cap, but as long as all clubs are equal, then I'm comfortable.

Michaels: Many Australian codes operate under a salary cap so it's hard to see the AFL going any other way. The cap would be far lower if we started from scratch, but players would be demanding far lower wages.

Walsh: If we still have 22 rounds of footy, but fewer teams, I can see the cap being a similar number to what it is right now. That would mean more money for fewer players, but I would introduce a 'marquee' cap to ensure the average wage goes up, and not as a result of two or three players earning millions a year. If you have too many players to fit into your marquee cap, well, free agency it is...


Bolton: I'd like to see more investment in AFLW but the teams would be capped at 12. There would be no conference system and I'd have six teams in Melbourne, one in Geelong, and only one in Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Tasmania and Sydney. This would mean clubs could drive revenue together with fixtures prior to the men's competition, sharing greater sponsorship dollars and broadcast rights. This would not dilute the talent pool, ensuring high-quality games and organic competition growth.

Connolly: Another absolute must. The AFL would be committing moral suicide by seeming to renege on its commitment to women's football, not to mention potentially alienating itself from more than half the population and a huge potential player pool. Fostering the fledgling competition is the game's best opportunity for continued growth. Look at how vastly the AFLW standard has improved across just four seasons. That's indicative of what could be.

Brettig: The AFL needs to pivot to playing a longer game here, which means avoiding the rush to having too many clubs and allowing the competition to gather in strength in depth by being played among fewer teams for the time being. At the same time, more investment can duly be made on those individual clubs, coaches and players. I also see little problem in more crossover between the women's and men's competitions, particularly in the first half of the season. That would afford the AFLW more time to be played as a league than a tournament.

Seewang: As with the state league, I think it's important for every club to have an AFLW outfit as well. Embracing diversity with a 'whole club' philosophy is essential in growing the game holistically. The AFLW's controversial conference system would be scrapped, however. How good would it be to bring back double, or even triple-headers with a club's AFLW, reserves and AFL team playing on the same day?

Michaels: We live in a time of diversity and inclusion, so the need for a women's competition is pivotal. It may not begin in Year 1, but it certainly wouldn't take over 100 years to establish. The eventual women's competition would be set-up similarly to what we had in the early years of AFLW.

Walsh: Bring it in, but I wouldn't tie them to AFL clubs. Similar to how the domestic T20 competition was run before the Big Bash, have states represented, but players can be drafted from anywhere. Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, NSW/ACT, Tasmania, Queensland and Northern Territory. That way there are eight teams, the talent pool isn't stretched, and supporters of AFL teams can get behind their 'state' equivalent for stronger interest/crowd figures.


Bolton: It would be vital to continue the investment into stadium upgrades to ensure each city hosting the Grand Final could accommodate a significant crowd. Weeks 1-3 of the finals would be held at the home ground of the highest placed competing side even if it was a boutique stadium.

Connolly: I'm not sure there would be too much room for manoeuvre here. But outright ownership of grounds should be a long-term goal. I also like the idea of a "back to the future" scenario of using alternative suburban venues in Melbourne beyond the MCG and Marvel Stadium for lower-drawing games.

Brettig: Investment in Princes Park as a viable third venue in Melbourne for the large percentage of games that do not attract enough spectators to fill the MCG or Marvel Stadium. A suburban game should still have a suburban presence, if only to give younger generations a link back to what that was actually like.

Seewang: The financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has shown the value of the AFL's owned assets, so it would be vital to retain ownership of Marvel Stadium. If financially viable, the league should pursue ownership of other stadiums across Australia. For smaller-drawing fixtures, I would like the flexibility to use boutique grounds across Melbourne instead of only the MCG and Marvel.

Michaels: Luckily AFL can be (and is) played at cricket grounds and there's plenty of them around the country. A new competition would not instantly attract tens of thousands of fans to games, so there would be no need for massive stadia. Instead, AFL would likely be played at smaller venues until interest grows and they move into bigger venues - a little like what actually happened!

Walsh: One of the biggest let-downs about the AFL is nine teams sharing two stadiums in Victoria, and two teams sharing a stadium in Adelaide and Perth. Ideally, each team would have a 'home stadium'. How that would look might involve a return to suburban stadia in SA (for a Port-based side) and WA (for a Fremantle-based side), but the continued use of the MCG (which has excellent connections to Melbourne's east), Marvel Stadium (excellent connection to the north and west) and GMHBA Stadium in Geelong.