In exactly two weeks’ time the 2018 Australian Rules (AFL) season begins with Richmond playing Carlton at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, writes Jack Anderson.
Last year 73,000 attended the game between the Tigers and the Blues. More are expected this year as Tigers fans delight in celebrating last year’s title in front of their Melbourne rivals.
The average attendance figures for the AFL in 2017 was such that it ranked fourth in the list of best attended domestic sports leagues in the world – behind the NFL, the Bundesliga and the Premier League.
The commercial robustness of the AFL can be seen in last year’s Aus $1.84 billion (€1.1bn) six-year pay deal with its players, which means that AFL players are now paid on average $300,000 (€188,000) a year. That deal was underwritten by the latest six-year AFL TV deal worth $2.5billion from 2017-2022.
These figures mean that at first glance there appears little in common between the GAA and the AFL. Nevertheless, and including the on-field similarities between AFL and Gaelic football, the AFL’s core base remains rooted in the state of Victoria, where the population is nearly one million less than on the island of Ireland.
How the AFL conducts its business is of special interest to the GAA as it enters a period of change with a newly installed president and a soon-to-be appointed director general.
First quarter: A proper pre-season; they have one — and regular fixtures
The AFL seasons lasts six months from end of March to end September. Given the professional nature of the sport and the week-on-week rhythm of the season, the teams do, of course, engage in a heavy pre-season but, unlike the GAA at inter-county level, they have six months in which to get it right.
One interesting feature of this year’s AFL pre-season is that it started with a condensed version of the game called AFLX. AFLX is played on a rectangular pitch and not an oval and the AFL have plans to take it abroad next season.
If the AFL are as committed to AFLX as they say they are, then it is very difficult to see any future for the International Rules series between Ireland and Australia.
Once the AFL season proper starts, a regular stream of games begin.
In contrast, the GAA season is chaotic.
Club players, as in my own county Limerick, can see their club championships dragged out over the year’s four seasons.
On the county hurling panel, some Limerick players have already played in the Munster Hurling League, the National Hurling League (NHL), the Fitzgibbon Cup, and the club under-21 hurling championship — and it is not yet St Patrick’s Day.
This is not singling out the Limerick County Board — quite the opposite. One of the things we hear from the GAA hierarchy is that club fixtures are for the counties but when the windows for games are so narrow and infrequent, those calls ring hollow.
The GAA’s traditional fixtures list is showing its age. It is a product of the 19th century when championships had to be played on a knockout basis between near neighbours.
Time to start anew.
Second quarter: Don’t be afraid to experiment or intervene
Although the management structures of the AFL are different and allow for greater central intervention, the AFL executive is not afraid to use that power.
This year, concerns arose in the AFL women’s league about overly defensive footy — teams flooding back and congesting the scoring area. Familiar?
The AFL trialled an ‘anti-density’ rule which mandates that players must return to their traditional positions on every restart. Former Cork footballer, Larry Tompkins, recently suggested something similar for Gaelic football.
Off the field, the AFL has changed its disciplinary process. The latest version is where one person, an ex-player, acts as the game’s chief citing commissioner. He reviews the video of every game and referees’ reports and issues players with sanctions, which they can either accept or take to the AFL Tribunal (again loaded with ex-players).
The system has much more discretion that the GAA’s highly prescriptive and often contradictory rulebook.
Third Quarter: Commercial agility
There has been lots of speculation recently on who will be the next director general of the GAA, much of which misses the point because whoever takes the job on will have to rely more on his powers of persuasion than his weak executive powers.
Again, the AFL’s structure is different and allows it to be more commercially agile and in this they are very protective of what is called the AFL’s ‘competitive balance’.
The key to this is a revenue sharing or redistribution model among the clubs.
When a traditional club — St Kilda’s in Melbourne is a recent example — get into difficulty, the AFL’s redistribution model allows it to receive targeted cash supplements.
The AFL knows that it needs St Kilda as much as it does Richmond, Hawthorn, or other more regularly successful clubs. This redistribution model may be a way for the GAA fairly to address Dublin’s dominance in Leinster football.
Fourth Quarter: Look to other sports, but not slavishly
The AFL has something to learn from the GAA. In fact, the AFL tackle is causing concussion concerns, particularly when players are slung to the ground and a modified version of it based on the International Rules’ model may have to be considered.
Off the field, the GAA’s decision to ban sponsorship by gambling companies, led by its community and health manager Colin Regan, attracted a lot of publicity Down Under. Australian sport is awash and afflicted with gambling ads.
The GAA’s decision was commendable when you think of how embedded gambling is in Irish culture, particularly with the Cheltenham Festival on the way.
Listening to RTÉ Radio recently it was disconcerting to hear the Ryan Tubridy show announce a competition for an all-expenses paid trip to Cheltenham, sponsored by a betting company.
Finally, one of the last trips we made before leaving for Australia was to see Limerick hurlers play. At the end, my son and his Belfast mates hopped the fence to get players’ autographs. My fella, wearing his Limerick jersey, targeted Richie English. Richie obliged. He had no choice.
A year later and allegiances (very) temporarily transferred to Carlton, the same jersey was signed at that club’s pre-season, ‘meet and greet’ by a recent recruit — Galway’s Cillian McDaid.
I was then told to wait as my son approached Carlton’s captain — the Melbourne-born but very Irish sounding, Marc Murphy.
The GAA and the AFL. Sporting connections on the field, off it and across the generations.
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