In the past week, former Geelong president Frank Costa raised the pressing issue that the AFL is beginning to morph into the soccer’s English Premier League (EPL), as a third of AFL clubs have already been ruled out of September action.
Costa’s concerns are not new, as Sydney Swans chairman Richard Colless shared a similar thought late last season. The AFL Players Association also chimed into the debate, saying a cap should exist or else this worrying trend may continue to get worse.
In 2011, the teams who finished top five on the ladder were amongst the top five in football department spending, with Collingwood spending ($19.1 million), West Coast ($18.6 million), Geelong ($18.4 million) and Carlton ($18.2 million).
In 2012, three of the top four spending clubs were seen in preliminary finals. The last team to win a premiership from outside the top eight spending in this category was North Melbourne in 1999, almost 15 years ago.
For all those who follow the EPL, they will know that it is often the same few clubs battling for the top positions at the end of the season and this is what the AFL must avoid.
The salary cap for players has been quite successful since it’s inception in 1987, with 16 clubs (excluding Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney) having appeared in a preliminary final, 13 going on to the Grand Final whilst 11 of those have taken home the premiership cup.
The cap has no doubt made the competition a level playing field, which is why it makes it understandable to hear concerns from prominent figures in the game. The AFL is still a way off being in the vicinity of the Premier League however if not careful, it could approach more quickly than anticipated.
In saying this, a cap might not be the answer. Clubs like Geelong and Hawthorn, who just 10 years ago were battling debt and other off-field problems, have toiled hard to be in a position they are in now. Geelong have won 3 of the last 6 premierships whilst Hawthorn have been a powerful club with over 60,000 members for a number of years.
Perhaps a luxury tax could be introduced, with all teams given a monetary limit to stay below before getting taxed for any amount spent above that. However, whether you cap football department spending or not, the richer clubs will still find ways to get ahead of the game.
In relation to Costa’s comments about teams already being out of contention for finals football, this is the cycle of the AFL. Gold Coast and GWS can be taken out of this conversation for obvious reasons whilst Melbourne are going through a rough patch which rarely occurs. St. Kilda played in consecutive grand finals in 09/10, playing a lot better than people are giving them credit. As for the Western Bulldogs, they made three straight preliminary finals from 2008-2010 and are simply in that rebuilding stage that most teams go through.
Whilst some teams are also struggling, predicting the top eight this season has been one of the hardest things to do. Even seven rounds into the season, it is still ultra competitive with teams like Port Adelaide emerging out of no where whilst West Coast and Adelaide not performing up to pre-season expectations.
Recruiting and development is one side to this argument that is quite crucial and is rarely touched on. Geelong and Sydney are perfect examples of this as they have been right up there for the last eight years, whilst other club’s strategies might not have worked for a variety of reasons. Sure, there is the odd recruiting howler that can be seen in hindsight but there are many decisions that make the footballing public scratch their head.
This is the beauty of our game and whilst some areas might need a tweak, the AFL are still in a very strong position as remaining one of the most competitive professional sporting leagues in the world.