Although I’m no great fan of American sporting exceptionalism, with the single nation crowning their sporting teams as world champions despite them rarely venturing beyond their own shores, the United States have a habit of getting things right when it comes to the fixturing for those major leagues, particularly the NFL.
As there are 32 teams in the NFL, it would be impossible to have all of those teams play each other even once in the course of a season. The NFL is the result of the unification of the two major gridiron competitions in the 1960s in what is now known as the Super Bowl era. The Super Bowl was then and is still played between the champions of each of those competitions – the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference – although the unification is more stringent, with games throughout the regular season played between teams from both conferences.
To get the fixturing down to only 16 games per team in the regular season and have it considered a fair competition the NFL created divisions within the conferences. Each conference comprises four divisions – north, south, east and west – of four teams apiece.
The fixturing is then settled in the following manner:
Each division has home-and-away games against the other three teams in their division, totalling six games.
Each team plays each team within another division from the same conference, totalling four games. The divisions rotate through a three-year period and also on a home-and-away basis.
Each team plays the team in the other two divisions of their conference that placed in the same position in the previous season for two more games.
Each team plays each team from one division in the opposing conference. The divisions rotate through a four-year cycle and also on a home-and-away basis, totalling four games.
This is a total of 16 games for each team in the NFL. It is predictable and fair.
Some years back I wrote an article along these same lines in the West Australian but that article considered a 16-team competition, as was the format of the AFL at the time. Now we have an 18-team competition – the idea of conferencing is mute but the idea of divisions still sits well.
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This is my proposal, and the idea behind it is the creation of a fixture that is uniform and fair.
We start by forming three divisions of six teams:
First divisionWest Coast, Fremantle, Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Brisbane and Gold Coast.
Second divisionCarlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Melbourne, Richmond and St Kilda.
Third divisionGreater Western Sydney, Sydney, Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Geelong.
In reality St Kilda and Geelong could swap positions, but I grouped the third division according to the propensity of Hawthorn, the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne to play home games away from Victoria and Geelong having its own home ground outside of Melbourne.
Each team in each division plays the other teams in their division home and away every year, totalling ten games.
Each team plays all other teams once a year on a home-and-away rotating basis, totalling 12 more games. This is the 22-game scenario that is wanted by the AFL at this time.
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Now, there are some situations here that seem at first to be irregular, such as the travel requirements of the first division, but it is actually very fair.
The teams in the first division would need to travel interstate to four teams within their division and to three teams within each of the other two divisions. That is ten games interstate, exactly what they do at present.
GWS and Sydney would need to travel interstate three times within the first and second divisions and four times within their own division, totalling ten times but the other four teams in the third division would also need to travel interstate three times within the first and second divisions and once to GWS and Sydney, a total of eight games.
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The second division teams travel interstate four times a year, three to the first division and once to either GWS or Sydney. There is of course the possibility of a Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon or Richmond playing Hawthorn, the Western Bulldogs or North Melbourne in Hobart, Launceston or Canberra, but that is highly unlikely considering the massive following of the big Victorian clubs.
Those of you reading this who suffer from myopia will probably be asking how is it that a Victorian team in the second division travels ‘only’ four times. The reality is a home-ground advantage is only achieved when that team is hosting a team that does not regularly play at the home team’s ground.
That means that the teams in the first division have to travel ten times but those same teams have a true home-ground advantage on ten other occasions.
The teams in the second division have a true home-ground advantage on four occasions as opposed to their four annual travels. Nobody in their wildest dreams can tell me that any team in the second division hosting another team from within their division has a home-ground advantage. It simply dissipates. Almost every one of the 30 games played within the division would be at the MCG.
The trade-off for having to travel often is that that team would acquire more home games with a significant advantage.
I would even suggest that the winner of each division is guaranteed a finals berth irrespective of finishing position on the overall ladder, but in the 21 seasons of this century that scenario would have played out only once, that being 2016, when St Kilda was the highest-placed team from the second division in finishing ninth and would have displaced North Melbourne in finishing eighth. In retrospect that would have been a good situation with the very in-form St Kilda winning six of their last eight games and North Melbourne winning just two.
The advantages of this fixture are enormous. The continued rivalries of the big Victorian teams being played out twice a year. The continued rivalries of the Western Derby, Showdown, QClash and Sydney Derby and of course the developing rivalries between teams from within divisions.
Then there are the financial dividends generated by such rivalries and a sense of equality in the fixturing.
The AFL does not need more games, it needs games of substance and relevance that in turn create interest and intrigue.