May A Thousand Blossoms Bloom: Explaining The AFL's Premiership Diversity
When Carlton won their 16th (and at the time) record-breaking premiership in 1995 a shiver was sent through much of the AFL world.
That premiership was achieved with a squad as scintillating as it was a little dodgy with their 62-point thumping of Geelong consigning the poor old Cats to their fourth grand final loss in six years.
At that point in time there was a sense around the league of significant inequality. The year prior West Coast had won its second flag in three seasons having been in the competition just seven years. St Kilda and Footscray had played a combined 168 seasons for just as much flag glory.
We were just a season away from farewelling Fitzroy with the game’s administration as obsessed with mergers as Tony Lockett and Jason Dunstall were with kicking goals.
At this point in time there were a range of clubs sporting vast, painful and seemingly impenetrable premiership droughts with Carlton’s grand final day annihilation only ramming that reality home.
However 25 years down the track and we’ve a completely different situation prevailing across the league.
Since 1995 we’ve had 14 different teams win premierships, with every active club bar Gold Coast having at least made a grand final in that time span. All of Sydney, Geelong, Collingwood, the Western Bulldogs, Richmond and Melbourne have smashed major premierships droughts stretching anywhere between 20 and 72 years.
We’re of course still living in an era that’s not quite free of sin, think the inequities of the league’s fixture, the monstrous draft concessions handed to the expansion clubs as well as a free agency system which often sends its best players to the league’s best teams. Yet this is an era where more than ever it’s possibly to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and arm yourself for a legitimate premiership assault.
Let’s first ask what’s facilitating this flowering of premiership democracy, check in on how it stacks up against the rest of the world and then ask whether it’s all sustainable.
So, what’s going on?
As indicated, the AFL is currently the kind of night-club where even the league’s most desperate and dateless can achieve at least one magical evening.
A year after Carlton steamrolled its way through the 1995 season, North Melbourne won its first flag in 19 years by knocking off a Swans team who two years prior had collected a wooden spoon and who’d recently been caught up in a humiliating 26-game losing streak.
A year later in 1997 the Dogs came within kick of their first grand final appearance in 36 years while St Kilda made its first grand final in 31 years, and if not for Darren Jarman, could well have got their hands on that elusive second club premiership.
While a period of utter Brisbane destruction was just around the corner, and again made possible by some generous AFL gifts, this would prove a prelude to more drought-breaking. Sydney would soon end the longest premiership drought in league history by pipping the Eagles for the 2005 flag while two years later the Cats extinguished 43 years of pain by demolishing Port Adelaide.
Over the next few years St Kilda would again come close, Collingwood would win just its second flag in 52 years, Sydney would win another while in 2016 the Bulldogs came from the clouds to end their 62-year run of misery. Even Fremantle made a Grand Final and if not for horrific kicking for goal could have perhaps won the 2013 flag.
Across the league the message has been loud and clear that any club who has their shit together has a chance of winning it all. And it’s music Richmond’s ears were particularly tuned into. Despite not winning a single September match in 16 years nor a premiership in 37, the Tigers stormed through the 2017 season, brushing aside Adelaide and bringing unbridled joy to their success-starved fanbase. They’d add a couple more over next next few years while even meeting the Giants along the way, a club who’d been in the competition for just seven years and who started AFL life by losing 41 of its first 44 games.
And we’ve just witnessed Melbourne exorcise 57 years of premiership demons cruising to an unforgettable victory in Perth, brushing aside those rejuvenated and hungry Dogs who were on the hunt for another.
No longer is the AFL’s book populated by the same old characters playing out the same old plot.
In fact, that old book has been torn to shreds.
Why is this happening?
There are a number of reasons as to why we’re seeing such flag diversity in the league but a major reason boils down to the often maligned equalisation methods the AFL has sprinkled throughout its competition in recent decades.
And one of the key pillars of these measures has been the national draft which while not always perfectly implemented has often prevailed as a tonic for helping turn downtrodden clubs into the belle of the ball.
On grand final day 2016 the Western Bulldogs enjoyed the services of four players who’d previously been taken within the draft’s top-6 while having ten overall who were captured with the draft’s first two rounds- to say nothing of having a couple of grand final day father-son selections.
When Richmond broke through a year later it ran out with a handful of top-10 picks on grand final day while their overall list contained more players taken within the first couple of rounds than weren’t. Melbourne’s recent premiership heroics likely wouldn’t have been achieved without nailing their premium draft selections such as Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver while their future wouldn’t look so bright without the likes of Luke Jackson and Kysaiah Pickett. The Demon team which ultimately smashed the Bulldogs included no less than a dozen players who’d been taken within the draft’s first two rounds.
While it’s one thing to have access to top-end junior talent, it’s of course another thing entirely to mould that talent into premiership calibre athletes. And while all credit must go to the players and the developmental side of the clubs themselves, struggling clubs simply wouldn’t be able to turn around their fortunes without having access to such teenage brilliance in the first place.
Another aspect that's contributed to the increasing variety of premiership flavours in the AFL’s constant re-jigging of its rules. And while their approach to this has at times been infuriating and often unnecessary a benefit of all that tinkering is that it’s provided a leg up to the more cerebral elements of footy clubs and given an advantage to teams best able to interpret the AFL’s strategic whims.
This is not to say that winning flags in the olden days was by any means easier, though it could be argued the premiership recipe was a lot less complex. Without so many of the equalisation methods and constant changing of the goalposts where rules were concerned the established clubs could wield their advantages a lot easier and without fear of a concentrated working class revolt.
We’re increasingly seeing premierships won by sharp teams who have been able to bend the sport and its possibilities in all manner of directions.
At Hawthorn, and coupled with a team positively dripping with primo draft talent, Alastair Clarkson was able to exert so much influence and enact so much strategic change that he helped bring four more premierships to Waverley Park.
Over the last few years we’ve also seen the likes of Luke Beverage, Adam Simpson and Simon Goodwin make signature strategic marks on the game, while Damian Hardwick’s prioritisation of imagination will ensure he goes down as one of the most important figures in Richmond’s history.
More than ever coaching matters, and if your club is able to nail its hire and let that mind loose on a talented squad then there’s every reason to think they can take a ticket in the premiership sweepstakes.
How does all this stack up internationally?
This is a little bit more of a difficult game to play.
Each sport is of course radically different from each other and governed by vastly different circumstances but we can at least take a look at how other codes are getting along in the realm of championship distribution.
And let’s use that year 1995 as a benchmark while reminding readers once again that since then 14 different AFL clubs have won a premiership.
Let’s first head to Europe where we immediately note that the spread of championships is markedly less apparent than what we’ve become used to in the AFL. European soccer leagues of course have nothing in the way of salary caps or anything approaching fair distribution of elite young talent and while this isn’t to disparage the numerous leagues which prevail and thrive there, it is worth highlighting how relatively few clubs are able to get their mitts on silverware.
While sure, we get the odd season of shock and awe such as Leicester City’s 2016 miracle or even Deportivo de La Coruña pinching the 1999/00 La Liga title, the reality is that the European theatre contains anything but an ensemble of characters.
In Spain just six different teams have won the La Liga crown since 1995 with Real Madrid and Barcelona sharing 21 of the last 27 titles on offer.
And it’s a similar story in England. Since Carlton won that 1995 premiership, only six different teams have been crowned EPL champions while there was a stretch within where Manchester United won nine titles in 14 seasons.
In Germany, Bayern Munich have won nine straight Bundesliga titles and collected 22 more total titles than any other German club. In Italy, Inter Milan just broke up nine straight seasons of utter Juventus domination while PSG have won seven of the last nine French titles.
Instead, let’s cross the pond and travel to the United States where so many of the draft and salary cap measures have been adopted by the AFL.
In the NFL, and just like the AFL we’ve seen 14 different franchises win the Super Bowl since Carlton won that 1995 flag. And like the AFL, we’ve also witnessed some major droughts broken in recent years. Within the last decade alone we’ve seen both the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks hoist their first ever Lombardi Trophy into the confettied sky while two seasons ago Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years.
In the NBA we’re fresh off a season where the Milwaukee Bucks won their first championship in 50 years brushing aside the Phoenix Suns who were hunting their first title in franchise history.
While yes, the likes of the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics have combined for 34 NBA titles, and which comprises almost half the total championships won, we’ve also seen far greater variation in recent years.
In the last 15 years alone all of Miami, Dallas, Cleveland and Toronto have helped themselves to maiden titles with Milwaukee and the Golden State Warriors recently breaking droughts that had stretched to 50 and 40 years respectively.
While there’s been a lot of handwringing lately in NBA regarding the formation of 'super teams' where the league’s best talent often try to join forces with one another, we’re in no way seeing this as a surefire route to championship success.
So what does this all mean?
We’d like to think the AFL is on an island where competitive diversity is concerned, yet the reality is that our league is an example of the positive effects of equalisation measures that have allowed fallen teams to re-build themselves, win championships and in some cases even mould themselves into competition juggernauts.
For some, the ‘let’s give everyone a fair go’ equalisation measures don’t reflect the reality of real life and constitute something of a restraint of trade. For others, these policies have provided a significantly more even playing ground where fan bases needn’t have to think of their footballing life as a boot smashing them in the face over and over again.
And thankfully, there’s little reason to think the music will stop anytime soon. There doesn’t seem to be another period of expansion on the AFL’s horizon, the likes of which had a severe impact upon the democratic flow of young talent across the league the last time round.
If there is a threat lurking it pertains to the AFL’s continual restrictions upon football club spending. Like so much of the world, Covid has sunk its teeth in the AFL’s bottomline and whose response to economic downturn has been to instruct clubs to dial down spending, particularly in so many of the areas which have helped struggling clubs prosper such as recruitment and innovation.
While the league has benefitted greatly from its openness and the many fairytale stories its helped produce in recent times, it ought to be keenly aware of the impact of such cuts upon this caravan of possibilities.
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