Since 2017, Victoria commemorates AFL Grand Final Friday as a public holiday, with a parade of the two participating teams through a festive Melbourne (barring interruptions in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19).
Saturday’s game between Geelong and Sydney is particularly anticipated as it welcomes the grand final to the MCG after a two-year absence due to local COVID restrictions.
The overcrowded stadium and accompanying entertainment thus promise to show renewal in the wake of the pandemic. It is also a celebration of a unique game, made and owned by Australia, with the aim of achieving competitive balance.
Made in Australia
Australian Rules football, as the name suggests, is a substantial part of the cultural fabric of this country. It started as a pragmatic effort to keep Melbourne’s cricketers fit during the cold winters of the 1850s.
Rather than an invention, this game was more of an adaptation, like the settlers who wrote the first rules (1859) gained inspiration of various informal “kicking” and “handling” ball sports in Great Britain.
In that regard, although this Australian brand of footy evolved to become unique, it was not conceived as a challenge to Imperial orthodoxy. Soon after, Association Football (1863) and Rugby Football (1871) were formalized in Britain and then transplanted across the Empire.
The unorthodox aspect of this story is that, despite the importation of football and rugby, the Australian game not only survived, but began to flourish in many parts of the country. This was unexpected: the settlers typically saw themselves as British subjects, paying tribute to the cultural pursuits of the homeland. Made in Australia, this game was not part of the Empire’s apron series.
But it was a colonial project. Indigenous people were often not welcome to the development-stage sport and at the elite level of the game were virtually absent until the last quarter of the 20th century. Despite this marginalization, some believe that the play of the white man in the 19th century… Inspired by an Aboriginal cultural practice, Marn Grook.
It is a unproven positionbut an acclaimed explanation of how and why football was indeed “made in Australia”.
Owned by Australians
Globally, sport is shaped by seemingly irresistible money and power. Leagues such as the English Premier League of football are the epitome of private property and display of extraordinary wealth.
Usually these owners are: billionaires from abroad, for those who put money into a football club can be an indulgence. When Liverpool FC won the Football Association (FA) Cup in 2021, the trophy was held in the air by the club’s main owner, the American John W. Henrywho flew in to celebrate the occasion.
In Australia, the private ownership of football clubs is varied. Every A-League club and about a third of NRL clubs are kept privatewith a mix of local and foreign owners. Super rugby clubs have not experienced private property although Rugby Australia is considering private equity investment to help ease its weak financial position.
In contrast, no AFL club is owned by entrepreneurs, nor does the league try to sell its well-funded league to entrepreneurs. There were early experiments with private owners at clubs, such as the Sydney Swans and Brisbane Bears, but none lasted.
Today, AFL clubs are either member-based organizations or, in the case of very new clubs, run by the league until they reach maturity.
Fan avidity is at the heart of the AFL’s success. The competition has long attracted large crowds, on average around mid 30,000 since 1997. In addition, some 1.19 million people are members of AFL clubs. Although 25% of these fans don’t have an attendance package, they have a connection with a club and the sport.
Either way, these member fans have more influence than private club followers, where entrepreneurs have operational control over their investment.
Structured for Australia
In England, football clubs participate in competitions that for a long time had no rules to establish a competitive balance. Without equalization measures such as salary caps and draft systems, Premier League title winners usually reflect the financial power of club owners.
This is anathema to the AFL. For decades, the competition has sought to limit the power of money over the competition by instituting salary caps for players and soft caps on high performing staffand by spreading operational funds to clubs based on needs. The result of this is higher subsidies to ‘weaker’ clubs.
In addition, the AFL has borrowed from American sports a player concept system. The best young talent is first made available to underperforming teams. Compared to the English Premier League, these design levers have given fans hope that their AFL team will have a chance of success.
And it has largely succeeded. For example between 1990 and 2010 14 out of 16 clubs tasted the victory of the premiership at that time.
This is not to say that there are no structural problems. The AFL has been contracted to host the grand final at the MCG, a scheme that could penalize teams from outside Melbourne. There is also the question of honesty in the annual competition schedule, with critics claiming problematic variability between seasons.
Finally, on the big day of the final itself, there is consternation that too few members get tickets while too many go to “business” guests, with the ratio approx. 70:30.
Of course, off the ground, some 4 million Australians tune in to the free broadcast. May the best team win.