The Wonderful Idiosyncrasy of the AFL Pre-season (and how we can keep it and improve on it)

For some reason, the AFL insists that their pre-season must be meaningful.

You could argue it’s money, but the last time I checked, the NRL’s, the NBA’s and the NFL’s pre-seasons were all pretty profitable (and except for practice and promotional purposes, completely meaningless).

You could argue it’s tradition, but the “pre-season competition” is actually a pretty recent development. Pre-season footy in an organised competition was only introduced in the late 1970s (the night competition began before the season proper, but finished in the dead of winter), and it only became a competition entirely played before the start of the home and away season in 1988.

You could argue it’s television, but this year only the NAB Cup final will screen on free-to-air television, and many games in the competition this year will go untelevised at any level.

This wasn’t really a problem until the AFL expanded. For 16 wonderful years we had 16 teams, four knockout rounds (except for three years at the start of the decade where a round robin was played), and a winner at the end of the month. Simple.

Then the Gold Coast Suns and the Greater Western Sydney Giants came along, and everything got difficult. Now we have short games with more subs than forwards, untelevised games in country towns, and the possibility of teams with undefeated records missing out on a Grand Final.

This year shows the absolute lengths the AFL will go to to ensure that the pre-season competition endures. It is an article of faith in our sport, an idiosyncracy of our indigenous game that appears to be unique in the world sporting landscape.

While I still can’t exactly put my finger on why the AFL appears so committed to retaining the NAB Cup, I can make a not entirely revolutionary suggestion as to how we can keep the pre-season competition relevant, reinstate its former simplicity, and try to adopt some successful aspects of other sports into our great national game.

The Foxtel Cup for the best teams one level below AFL is a work in progress. It has only been in existence for one year, other fixtures have to be worked around it, and the SANFL paid it lip service by not sending their best teams in 2011. However, it is interesting to see teams playing against teams they normally would not play against, and there is a fair amount of bragging rights attached to winning the competition, which Williamstown did last year.

So, my suggestion is to merge the two competitions and create an elite pre-season competition with more than a taste of English Soccer’s FA Cup.

Simply, put the 18 AFL teams in a five week knock-out pre-season competition with the best three teams from each of the VFL, SANFL and WAFL, the four best teams from the NEAFL, and the best team from Tasmania. Rank the AFL teams based on last year’s home and away ladder, so the bottom four play each other to make the second round, with the other 14 AFL teams playing against a team from a state league. This will give those AFL teams the ability to blood more youngsters while probably being guaranteed another week.

On the other hand, it would give a team from a state league the opportunity to slay an AFL giant (no GWS pun intended), which would ensure that the AFL team would have to take the make reasonably seriously in order to avoid embarrassment.

I’ll be along to the Geelong-Sydney-St Kilda triple-header in the first round of the NAB Cup, but I won’t really care about the result. Hopefully my plan would restore some of the interest into the pre-season competition.

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