The AFL Is Sherrin The Love, But Fans Want To Watch The Best Teams

It seems in their bid to be 'fair', they've damaged the brand.

The AFL may promote the current era to be the competition's most even, but in reality, there is still a significant divide between the top teams and the bottom.

There is an air of predictability about the look of the ladder. Most teams at the top end were expected to be there. It's no great surprise Richmond, Sydney, Geelong and Adelaide are all in the top eight.

Likewise Carlton, Brisbane and the Gold Coast are battling.  Some teams have surprised, others have disappointed, but most are somewhere around where they were predicted to be.

It's this point that makes the AFL's scheduling so bizarre.

Carlton, for example, were widely predicted to finish towards the bottom of the ladder, yet somehow they’ve been scheduled for a total of four Friday night games and one Thursday night slot. St Kilda, who few thought would finish in the Top 8, will play four Friday games. Yet Melbourne, who many footy pundits picked as the big improvers this year, play just one.

This has had a negative impact on the competition so far this year.

Put simply, more people watch Friday night football than any other time slot across the weekend. It's the most lucrative fixture for both the AFL and their free to air broadcast partner, Channel 7.

Both parties want to showcase the best of the game to attract high ratings and ensure the momentum of an exciting, engaging Friday night contest kick starts a big weekend in footy.

The consequences of a series of boring prime-time matches are significant.  Fans may disengage, talk about how bad the game looks and stop watching.

Recent figures show that Seven’s prime time AFL telecasts across the first ten rounds of the season are averaging a mere 292,000 viewers in Melbourne. That is a worrying drop from the 361,000 Melbourne viewers that watched the matches in the first 10 rounds last year.

AFL Thursday and Friday night TV ratings are down around 17 percent in total. In fairness to the AFL, TV ratings in general have declined about 16 percent over the last four years, but the difference in ratings from last year is stark and should worry the AFL.

The Gold Coast Suns received $25 million from the AFL, but do fans want to watch them play on telly? Image: Getty.

If nothing else it devalues the AFL product. Why would television broadcasters keep paying more for a product when its ratings are in decline?  And, if they don't keep coming back to the well with more money, where will the AFL find the money to support its 18 clubs?

The AFL largely survives off the back of the revenues it receives from its $2.5 billion media rights deal and the associated revenues that flow off the back of it.

It then distributes these funds back to its clubs. Last year each club received at least $12 million from the AFL. The Gold Coast and GWS pocketed over $25 million.

Many clubs wouldn't survive without them and simply won't survive if the AFL product fails to entice media partners to constantly pay more. So, commercially it’s fundamentally important to ensure matches scheduled for Prime Time are those that 'sell' the game the best.

To do this, the AFL should scrap the idea of being too 'fair' with its scheduling. Teams predicted to finish high on the ladder should receive more Friday nights.

There will always be anomalies that surprise or disappoint, but there won't be too many.

Brisbane upset Hawthorn in Round 9 of the AFL. Image: Getty.

The other option is to introduce a 'floating fixture', where the exact times each match of any given round are not determined until a few weeks before. This sounds good in theory, but it brings with it a host of problems. For one, fans like to know when their teams are playing so they can plan ahead, particularly those traveling from the country or interstate.

Plus, teams like to know their fixture well in advance so that they can manage their players and plan their training schedules around 'busy' periods of the season where they may, for example, have consecutive six day breaks. A floating fixture removes some of this certainty.

And, let's be honest -- the fixture is an imperfect science. A game that seemed appealing a month ago can lose its lustre in a matter of weeks if a team loses form.

Yet, much predictability remains. Surely the AFL was not expecting Carlton to be a finals threat this year. So, the easiest solution is to lock in the best teams from the year before to play in Prime Time.

This may seem unfair. But in reality it’s very fair. The higher the ratings, the more people will talk positively about the competition, which means they're more likely to watch other games over the weekend.

The end result of this is that the product is more valuable leading to higher media rights, sponsorships, memberships and crowd attendances.

More money for everyone. It's as simple and as fair as that.