Fixing Finals Footy

For as long as there has been Australian Rules football, there has been finals footy. Whilst the Australian public aren’t as fixated on playoff wins as the Americans, there is no doubt the finals are used as the yard-stick when measuring a team’s performance. Make the finals? Fans are generally happy and the coach is safe. Miss out? Support (and profits) might wane, the coaching staff start looking over their shoulders, and with the introduction of free-agency players are beginning to seek greener pastures.

Those of us who view footy as religion, Christmas (or is it Good Friday?) happens on that last Saturday in September. It’s not hard to identify why – footy in that first month of spring is undoubtedly at least 50% better than rounds one through 23. And since the mid-90s, we’ve been lucky enough to have eight teams, a number which has always been at least half the competition, duke it out for their chance to play on the biggest stage. Three hours in front of 100 000 spectators (I’d call them fans, but those who know footy know otherwise), the winner receiving champagne showers and eternal glory, and the losers taking solace in a series of homoerotic, tear-filled embraces.

But with the competition expanding to 18 teams in recent years, the perfect symmetry we have experienced since the 1997 season has been eradicated. With only eight teams making it and 10 heading to Bali early, the balance has shifted and we are left with a conundrum – where do we go from here?

There is an argument that we shouldn’t change a thing. For years traditionalists have claimed we are rewarding mediocrity, with average teams doing nothing more than making up the numbers. And for at least the next 3 years I think this is the correct call – any more teams would do nothing more than put clubs like Richmond in the finals, and quite frankly they don’t deserve it. This theory gains extra credence considering all win totals are being inflated by at least two, with whipping boys GWS and the Gold Coast regularly giving four points to all teams except the Tigers.

But in a few years when the Suns and Giants are reaping what they’ve sown, the gulf between the best and the worst teams will have likely diminished, such that expanding the number of playoff berths won’t be such a crazy idea. Now I’m aware there will still be shit teams – it is an inherent characteristic of the system we have. But I don’t foresee any of the 18 clubs getting physically violated week-in, week-out the way we’ve become accustomed to. Here is where my idea comes in.

10 teams.

Wild-card weekend.

Five weeks of finals.

Keen?

Obviously we can’t have nine teams making the cut – an odd number of teams is simply a bad idea. And for reasons stated above, eight might not work either. But 10? Now we’re talking.

What I would like to see happen is only the top six teams ‘make’ the finals, with a wild-card weekend between the last round of the home and away season and week one of the playoffs. Seventh would play tenth and eighth would play ninth, with the winners advancing to become the seventh and eighth seeds in the finals series. The remainder of the finals series would then play out as per usual.

In my opinion there exists a myriad of reasons for embracing this change, the most obvious being

-          the top six teams are rewarded with a week off to prepare for the finals;

-          teams one-through-eight are rewarded with a home final of some description;

-          teams which start slow yet finish well aren’t necessarily out of it;

-          there will be more footy, which equals more money for the AFL; and

-          doesn’t ‘wild-card weekend’ just sound cool?

This model also allows for further expansion to 20 teams in a decade or two. Whilst admittedly that is a long way away, I think it’s a known fact that there exists potential for teams in Tasmania, Canberra and perhaps another one in Perth. That gives you 20 franchises, with Port Adelaide being relocated (sorry Kochie).

Now some will argue this will only further reward mediocrity – to that I say yes and no. Do undeserving teams make it? Kind of – but then two pretenders are essentially weeded-out, with the better teams not having to front up to do the gardening. Let’s also not forget that the four-tier competition we’ve witnessed these last five or six seasons won’t be the norm going forward. Sure there will never be consistent, complete parity, but nor will there forever be sustained blowouts and foregone conclusions like we have seen in recent times.

So I think the arguments in favour of a model like this easily out-strip those against it. With more footy and two more knockout games, what’s not to like? Who knows, Richmond might even make the finals.