The AFL is proof that you can have too much of a good thing

I don’t want to be the ‘when I was young’ guy lamenting a past that’s gone, but I genuinely lament a past that’s gone.

Growing up in the 1980s, the football landscape was sparsely dotted.

Thursday night would be League Teams, where Lou Richards, Jack Dyer, and Bob Davis would banter as they announced the teams for that week.

Every game was played Saturday afternoon at various suburban grounds. There was also a novelty watching the scores from other matches – particularly if you needed results to fall a certain way – come up quarter by quarter on the big old manual scoreboards.

On Saturday evening Peter Landy would host Seven’s Big League, which would show a quarter and a bit from the match of the round, about a quarter of some other game and a cross over to Scott Palmer for all the football headlines.

Late at night the ABC had The Winners, which would often show a different section of the match of the round or another game altogether. They also had segments for mark and goal of the day.

Come Sunday, we had Channel 7’s World of Sport, where the panel would talk about the games, interview coaches and then have segments like ‘mark of the day’, ‘goal of the day’ and ‘what’s your decision?’, which would bring on an umpire to clarify several contentious decisions.

Sunday was the demesne of the reserves competition. About the only extracurricular football was the preseason tournament, which was played concurrently with the early part of the home-and-away season but mid-week. It was also taken semi-seriously by clubs. Then there’d be the state game.

The whole week I’d look forward to Saturday, anxious to see Collingwood in action. My older brother had a community of friends that I immediately felt a part of. We’d watch the match, cheering as a group or complaining as a tribe.

If we were winning, I’d be anxious to get home so I could kick the ball around outside and relive the day’s highlights. If we were losing, I’d be anxious to get home, so I could kick the ball around outside and somehow overturn the result – or at least imagine I was doing so.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Now obviously the competition has evolved over the years. It’s migrated games to Friday nights, then to Sundays and the occasional Monday, then to different timeslots. More football shows appeared, and then even more when cable became a thing. The games were separated, so there was little or no overlap. More teams came in.

We got more and more and more football.

But the reality is that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Football has gone from this precious commodity to market saturation. If it were a stock, you’d offload. There are games and football shows everywhere.

There have also been times we’ve had games from Thursday right through to Monday, and then the football shows occupy the other three days. If somebody were bombarding me similarly in email with product marketing, it’d be called spam.

The mechanisms that were introduced to create equalisation have done anything but. Since the salary cap became stringently implemented (I’d mark the early 2000s as when that occurred, right about when Carlton were heavily punished for breaches) and the draft became the route to rebuilding (around the same time, where it became more science than speculative), we’ve had one dynasty after another dominate the competition.

In that time Hawthorn’s won four flags; Geelong, Richmond, and Brisbane three; West Coast and Sydney two. That’s 17 flags. Hardly seems equal, does it?

Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin of the Hawks celebrates with the Premiership Cup after the hawks won the 2013 AFL Grand Final match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Fremantle Dockers at Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 28, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.

(Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The expansion of the league has diluted the talent pool so that so many so-so teams are stuck in long rebuilds. If they don’t get it right, they have to go around again. Look at Melbourne and Carlton, who had access to top picks in the early 2000s, became finalists but were never really contenders and then ultimately had to restart from scratch.

The dilution of the talent pool and these long uncertain rebuilds mean there are always a lot of so-so teams, and they face one another in mediocre games. Check the fixture any week – the bulk of the games are uninteresting. Watch them and we see a litany of skill errors, dull defensive mires and mediocre contests.

While the nationalisation of the competition might be a good thing, creating teams in states where Australian rules isn’t indigenous has been problematic. Gold Coast have struggled since their inception. Greater Western Sydney have regularly played in finals but have hardly converted fans.

Some might say that this is a generational project. Well, North Melbourne entered the then VFL in 1925. How do they fare for fans and finances almost 100 years later? Even with their dominance in the late 1970s and 1990s they’re still struggling. Do we think it’s going to be different for the Suns and Giants?

It would’ve been more logical for existing clubs to migrate (or be forced) into those areas, a la South Melbourne’s move into Sydney and Fitzroy merging with the Brisbane Bears. That would’ve given those new teams core support, history and, most importantly, some semblance of marquee.

Whereas once I looked forward to the weekend, now it often feels as if there’s nothing but football – if it’s not games, it’s football shows and clickbait headlines on social media. Even if every game was a great game, there would still be some desensitisation to it as a core product because there’s so much of it.

But every game isn’t great. Most of them are substandard. Then we go back to genuinely horrible (if not off-putting) times for games, interpretations and rules that change whimsically and some coverage that compels you to reach for the mute button on your remote.

“Switch off,” might be the popular counter.

I do, but that doesn’t change that this is the reality of the league I’m invested in.

Even if I watch just my game (which I often do) that week, I know all those problems are thriving and that the existing mechanisms don’t actually equalise the very top end of the table but the next 15 or so spots, pitting them into mediocrity while one team usually runs rampant.

You can have too much of a good thing, and in this case it’s not a good thing. It’s too much of a so-so thing.

It’s unsurprising crowds are down.

The product used to be a pinata full of goodies.

Now it’s a pinata that’s been whacked, shattered, trod on and spilt its goodies everywhere so that people have trampled on them and they no longer have the splendour they once enjoyed.

Yet we’re still being told it’s precious booty.

Just how long does the competition go on before the AFL realises the very things they’re championing – rule changes and tweaks, more and more games, expansion, equalisation et cetera – are the very things pushing people away?