Business and pleasure – the great Australian football paradox

Is football more than a game? dunk_b/flickr

The professional Australian Rules football season is underway and the better part of the nation is now transfixed until early October by its myriad machinations.

At this early point in the season, it is worth taking a look at how the game is structured, for just as the code is unique in its onfield form, so the management and governance of the game has taken its own distinct form among professional sports.

It is not presently administered for private profit (unlike professional sports in the United States). It provides a living for some, but its greater significance is as part of the social fabric, permeating almost every aspect of life.

Many claim, and it is hard to disagree, that the AFL is being administered at the top level to give maximum value to advertisers. This is the wrong approach.

Advertisers/sponsors are good servants but bad masters. We need to remember that they invest in the game because of its popularity. It does not owe its popularity to them.

Football can be an agent of social change. Certainly it has had to deal with all the big social issues in a very public way. Race, gender, alcohol and drug use, social behaviour and education are just a few of the issues football administrators have had to address.

Some would argue, with justification, that these are matters of corporate responsibility. The VFL/AFL has expanded from 12 teams to 16 and now it is to be 18.

But by keeping the 22 game regular season, it has destroyed the integrity of the draw. No longer does each team play the others both at home and away.

The draw is now crafted to try to maximize television audiences and attendance. Teams have vastly differing amounts of travel and the AFL is able to stack the deck. It is now employing the biblical maxim that ‘to them that hath shall be given’.

Yet the AFL is one of the few sporting codes in which financially under-performing clubs are often at risk of being forced by the governing body to merge or relocate.

The AFL may think that some clubs are expendable, but when a club dies or even relocates, the game loses part of its soul.

That said, having gone down the expansion path, the league should now go further and create a genuinely national competition with teams in Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory.

It should in fact consider two teams in Tasmania, as the rivalry is so strong between north and south. But it needs to do so while maintaining existing clubs.

There is no doubt that there is enough money - especially in light of the upcoming TV rights sale - in the game to keep all clubs afloat. Indeed, the rivers of TV gold have made rather a nonsense of the traditional definition of club finances.

The AFL’s finances are reminiscent of the Commonwealth/State financial relationship where the Commonwealth (AFL) has most of the money but the clubs (States) do most of the work. As in the United States, the clubs have other sources of revenue - much of it from gambling - but they are largely dependent on television revenue.

The issues then are about distribution. Classical economic theory would leave it to the market, but football needs a competition to survive so classical theory will not do.

The current arrangements have been described as “socialist”, but I suggest that is not accurate. They are socialist to the extent that the AFL tries to maintain control but there is still substantial scope for innovation and individual management by the clubs.

AFL clubs are also reliant on individual members for financing. But here the relationship between members and the clubs is skewed. Membership should be more than a season ticket. Membership in corporations law means share holding.

We should allow those who have given a guarantee as part of membership of their clubs to continue that guarantee. Carlton has a small box on the membership form to tick if you want to exercise voting rights. Many people fail to notice this. As democracies, the clubs leave a lot to be desired.

Sometimes it seems that footy operates in a parallel universe with its own laws. The player is subject to their contract with the club, the rules of the competition, and the law of the land.

But the world of football is so removed from the real world the the players (and indeed administrators) sometimes think they are exempt from the law of the land. The Ricky Nixon affair is a good example. It remains to be seen whether the agent accreditation system will stand legal scrutiny.

We do not have to look far for an example of a path we should not follow. The NRL survived News Ltd’s attempt to “steal” rugby league through “Super League”. As with cricket after the World Series Cricket takeover attempt, the peace treaty involved the predator getting a substantial stake in the redivided pie.

The spectacle of News Ltd having a half share in the NRL and full ownership of the Melbourne Storm demonstrates the danger of allowing business to take over the code rather than basking in its reflected glory.

This season will have its share of surprises and shocks. Those of us with an unhealthy emotional investment in our teams will no doubt take it all far too seriously. We should not forget though that ultimately, it is meant to be entertaining.