Has expansion killed AFL competitiveness?

16 September 2011


Michael NolanThe 2011 home and away season has drawn to a close and AFL fans have been left wondering if the game has lost its spark.

With the introduction of the Gold Coast Suns, the extended season was typified by the top teams dominating the competition. With the lowest crowd attendance recorded since 2005, some are concerned that uneven match-ups have reduced the fans’ interest in the sport.

Dr Liam Lenten, from La Trobe University’s Sports Economics program, has tracked the relationship between the competitiveness of AFL matches and crowd attendance, and believes a worrying trend may develop.

Using an econometric algorithm developed for an earlier study, Dr Lenten was able to express competitiveness as a numerical value.

According to Dr Lenten’s algorithm, 2011 was the least competitive season since 1982 and the eighth least competitive since the VFL first began in 1897.

In a feat of statistical wizardry, Dr Lenten was able to isolate extraneous factors, such as weather conditions, ticket prices and time availability, leaving competitiveness as the sole determinate influencing attendance on any given weekend.

‘In economics we try to measure demand, and in sport one way of measuring demand is through attendance, if there’s more bums on seats, there’s more demand’.

‘Ask a Carlton fan what’s better than beating Collingwood by 100 points, and they will probably tell you that beating them by one point is better, even though in the latter case it would have looked during the game that they could very well have lost.’

The initial study, published in a 2005 edition of Economic Recordlooked at the attendance figures going back to 1945 and concluded that in seasons where the competition is more even, attendance is higher.

But the AFL strenuously denies there’s a declining interest in the game.

‘While there may have been less people attending individual matches, we have received the highest total attendance for the year on record for the home and away season,’ says AFL spokesman Patrick Keane.

‘We actually had 30,000 more people attend AFL games this year.’

The lack of competitiveness is also reflected in the massive score blow-outs this season, with nine games ending with a 100 plus point margin.

The Daily Telegraph’s Rebecca Wilson blames the expansion of the AFL, saying recent moves have spread talent too thin and CEO Andrew Demetriou should look at merging poor performing Melbourne clubs as a way to free up resources for interstate teams.

Earlier in the season, Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse, speaking to Panda Sports, signaled a possible decline in public interest after Geelong beat the Demons by 186 points.

‘The score line at the moment in AFL football has to be a worrying trend for the AFL.  This is not going to bring football people to the football,’ said Malthouse .

There is a history of interstate expansion reducing competitiveness, with declines in the 1986 and 1987 season when the Brisbane Lions and Sydney Swans joined the league.

‘If the trend is moving towards less competitiveness, it’s something the AFL officials have to be conscious about,’ says Dr Lenten.

Michael Nolan is studying a Graduate Diploma in Journalism and is part of upstart’s editorial team.  You can follow him on Twitter: @michael_nolanl8.