Now, though, the concessions to those clubs have washed through the system. Priority picks look to be a thing of the past, father-son bargains, too. Free agency and the academy system remain as loopholes, but the draft is the least compromised it has been for a decade.
As for the other major equalisation lever, the salary cap, COLA has been abolished and a soft cap introduced, leaving only brown paper bags for those who would still dare.
The ultra-regulation of the AFL was once sneered at by an old hand as “football socialism,” but it is working. Every new broadcast deal brings in untold new riches. And in the last 20 years, all except three clubs have made grand finals and 11 have won flags. The three are the two northern expansion clubs, and Carlton, and maybe that is them coming now, after all.
So the scales balance in all ways – except the draw. It is the only glaring anomaly in the AFL structure: 18 clubs into 22 rounds still doesn’t go. It skews the competition, tilts the playing field.
The AFL’s first solution was a rolling three-year cycle of return fixtures. Now it is a Clayton’s conference system based on the previous season’s ladder. It is practical, but it can’t be fair. It guarantees lower clubs winnable early games, and a fillip if they deliver, but it is a contrivance none the less. Former Fitzroy president Dyson Hore-Lacy once scoffed at the draw as a “scheme of arrangement”. Not much has changed.
Two years ago, the handicapped draw gave Richmond a slingshot ride up the ladder. Last year, it boosted Collingwood. Then it set both up for a fall. Before that, the Bulldogs bobbed up heroically before plunging again. The AFL set out to create a cycle, but might have come up with a rollercoaster instead.
Look at St Kilda and Melbourne this year, for example. The Saints play only one of last year’s top eight twice. The Demons play three of last year’s top four twice.
Crucially, they play one another twice, the idea being that generally Melbourne would have harder double-up games except against St Kilda, and St Kilda would have easier return fixtures except against Melbourne. After Saturday, so much for that theory.
The moral is that in an ever more even competition, it makes less and less sense to presume, and allow for, unevenness. There are no easy games, no soft draw. That’s the lesson of the first five rounds. It’s not a cliche, it’s the design. It’s exciting, at least on the days when your team wins. But it’s wrong to say that the fixture is weighted when really it is manufactured. The idea that some can be more equal than others is as absurd now as when Orwell first coined it.
This is a hardy annual, along with congestion, umpiring and Gillon McLachlan’s pay packet. It’s also the most intractable. The AFL will neither shorten nor lengthen the season. Geography means that a conference system would be unworkable. Other schemes are advanced from time to time, nearly all of them inscrutable. History and money mean some marquee fixtures cannot and will not be sacrificed, no matter how the competition is sliced up. More are added from time to time, hardening the status quo.
And so we plough along from year to year, marvelling at the upsets even as we know they’re the whole idea, hoping to cause the next rather than be the next, celebrating the great equalisation enterprise while trying to put to the back of our minds the inherently unequal bits of it.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age