Leave the rules alone.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
The state of the game, on the field, has become the issue of 2018.
The combination of the lowest scores for half a century, 30-plus players around the ball, reduced television ratings and the arrival to AFL headquarters of a resolute ex-Geelong defender who once broke Leigh Matthews' nose, have set off a debate about how best to make the on-field product more palatable.
The forthright comments of Channel Seven boss Tim Worner – who wants more goals and to restore "beauty" in the game – also confirm that the blighted spectacle is high on the agenda of the people who pay the bills.
Seven West Media CEO Tim Worner.
Worner's words will be viewed by many fans with cynicism, because, like all businesses, the AFL's free-to-air broadcaster is concerned largely with the bottom line. But it would also be unwise to dismiss his views, which Gillon McLachlan and his new football lieutenant Steve Hocking already know.
Without maintaining high TV ratings, AFL – and club – revenues will drop and this will mean more than simply cutting the bonuses of unpopular AFL executives. It will be harder to prop up the expansion teams and Brisbane, harder to maintain the current level of equalisation for North, St Kilda and the Dogs, harder to pay the AFL Women's players what they deserve and harder to attract the first choice athletes, female or male.
The TV rights are to the AFL what North Sea oil reserves are to Norway – they have enabled a vast welfare state and higher living standards for all.
The look of the game underpins everything.
The debate about what should be done is best understood as a battle between three loose factions, both within the game and in the stands/on the couch.
First, there's The Conservatives, whose position is best summarised by that hoary old war cry: "Leave the rules alone." They hope and pray that the game will find an answer, believing in evolution, rather than revolution.
Like Tony Abbott's Tories within the Coalition, the conservatives are shrinking in number and influence. They want the game to be what it was in 1988, without recognising that it can only retain some of those elements by changing.
The second group is The Incrementalists. They do not think the game will solve its own problems, but are squeamish about anything that seems to change what they think are the fundamentals. They want minor surgery, not the removal of what they consider vital organs.
Third, there's The Radicals. They resemble advocates for serious action on climate change, in that they believe the crisis is now and that major, contentious change is essential to save Planet AFL from catastrophe.
The Conservatives, sadly, can be dismissed as a force. Few within clubs and AFL HQ think Hocking and the AFL Commission should "do nothing". To do zilch would mean relying on the altruism and ingenuity of coaches to save the game from their own handiwork and from the forces of professional sport. It will not happen.
So, the real contest of ideas is between The Incrementalists and The Radicals. Change is coming to the competition. Be prepared for it. The question is whether it will be incremental, radical or some combination.
Pack mentality: The look of the game has been the main point of discussion this year.
It is quite conceivable that incremental change will come first and if that doesn't decongest the game's blocked passages, extreme rule changes – eg: zones for stoppages or 16 a side – will eventually follow.
Incrementalists want tinkering with the rules, such as further reducing interchange rotations to ease congestion (a change ex-AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick championed) or to clear the scrums by paying more frees. Nathan Buckley and Alastair Clarkson have both called for reducing or eradicating prior opportunity – a view that McLachlan broadly shares.
To introduce starting positions – say, three players from each team inside the 50-metre arcs – at centre bounces only is a classical Incrementalist solution to congestion. To mandate the same at every stoppage is the panacea that many Radicals want.
Three reforms can be classified as Radical options. The first is what I described several years ago as The Nuclear Option of netball-style zones. If this is to happen – Rodney Eade is one of the early advocates – it would be introduced only for stoppages, with a few players having to stand in the arc at each end (or half of the field). Once the ball's thrown up or bounced, players could move where they like.
Reducing the number of players to 16, which Geelong coach Chris Scott favours, is the second Radical solution. The other Radical remedy is not simply the reduction of rotations, but the complete elimination of interchange and its replacement with soccer-like substitutes.
It would be a massive leap of faith for the AFL to introduce a Radical rule, such as compulsory starting positions at all stoppages – a tough rule to police – without trialling it in the pre-season competition. The safest choice would be go for the Incrementalist changes, while trialling Radical options in pre-season or the VFL.
"Last touch'' out of bounds – which exists in the SANFL and Malcolm Blight is pushing – is on the border of Incremental and Radical. It sounds extreme to many of us, but the impact might not prove so.
Agent of change: Steve Hocking.
Is Hocking an Incrementalist or a Radical? At a briefing I attended last Tuesday, he mentioned that the AFL had to careful of "unintended consequences" of some changes. It is unclear how to read that comment.
My guess is he isn't wedded to either radical or gradual measures, but is committed to change and is willing to use either, and that the change is being hatched, right now, for 2019 and 2020.
We are being conditioned to rule changes by the AFL. It is no coincidence that they have formed more committees than the Politburo, and that influential figures such as Blight, Leigh Matthews and the two Gerards, Healy and Whateley, have been brought in to the tent to hear the state-of-game spiel.
I suspect that Incrementalism will be the first port of call, with Radicalism kept in the top drawer. But nothing would really surprise. Hocking shapes as a change agent.
Whatever he, McLachlan and the Commission decide, footy won't be the same in 2019. It's just a question of whether it will get a facelift or a new face altogether.
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