HOW DID THE AFL BECOME THE AFL?

July 20, 2016

Guest contributions

Melbourne Cricket Ground at night

We all know that Australian Rules Football (AFL) is one of the most popular sports in Australia. It pulls crowds of upwards of fifty thousand in Adelaide (the maximum crowd Adelaide Oval can hold), and seventy thousand for most blockbuster matches in Victoria. But how did the game get to where it is today?

Believe it or not, there hasn’t always been a national competition. Since the late 1880’s, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia all had their own state competitions, which all had little to do with each other. Fans of the game would barrack for the team from their suburb, or the team closest to them. This created a local rivalry, far more close knit than what we see today. There are a handful of AFL teams that are still named after the suburbs in which they came from, but most AFL teams are named after the cities or states in which they’re from.

So what happened? How did a national competition emerge from the state level game?

The VFL was established in 1896, and was made up of eight of the best teams in Victoria. The eight sides came from the Victorian Football Association (VFA). Richmond moved over from the VFA in 1908 to become the ninth team in the new VFL. So far, the teams in the league were Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne, Carlton, St Kilda and Richmond, all relatively familiar faces.

Both the VFL and the VFA competed for the title of ‘most popular league’, but it was the VFL who dominated throughout the 20th century.

The influence of the VFL shot to new heights at the 1970 Grand Final between Carlton and Collingwood. It had a record attendance of 121,696 – a record that is still yet to be broken. By the 1980’s, the VFL’s influence was larger than ever, and naturally, they sought to expand interstate. The wealthier VFL teams were able to afford some of the best interstate talent from the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) and the West Australian Football League (WAFL), the other two top competitions in Australia. This propped up the VFL even more. However, the desire for an Australia-wide competition still did not exist. Instead, teams from all three of the leagues competed in the Australian Football Championships Night Series in the early 80’s, these games were not affiliated with the leagues that the teams were a part of.

In 1982, South Melbourne moved to Sydney to become the Sydney Swans. This was the first team to be playing in the VFL in another state. This got the ball rolling, and in 1986, both the WAFL and the Queensland Australian Football League (QAFL) received licences to play teams in the Expanded VFL. This resulted in the establishment of the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears.

In 1990, the Expanded VFL became the AFL.

All the Victoria-based teams had reserves sides in the Victorian State Football League, the competition that replaced the VFL as the Victorian state level league. In the same year, the most successful SANFL club, Port Adelaide, tried to join the AFL. As a compromise, the Adelaide Crows were formed instead. The following year, the West Coast Eagles became the first interstate side to make it to the Grand Final, but unfortunately lost to Hawthorn. They did, however, go on to win the premiership in 1992 and 1994, the same year as the establishment of the Fremantle Football Club in Western Australia. They became the fifth interstate team in the now fully-fledged AFL.

In the mid-90’s, some of the original Victorian clubs suffered financial difficulties due to no longer being completely dominant in terms of skills. Fitzroy and Brisbane merged to form the Brisbane Lions, keeping Fitzroy’s mascot but moving to Brisbane. Port Adelaide finally received a licence to join the AFL in 1997. Also in the 90’s, the Victorian clubs began to abandon their traditional home grounds in favour of using bigger grounds like the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and Waverly Park. No longer were Windy Hill, Moorabbin Oval, Western Oval and Princes Park used to host AFL games. In 1999, the AFL sold Waverly Stadium and used the money to build Docklands, now better known as Etihad Stadium.

Now we come into the 21st century. In the year 2000, the logo was changed to its current incarnation. Brisbane dominated by winning three premierships from 2001 to 2003, while Carlton won the ‘wooden spoon’, the last of the original twelve VFL clubs to do so. In 2006, new rules were introduced that limited the time a player may hold the ball after a mark to eight seconds, and 30 seconds for a set shot at goal.

There were 16 sides in the AFL until 2011, when the Gold Coast SUNS entered the competition. A year later, the Greater Western Sydney Giants also entered the competition, making the AFL an 18-side competition, the current number.

A lot has changed since the VFL’s inception over a century ago, but are we happy with all that has changed?

The skill set of AFL players has undoubtedly improved, and not only this, but most players have dedicated themselves to the game full-time. But despite this, the game feels a little less… personal. These days, no one really goes down to their team’s home ground on a Saturday and throws rubbish on the field at half time, while yelling insults at the visiting side. At a game with an interstate team, the amount of supporters for the home side is so dis-proportioned that you hear more booing than cheering when the away team kicks a goal. When two Victorian teams play at the MCG, the home ground advantage is almost non-existent. Both sides get an opportunity to train on the ground, and both sides will have a significant number of supporters attend.

What can we expect for the future of the AFL?

Well, a national women’s leaguefinally. This is set to commence in 2017.

The rest is unknown. Will there be more teams? More venues? Perhaps one bigger than the MCG? More women involved in coaching? Will the league finally take a stand against Collingwood President Eddie McGuire and his sexist and racist comments?

I’m sure a lot of us will be staying tuned.

– Daniel Robertson

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