Could going back to zoning bring AFL back to the fans?

Alumni Speakers Series

By Dr David Nadel

The Australian Football League recently scrapped its policy of allocating priority draft picks to clubs which have failed to win a minimum number of games in a season. The AFL conceded in its announcement that its reason for abandoning the priority pick system was the widespread belief that clubs “tanked” (i.e. deliberately lost games) to acquire better players once they realised that a finals berth was out of the question. While there is no clear evidence that clubs actually did tank, outgoing Melbourne Football Club coach, Dean Bailey virtually admitted to it in the press conference that followed his sacking last year. These latest changes beg the question that, instead of constantly tinkering with draft rules, should the AFL instead re-examine its entire recruitment structure?

The Victorian Football League (predecessor to the AFL) borrowed the draft from the American National Football League after Supreme Court judge Justice Crockett essentially threw out zoning in the “Foschini judgement” in 1983. Suburban zoning had governed VFL recruiting since 1915, but Justice Crockett found it to be in restraint of trade.

The draft, along with the salary cap (the limit on the amount of money a club can spend on total player wages), is credited with creating an even and interesting competition. The role of the salary cap is unarguable; prior to it Victorian clubs were bankrupting themselves in bidding wars for interstate recruits. However the role of the draft in evening the competition is less clear. For one thing, in the 23 years of the national AFL competition there has hardly ever been an uncompromised draft. Clubs have received draft concessions because of “interstate disadvantage”, as compensation for poor performance or as part of the expansion process of creating new clubs.

Over the years, there have been calls for some modified form of zoning to be reintroduced to the AFL. These are usually met with the argument that the Foschini case had consigned the concept to history - permanently. However, if zoning is in restraint of trade, so is the draft. Indeed, the draft at the top level of rugby league was ruled in restraint of trade by the full bench of the Federal Court of Australia in 1991 (Adamson’s case).

At various times AFL officials have admitted that the draft is in restraint of trade while still optimistically maintaining that it is legal. The AFL draft remains because there is an agreement by all parties – all clubs – not to challenge it in court. Zoning lasted into the 1980s because of a similar agreement which was finally brought to an end when the St Kilda Football Club’s then-President Lindsay Fox broke ranks.

The form of zoning operating between 1915 and 1983 was in restraint of trade because all the power was in the hands of the clubs and the VFL. A player had to play for the club to which he was zoned. In 1970 Collingwood Football Club players Des Tuddenham and Len Thompson attempted to get the club to pay them salaries comparable to the amounts that the club was offering interstate recruits. Thompson was called in to a meeting with the coach, the general manager and the club president Tom Sherrin where he was told by Sherrin “We own you.”

For most of the history of metropolitan zoning, the majority of residents in the zone barracked for the local club. For that reason, under the zoning system, a young player had a good chance of playing for the team that he followed. Under the draft system, a young player can be sent anywhere.

It would seem that it would be fairly easy to construct a zoning system that was not in restraint of trade and that did not totally disempower players. Consider a system in which each club would have the right to make the first offer to as many as five recruits and five Rookie List players in their zone; players would have the right to refuse and go into a general draft; players not approached by their home club would also have the right to nominate for the draft; clubs would have an opportunity to fill the spots on their list not filled with zoned players via the draft.

Under this system, players would be much more likely to end up playing for their local club in their home state but still have the option of going to another club which they feel might offer better prospects.

Why is this preferable to the current system? Australian football’s main defence against the global codes of football (soccer and rugby) in the age of globalism is its local nature. In the days of the VFL almost everyone knew members of their local football team. Anyone who had attended a boys or co-educational school had been at school with a senior player (or at least an under 19 player) from a VFL club. This was the root of the strong local identification.

The passion of Australian rules fans comes from community identification and a sense of ownership of their clubs. The repeated failure of merger proposals and the failure of private club ownership reflect the strength of localism.

The more Australian football distances itself from the fans, the more it becomes just another form of expensive passive entertainment and the more it becomes vulnerable to the forces of globalisation. It is neither possible nor desirable to return to the days of individual city or state leagues supported by a form of zoning that treated players like chattels, but it should be possible to devise a form of regional recruiting that gives young footballers the option to play for their local team rather than being sent across the country.

Dr David Nadel is an Adjunct Research Associate for the National Centre for Australian Studies in the Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

A version of this article appeared in The Age.