No Go Zone
By The Iron Sock
Not one to limit his talents to the world of football, Essendon chairman David Evans has dallied in the last little while in the sphere of kite-flying. Evans proposal to introduce a non-metropolitan zoning system would see clubs allotted country and outback areas in which they would be allowed to invest in player development. Under the proposal, clubs would be ‘afforded the ability to pre-list’ young players from the ages of 12-16.
Following the strategy employed by Hawthorn with Cyril Rioli, the idea would be to bring promising youngsters into cloistered academies. Having them educated at schools like Essendon Grammar, and under the clubs watchful eye, the pre-listed players’ development would be fast tracked and the pay-off for clubs would be to have these players precluded from the draft – set aside for an investing club.
Undoubtedly anticipating that the AFL may need to marshal significant amounts of its own resources toward some sustained and heavy bombardment on its northern frontier as the contest for winter-sporting allegiance heats up in the northern states, Evans is offering the AFL the capacity to free up some of its war-chest while the clubs underwrite areas of talent expansion.
The argument presented by Evans, under the guise of an ‘incentive to invest in the community and grow the reach of the game’ in country or remote areas, is presumably premised on reaching talented kids who could not play the game without such support and whose development the AFL is not in a position to underwrite. That’s the altruistic message. But as many football fans have been quick to object, it also looks very much like a talent grab that would advantage the rich clubs who would use their superior resources to develop more talent on their lists.
Quite apart from the specific problems of equity in Evans’ proposal though are the multiple snags that have afflicted zoning systems in the past. Below is a potted history of that problematic enterprise.
The Early Years – The Scourge of Money
The founding fathers of Australian Rules were wealthy men and great believers in the social utility of sport, notably in the cause of class cohesion and bolstering a vigorous national consciousness. Few were the fields of social life in late 19th century Australia in which classes found cause for bonding: in the workplace by day or in the suburbs by night. The sporting field promised such cohesion, but often as not; it became another field of battle between the classes in the early years of football. One of the main bones of contention between the wealthy founding fathers of football and what soon became its overwhelming base, the urban working-class, was the question of money.
Many respectable boosters and early administrators of Australian Rules felt money debased the meaning of football and as such they dictated that it should be played voluntarily. But as the competition grew in popularity, that attitude came under challenge. Sustaining an injury on the football field had a radically different impact for the man working in the clearing-house or bank and the man chiselling stone or cutting leather all day, and consequently remuneration for players became an unavoidable factor as the games popularity exploded from the 1870s.
What also changed was the even nature of a competition. The VFA by the late 1890s had become polarised between easy-beats and powerhouses, a fact which precipitated a break-away competition of powerful clubs from the rump of a moribund VFA. That break-away league was the VFL, established in 1897.
The VFL may have been a new enterprise but it formally adopted the same rules regarding player payments as its predecessor. Player payments were meant to consist only of compensation for direct expenses incurred, such as boots or travel costs. But for reasons already touched upon it was long known that under the table payments were being made – in fact it was a practice which stretched back to the VFA days, with the South Melbourne captain, “Sonny” Elms being gifted upon his retirement in 1892 a tobacconists shop on Clarendon Street by ‘well-known South Supporters.’ The issue of player payment was already long established before the introduction of the VFL, the question would become ‘what is to be done?’
The Early Zone
In 1911 the VFL formally gave up the pretence of amateurism by formally accepting player payments, but this move augured a new set of issues, namely the capacity of more eminent clubs to openly attract the best talent.
This was the backdrop for the introduction of metropolitan zoning in 1915, a measure intended to ameliorate inequities and to prevent the more renowned clubs like Collingwood from drawing talent at home and from across the geographic spectrum. But the problems with the new zoning system were multiple.
The first issue was that the material inequity was countered by an arbitrary inequity. The metropolitan zones were by no means equally ripe with talent and in this way the law of attraction gave way to the law of chance.
In fact the introduction of Footscray, one of the most successful teams of the VFA, was forestalled in 1920 by Charles Brownlow because its council area impinged upon areas allotted to South Melbourne and Essendon.
The real issue though was the arbitrary nature of zones and its pot luck nature, a fact which became very evident with country zoning.
The very restriction of metropolitan zoning led many clubs with the resources to go further afield and pick the eyes from the rural competitions. The capacity of the wealthy clubs to cherry-pick country talent saw the VFL introduce in 19xx a rural zoning system. Of course this was simply a reproduction of the arbitrariness of a metropolitan zoning system.
The original premise of the rural zone system was based on a rotating schedule so that no-one might be disadvantaged by the draw. But as it happened, there was no such rotation, which was no small beer. The result was that those with the cream country areas dominated the competition – with Carlton, Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Richmond winning every premiership between 1967 and 1983.
The demise of South Melbourne was by no means assisted by the apportioning of the Riverina area at the New South Wales border, or Collingwood by Hamilton which had 1/3 of the population of Hawthorn’s Warragul zone and a low percentage of children as a population.
The zoning question ultimately came to grief when Silvio Foschini refused to move up to Sydney under the Swans relocation project after challenging the decision as a restraint of trade in the early ‘80s.
While it was agued and won at the full bench of the Federal Court in 1991 in a Rugby League challenge that the draft is a restraint of trade as much as the zoning system was, our issue must be not the fine points of legality but what makes the competition the fairest and a rare commodity not dictated by money alone.
Whatever issues we might have with the AFL, the draft system can’t be it. Coupled with the salary cap, it’s the fairest system to yet evolve in the competitions history – pooling every player across the nation and allowing the lowest performing teams the highest opportunity to pick winners.
The addition of limited free-agency allows that degree of mobility without turning the game into a passionless circus where players float in a meaningless culture of money. So long as we keep that balance between player reward and club fairness, we have a really unique and rare enterprise.
- The Iron Sock
These thoughts and opinions are those of the author and are not necessarily aligned with those of Nick Maxwell or the people at nickmaxwell.com.au
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