Thursday, August 28, 2014

What constitutes a "first class" Australian football premiership?

The modern AFL has two functions - running the elite national league of Australian Rules Football and running sport as a whole. It often blurs these together when discussing historical records. The AFL traces its roots to the 1897 breakaway VFL which became the top level Victorian league, and often when talking about records and history it seems as though the VFL sprang fully-formed from a void and nothing existed before it or alongside it in its early decades. This isn't the case.

When successful pre-1897 clubs like Essendon or Geelong ask to count VFA premierships alongside their AFL/VFL tally in the official count recognised by the AFL, this brings into focus thr disconnect.

We're currently treating the administrative history of the body which runs the the game of Australian Rules football as equivalent to the history of our sport as a whole. This creates an unrepresentative history of the pre-1980s era. It omits the old VFA records, even from the era when that was clearly the peak competititon in Victoria. And it also totally excludes the histories of big state leagues of comparable significance in Adelaide and Perth.

AFL fans like to look at their premiership counts and compare their clubs, Bombers and Blues fans for example hope they'll be the first to a 17th flag and the top of the tree. We could ask why Essendon's 1897 VFL flag counts for more than its four flags from 1891 to 1894 in the VFA. But equally, why should Essendon's 1897 flag count for more than Port Adelaide's 1897 flag?

Parallel evolution

Unlike sport in many other countries, Australian football had state-based competitions for most of its history, due to vast distances and a small continental population. Foremost among them in Australian football were the VFL, SANFL, and WAFL in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Lest we buy into the VFL-supremacist view that they were always the only elite league, it should be emphasised that these three state leagues were all originally close enough in standard to compete with each other in at representative footy level.

Until 1976, WAFL, SANFL and VFL teams played each other as equals with players selected from among the best in their clubs. Despite the population difference, when teams from these leagues played each other, the result wasn't a foregone conclusion (for example, Victoria usually won the periodic representative carnivals, but WA won the 1961 Carnival).

At an individual club level, the gulf was smaller still. "Championship of Australia" matches were held between SANFL and VFL premiers in the early 1900s with Port Adelaide, West Adelaide and Norwood all winning titles. If that concept had have continued for longer, perhaps we'd have a better picture of the relative strength of peak league teams as the decades wore on, but we do know that in the 1900s era at least, the clubs from each state could beat each other. When the concept was revived in 1968, VFL teams usually won, but North Adelaide still triumphed over Carlton in 1972.

Defining and qualifying the changing extent of the VFL's superiority
The history of state league football in the 20th century is that the VFL, always stronger based on population, moved to a gradual position of greater dominance and eventually formed a national competition.

This growing gap became very marked from the 1970s onward. Clubs recognised this. East Perth, Norwood, a merged South and East Freo, Port Adelaide, all considered or proposed joining the VFL. Power clubs saw the writing on the wall by the 1980s, they were haemorrhaging players and they knew where the money, now backed by TV, was heading. The VFL, based in the largest football state, was a richer league and pulled in more and more players from South Australia and Western Australia. Imstead oft he great state bodies collectively forming a national competition, the VFL gradually expanded to become the AFL we know today. First South Melbourne were forcibly relocated to Sydney in 1982, then teams from Western Australia (West Coast Eagles - 1987) and South Australia (Adelaide Crows - 1991) were added to the VFL and it became the AFL.

Marking history

Current official practice, defined by the AFL's recordkeeping and historians, is to present the VFL as a sole direct predecessor to the AFL, which creates the impression that the VFL was always the premier league in the country. If we take AFL administrative history as the history of top level competition in our sport, the nrrative runs something like "top level competition began in 1897 when 8 clubs broke away from the VFA to form a new elite league, the VFL. For most of the century the only top level Australian league in Australia continued being purely Victorian league before eventually adding teams from other states."

This, however, rings false and incomplete. The question is not whether the VFL was generally a stronger league. The question is whether the gulf was so large, since the beginning, to justify treating the VFL as a category all of its own - the sole "first class" league in Australia during the entire 20th century.

The truth is messier. At some point the VFL/AFL became the clearly dominant national league by virtue of professionalisation and broadcasting rights concentrating resources into the richest clubs and biggest footy state. That point was probably not 1897.

We know that at least until 1972, the difference between clubs was a relatively small one compared to what came later. We know from Championship of Australia records in the pre-war era that clubs from the different leagues could beat each other and the result between the two premiers of a given year would not have been a foregone conclusion.

To argue for sole VFL supremacy, I'd argue we need to be pretty confident that the worst VFL sides were better than the best sides anywhere else. That's the argument we need to place the VFL as the exclusive holder of "top level competition" status. This didn't exist in the pre-professional era when each city was largely pulling from their local player base.

Population difference means less in a pre-professional era

Thinking about what sport was like in the pre-fulltime athlete era, it makes intuitive sense that a 3:1 population ratio between Victoria and either South Australia or Western Australia should mean less than it does now.

We know that professionalisation and financial expansion increased the dominance of rich VFL clubs, necessitating a draft. More money and better talent identification means a larger resource base can be more effectively utilised. More money then amplifies existing advantage. Generally speaking, the history of professionalisation in football leagues is a history of rationalisation, where teams with smaller resource bases stop being capable of competitiveness (see: Fitzroy, South Melbourne, Newtown Jets, etc).

It should follow, then, that without money magnifying the resource advantage, the competitive gap between states should be lower. Without the recruitment and training resources to more effectively harness the differences in gene pool size, relative population should have mattered less to the standard of football played as long as there was some minimum amount of pretty good players. Interstate competition earlier int he 20th century suggests there were enough players available in SA and WA, but not Tasmania or Queensland.

Power clubs recognised what was happening as money and professionalisation began to take hold. In the 1980s, East Perth, East Fremantle, South Fremantle, Norwood and Port Adelaide all investigated or attempted to enter the VFL, seeing where the wind was blowing. They also must have thought they could make the jump successfully at this point.

Ireland's still-amateur GAA sports provide more context for this claim about population being less meaningful without money and professional rigour to take advantage of it. In sports such as Hurling and Gaelic Football, smaller counties are often still competitive with larger ones. Kerry is the 14th largest county, but has won the most Gaelic football championships ahead of Dublin (1st) and Galway (5th), while in Hurling, Kilkenny (21st) and Tipperary (13th) only have a fraction of the people of Cork (4th) but remain competitive with them. Part of this can be explained by cultural difference probably, but all of it?

That's not to say that larger population confers no advantage in terms of raw athletic material, of course it does. It's just that on a player by player, club by club, year by year basis, it seems that it doesn't make an insurmountable difference without the amplification effects that come with professionalisation.

Compare also the fact that NSW and Victoria never completely monopolised Sheffield Shield in the era when teams were all basically state-based.
To me, everything suggests that while the VFL was recognised as generally the strongest of the leagues, the difference was not a category difference, not such a gulf that makes it justifiable to label the early VFL as the sole standard bearer of elite competition over the state league era of football history.

Quantifying history

As the only entity to transfer directly from another state league Port Adelaide serve to bring the "administrative history vs elite competition history" tension into sharp focus. Clearly Port Adelaide are an entity that existed and were elite and successful before 1997. It's really just plain ahistorical to keep a history of top level Australian football that does not acknowledge their historical success at all. Current allegedly top-level history keeping presents them as a team formed in 1997 which has won one grand final and lost another by a hilariously large margin. It's a bit awkward.
Similarly, it would be farcical to suggest Port Adelaide's 1995 SANFL premiership should be counted equal with Carlton's AFL one. But what about their 1910 flag when they went on to win the Championship of Australia match against Collingwood?

So what if we want to take a view which is more holistic in its view of the sport, and include the"first class" level of our game over its entire organised history? There are similar situations in other sports. The present day NFL peak league of American football, only came into existence in 1970 when the AFL and NFL rivals merged to form the modern NFL (the two conferences AFC and NFc are the legacy of that). The Super Bowl only started in 1967.

To claim that there were no top level champions prior to the 1967 Super Bowl would obviously be silly. Instead, discussion of the pre-merger era counts both AFL and NFL titles as league championships (as distinct from Conference titles and from Super Bowls). For example, it's often said that the Browns have a championship drought back to 1964 and the Chargers back to 1963, even though the Sueprbowl didn't start til 1967. At that time, there were two leagues with realistic claims to be the pinnacle of the sport. To win either was the highest achievement a team could have.
In our context there's no clear line to draw.

Unlike the NFL/AFL we don't have a clear cutoff date. Those two leagues were roughly co-equal elite leagues until they started playing Super Bowls. In Australian football we don't have a clear point where we went from relative parity to one elite league. Instead, there was a long transition period when clubs attempted to jump to the ascendent VFL and we had piecemeal acceptance of the new situation that some would argue the SANFL and WAFL are still coming to terms with.

At some point, the WAFL, VFL and SANFL were all basically first class leagues in different places. Then at another much later point the VFL/AFL was clearly the top competition. This makes drawing a line a bit messy.

Drawing lines through the mess

In terms of quantifying premiership success and what counts as "elite" I can think of three or four obvious cut-off points to draw through the story of vaguely increasing Victorian league ascendency:
  1. 1977. The first State of Origin match, between WA and Victoria. State of Origin replaced inter-league play at this point. Recognising that the WAFL could no longer compete against the VFL since a critical mass of the best WA players were on the Victorian team, inter-league play gave way to "state of origin". This had players playing for their home state, regardless of what league they played in.
  2.  1982, 1987, 1990, 1991. 1982 was first year the VFL had a team based outside Victoria - the South Melbourne Swans were relocated forcibly to Sydney. 1987 was when Western Australia entered a team. 1990 was when the VFL changed its name to the AFL. 1991 is when it got its first team from South Australia.
  3.  For each state league, the point at which VFL/AFL football became the highest level football played in that state. So that would be 1897 for Victoria, 1987 for WA, 1991 for the SANFL.
  4.  Nothing counts in any state before 1987 when the competition became truly national.
I favour number 1, the advent of the State of Origin era. Adopting State of Origin rules rather than interleague play represents a fundamental change in the way the leagues related to each other - it meant admitting that the people playing in those leagues were no longer of a close enough parity to be competitive with each other. This strikes me as a good marker of the point at which the SANFL and WAFL were clearly no longer equal with the VFL.

Number 2 is a series of milestones on a road, marking a transformation, and there's no obvious reason to pick one over another. Number 3, varying by state seems elegant, but we have the problem that by 1986 with the increasing professionalisation, the VFL was clearly substantially higher level than the other two leagues in a way it doesn't seem to have been in, say, 1950.

Number 4 is also quite clear-cut and rational, but far less interesting, and we're probably a generation or two away from "nothing before the AFL counts" being a close to dominant view.

So what does a premiership table look like for "first class" football as a whole, if we consider all pre-1977 top leagues in the three dominant football states as "first class" leagues?

 (VFA titles pre 1897 count, on the basis that it was the top level league at the time. Neatly, also, no VFA club won a flag which didn't then transfer over to the VFL in 1897).
This, to me, gives a truer picture of first class football in Australia over much of the 20th century. Two historically dominant clubs in South Australia playing in a league with a bit less depth than Victoria. Four or five very winning clubs in Victoria preventing any single one from winning as many flags as Norwood or Port Adelaide. And a more even spread in Western Australia aside from a generally dominant East Fremantle.

The thing I really like about this is we've managed to let Port Adelaide win the argument for counting state level premierships without being clearly on top of the pile.