Merits of the Schwab AFL plan

Merits of the Schwab AFL plan

09 Jun 2011

Brendan Schwab, former vice-president of the Richmond Football Club, has created a stir by forwarding a plan to split the AFL into two divisions from 2014.

man-holding-footy-stdHe argues that such a move is needed in an 18-team competition to circumvent a dramatic rise in the number of ‘inconsequential’ games, but would his proposal work?

Recognising that the proof of the pudding is ‘bums on seats’, an ongoing study by a La Trobe University sports economist uses econometric modelling and regression techniques to estimate models of match attendance from data on nearly 3,000 home-and-away AFL matches from 1995-2010.

The research - by Dr Liam Lenten from La Trobe’s School of Economics and Finance, and co-author Dr Jordi Mackenzie at the University of Sydney - is aimed principally at identifying the season structure that will optimise both attendances and fairness for teams in the fixture.

While some of the factors they look at are beyond the control of the league (eg. weather), other factors associated with higher attendances (a crucial objective for AFL administrators) can be harnessed further by using alternative season structures to the current one.

The authors say that among their results, importance of the match is highly significant, and this indicates that Schwab is broadly on the right track with proposals that minimise the number of matches that have no bearing on which teams will contest the finals.

As Dr Lenten says ‘Our results are consistent with higher attendances under Schwab’s proposal of the allocation of teams playing each other twice being solely on the basis of the previous season’s ladder.’

‘I would support this – I have been arguing for some time that a reduction in the number of matches between Melbourne’s richer clubs would not affect attendances greatly. We are less certain of the demand effects of the other proposals he advocates (such as the extended season and reduced finals series), nevertheless, the ideas seem to have some merit.’

However, it is the actual split into two divisions that the authors believe to be a bridge too far. They say that Schwab has not accounted for fan behaviour in the wake of a relegation and promotion system.

Lenten says that they are unable to observe what this would do, since the AFL has not previously used such a system, however, he points to work in 2002 by prominent economist Roger Noll (Stanford University) in the Journal of Sports Economics that identifies significant declines in attendances for English soccer teams following relegation.

He says that his belief is that this effect would be more pronounced for AFL fans (not used to such a system), who he claims would switch off from the very first game of the season if they knew that their team could not make the finals until the following season at the earliest.

‘Also, we know that in some cases in past seasons, teams have improved or declined dramatically from one season to the next, and thus this system risks becoming farcical if a few teams in division 2 are beating most of the sides in division 1, yet are ineligible to play finals,’ says Dr Lenten.

The authors acknowledge that they are still yet to determine their optimal system, and that they have to be mindful of many considerations, including constraints presented by the AFL’s broadcasting rights deal and collective bargaining agreement with the Players’ Association, not to mention that any proposal must be acceptable to fans generally.

However, as Dr Lenten asserts, the optimal system is likely to be one that contains some elements of the current system with some others from Schwab’s plan.




Contact: Dr Liam Lenten Tel: + 61 3 9479 3607, E-mail: 




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