Thursday, August 28, 2014

What constitutes a "first class" Australian football premiership?

The occasional call by Essendon or Geelong to count VFA premierships alongside their AFL/VFL tally brings into focus the fact that 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. The AFL tends to blur its two functions as running the league and being the top level guardian and representative of the sport.
My view is that this creates an unrepresentative history of the pre-1980s era not only through the omission of the old VFA records, but also through the total exclusion of other big state leagues.

AFL fans like to look at their premiership counts and compare their clubs, Bombers and Blues fans for example hoping they'll be the first to a 17th flag and the top of the tree. Sure, why should Essendon's 1897 VFL flag count 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?
Unlike sport in many other countries, Australian football had state-based competitions for most of its history, due to vast distances and a small population. Foremost among them in Australian football were the VFL, SANFL, and WAFL in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
The 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, "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, but we do know that in the 1900s era at least, they 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 VFL's superiority
The history of state league football is that the VFL, always stronger based on population, moved to a gradual position of greater dominance. This 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 - hemorrhaging players and knowing where the money was. 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. The VFL then 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.
Current practice is to present the VFL as 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, it 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 sole top level league in Australia continued being a 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 but whether the gulf is such to justify it being in a category all of its own - the sole "first class" league in Australia during the 20th century.
What we do know is that at some point the VFL/AFL became the clearly dominant national league by virtue of professionalisation concentrating resources in 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 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. This, to me, is the argument one needs to make to place the VFL as the exclusive holder of "top level competition" status in a context where the football dominant states all had a state-based league of part time platers.

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. We know that money amplifies a club and a league's existing advantage. After all, generally speaking, the history of professionalisation in a sport is a history of rationalisation, teams with smaller resource bases stop being capable of competitiveness (see: Fitzroy, South Melbourne, Newtown Jets, etc).

It should follow then, that without these things, the competitive gap should be less. Without the recruitment and training resources to magnify 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 (which interestate competition suggests there was for SA and WA, but not Tasmania or Queensland).

Power clubs recognised what was happening in the 1980s - East Perth, East Fremantle, South Fremantle, Norwood and Port Adelaide all investigated or attempted to enter the VFL between 1980 and 1990, seeing where the money and power was going. They also must have thought they could make the jump successfully at this point.
I think Ireland's still-amateur GAA sports provide more context for this claim. 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 which were roughly co-equal elite leagues until they started playing Super Bowls on a neatly defined date, in Australian football we don't have a clear point where we went from relative parity to one elite league. We had 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 later point the VFL/AFL was clearly the top competition. This makes drawing a line a bit messy.
Drawing lines
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. 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, 1960. 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.