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The 2021 AFL season is upon us and, unlike almost every other sport in the world, tens of thousands of people will be in the stands from the first game with 50,000 people – yes, you read that right – expected for the traditional season opener at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
If you stumbled across AFL last year during lockdown, you may still be coming to grips with the biggest sport played in Australia – and almost nowhere else. It is Australia’s equivalent of America’s National Football League, albeit a completely different game.
With the new season starting on Thursday 18 March, live on BT Sport, we thought it was the perfect time to explain everything you need to know.
The premiership contenders
Richmond overcame the odds to go back-to-back last year, winning a third premiership in four years to cement ‘dynasty’ status. Despite a summer of controversy at the Victorian powerhouse, the Tigers arrive at round one as the favourites to become only the sixth club to win the ‘three-peat’ since the competition started in 1897.
Geelong were in the box seat at half-time of last year’s Grand Final at the Gabba, before Richmond – and superstar midfielder Dustin Martin – put their foot down in the second half. Since then, the Cats have doubled down, poaching three stars from other clubs – Jeremy Cameron, Shaun Higgins and Isaac Smith – similar to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL last season when they added Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, before signing Antonio Brown later on.
In the past few years Brisbane have leapt from the lower rungs of the ladder to become a genuine premiership contender. The Lions won their first final in more than a decade last year before falling to the Cats in the preliminary final, wasting a golden opportunity to play all four finals at home, including the decider, which was hosted in Brisbane instead of Melbourne due to the pandemic. They landed an injury-prone star forward in Joe Daniher during the trade period and the former Bomber could prove to be the difference.
And then there is Port Adelaide. The Power sat on top of the ladder for the entire home and away season last year before falling to the eventual premiers in the penultimate game of the season. They won’t be a one-season wonder and have one of the most intimidating home grounds in Australian sport.
The wooden spoon
Unlike in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and almost every other football league in Europe, finishing on the bottom isn’t a complete catastrophe that results in relegation and a significant financial hit that could see you become Portsmouth or Sunderland and tumble all the way down the pyramid.
There isn’t a relegation system in the AFL. If you finish on the bottom of the ladder you ‘win’ the wooden spoon and all the embarrassment that comes with it.
Last year Adelaide finished on the bottom for the first time since they entered the competition in 1991 and are expected to finish down there again in 2021, alongside North Melbourne and fallen giants Hawthorn.
The Brownlow Medal
Make no mistake, this is the most prestigious individual prize in Australian sport. The Brownlow Medal is awarded to the fairest and best player in the home and away season and is voted by the umpires after every single game, with three votes - two votes and one vote allocated.
The count is held on the Monday before the Grand Final and is one of the most glamourous events in Australian society. Brisbane star Lachie Neale won his first Brownlow in 2020 and is the favourite again, ahead of past winners Nat Fyfe, Dustin Martin and Patrick Dangerfield. Gold Coast young gun Matt Rowell has only played five games but is considered a smokey to win the most coveted award in the game in 2021.
The Coleman Medal
While this is not as esteemed as the Brownlow, the Coleman Medal race is tracked in full public view and not revealed at the end of the season after the votes were kept under lock and key.
The Coleman is named after one of the greatest goalkickers of all-time – Essendon champion John Coleman – and is awarded to the leading goalkicker during the home and away season. Mo Salah, Bruno Fernandes and Harry Kane look like taking this down to the wire in the Premier League and the same might happen between two team-mates in the AFL.
Geelong now have the past two winners after they landed Jeremy Cameron during the trade period, adding the star spearhead to a forward line that is led by current Coleman medallist Tom Hawkins. Richmond’s Tom Lynch and Port Adelaide’s Charlie Dixon are two other players in the conversation for this award right now.
The top-eight finals race
The AFL premiership isn’t decided by where you finish on the ladder at the end of the home and away season. The top eight sides on the ladder progress to the finals, just like in the NFL or NBA, with the bottom ten sides eliminated.
There are no Champions League or Europa League spots creating a narrative throughout the season, but the top four spots are the most coveted because they provide an extra chance in the first week of the finals.
If you finish in the top four and lose the first final, you are still alive. Richmond lost in the first week of last year’s finals and then went all the way. The Western Bulldogs famously rose from seventh in 2016 to win four finals and end a 62-year premiership drought.
Crowds are back at the footy in 2021
The AFL will operate at 50 per cent capacity in round one and potentially increase to 75 per cent in the following weeks before reaching 100 per cent capacity by the halfway mark of the season if things go to plan.
That is hard to fathom over here right now, but that is the situation in Australia. And what a difference it will make, even on the TV, where the sight of empty seats and computer generated crowd noises have become normal life in a pandemic world.
The big rule change causing a storm
If you are sick of talking about VAR, don’t think rule interpretations are only a part of football. The AFL introduced a new rule during the off-season that has been the biggest talking point in the past few months.
The new ‘man-on-the-mark’ rule is the latest innovation from the league to open up the game and encourage faster ball movement through the middle of the ground. It has only been tested over one weekend of pre-season fixtures and will be a major talking point in the first half of the season.
The tale of the past two No. 1 draft picks
Just like in American sports, the AFL holds a draft at the end of every season to help underperforming clubs access the best talent to propel them back up the ladder. The club that finishes on the bottom of the ladder is allocated the coveted No. 1 pick, while the premiers start on the draft board at No. 18.
The draft has become an integral part of the AFL calendar in the past two decades, but rarely do top picks come in and have an immediate impact. That happened last year when Gold Coast Suns midfielder Matt Rowell ripped the competition apart in the first month before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Round 5.
By that stage, he had claimed nine Brownlow Medal votes and was the most talked about player in the AFL. Last year’s No. 1 pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is expected to play plenty of senior football for the Western Bulldogs in 2021, but no one expects him to do what Rowell did in his first taste of the big time.
Why the salary cap?
The AFL introduced a salary cap in 1987 when Brisbane and West Coast entered the competition as part of its equalisation policy, along with the draft. This was to prevent traditional powerhouses like Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon and Richmond from buying premierships and significantly outspending rivals.
The AFL reduced the salary cap to $13.17 million per club last season due to the COVID-19 impact on the game. Since its inception three decades ago, all but five clubs have won the ultimate prize – and two of those clubs have only existed for 10 and 11 years each. More than half of the competition enters every season believing they can go all the way.
Why AFL is the biggest sport in Australia?
Forget rugby league, cricket or basketball, AFL is clearly the biggest sport in the country. Putting a line through 2020 for obvious reasons, more than 7.5 million people attended AFL games in 2019 at an average of 36,317 per game – just a thousand under the average Premier League attendance that year.
More than a million club memberships were sold, including over 100,000 at Richmond – four other clubs had more than 80,000 members that year. Every club except for the two expansion clubs – Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast – and Brisbane boasted more than 40,000 members.
Put this into comparison to the National Rugby League and only one club had more than 30,000 members in 2019.
The new season gets underway on Thursday 18 March and BT Sport is the only place to watch the best of the action in 2021.