Transparency and a Radical Proposal – Make the NEAFL the official AFL test league

Trust is something easy to feel, but hard to explain or quantify. People feel trust that their houses won’t fall in (with the possible exception of new Sydney apartment owners), or that the sun will rise in the morning.

Generally, powerful organisations are surrounded by trust issues with those on the outer – consumers, voters, shareholders or fans. People are mostly inclined to accept decisions when presented with facts or evidence which support them, but unfortunately, in an information-rich world, communicating the right information loudly enough and quickly enough can be quite challenging even for well-meaning organisations.

Selling a big decision is hard enough even assuming the people making that decision have actually used evidence, and assuming that they do want people to understand why and how it was made.

If all they want to do is communicate the fact that they have made a decision, the trust and communication issues can compound.

It would be fair to say that the general footballing public does not fully trust the current AFL administration and the recent decisions that it has made. Trust issues have come from any number of places:

  • The soft touch handling of the racist crowd abuse of Adam Goodes earlier in the decade.
  • Perceptions of trying to manipulate a favourable outcome from ASADA during the Essendon doping scandal.
  • A string of changes to the Match Review onfield discipline process and its seeming ongoing lack of clarity and consistency.
  • Mishandling and misrepresentation of evidence and rationale regarding rule changes, especially at the end of 2018.
  • Promotional and scheduling neglect of the AFLW competition.

There are likely numerous other examples that spring to mind for specific fans and interest groups. Confidence in the AFL Commission itself may be lower than in decades, regardless of the underlying health of the game.

The quest for greater transparency

There are decades of academic research clearly suggesting a strong link between organisational transparency and trust. In recent years, governments around the world have attempted to enable greater transparency via mandatory reporting schemes, freedom of information (FOI) and publicly available decision making information.

In the corporate world, continuous disclosure rules and minimum reporting standards attempt to provide a baseline for providing the public with the critical information about a public-listed company (in certain situations).

In the sporting world, there are significantly fewer set requirements for the reporting of important information. There are some minimum governmental and international standards to meet, but beyond that, transparency is often set on a case by case basis.

At first glance, the AFL has a reasonable amount of structural transparency. The laws, rules and regulations of the game and major league are generally publicly accessible – even if the public rarely does so. AFL financial reports are available and show the level of spending on key areas. HPN often makes use of this information, and it is all easy to find.

Clubs are all constitutionally-based rather than private entities, with the majority directly answerable to members. Most club constitutions are available online, and financial reports are also published by the majority of clubs, and obtainable after being lodged with ASIC in other cases.

The league of course often trumpets news – especially when it is good news. Key decisions are usually explained by public statements of some sort.

Beyond this baseline level, transparency is less clear.

A key example surrounds the rule changes made in 2018 relating to starting positions and extended kick-outs. Publicly, the AFL made a confident statement that the changes had created increased scoring when trialled, clearly relying on their authority and expertise to persuade.

However, those trials were extremely limited. No raw data was provided, and what information was leaked or otherwise identifiable contradicted the league’s official stance. The impact was quite easily disprovable – HPN questioned the data with James Coventry at the ABC and even sounded off on TV and radio about it.

That the data didn’t support the conclusion is one thing, but the critical issue was the data obtained could not possibly have ever proven anything. Three games is such an insufficient trial period that any conclusion reached would be random noise. The process was seemingly set up as a fig leaf to tick off some changes, not as a real open-minded test of those changes.

It is an example of extremely opaque decision making. It increases negative sentiment towards the decision maker, and fosters mistrust. It also hasn’t helped that the publicly stated intention of the rule changes (to increase scoring) has not come to pass in 2019.

Now the AFL is obfuscating the rationale behind the changes, and changing the goalposts for success, walking away from increased scoring to spurious claims about the rule changes being successful because of higher ratings. It is worth noting here that environmental effects, such as competing major events (think the Commonwealth Games) has a major effect on TV ratings, which was used as excuse for the minor drop early last year.

If the AFL committed to releasing minutes (and where not possible due to commercial confidentiality, detailed summaries) of governance meetings, at least the general public and media would be able to understand how decisions were made and what the evidence was used to make the decisions. As the AFL falls out of scope of legislative transparency measures (such as Freedom of Information), the onus falls on the organisation to be proactive in this respect rather than reactive.

To improve trust, it is likely that the AFL needs to become more transparent. To become more transparent, the AFL likely requires a clearer framework for making changes both on field and off field.

A global standard applied locally – sandboxes

To continue on with the theme of onfield rule changes, let’s look how a transparent process for managing the task of maintaining and updating rules might look.

The proposal here is a simple one. The AFL should copy the best practice of other major professional sporting leagues and thoroughly test rules in a lower level “sandbox” before presenting clear evidence as to the effectiveness of changes that it deems to work.

Examples of the sandbox approach and the rules tested include:

  • The NBA’s G-League has recently experimented with rules such as coach challenges, while the 14 second clock reset on offensive rebounds have been implemented after testing.
  • Australian Rugby Union’s second-tier National Rugby Championship has tested alternate scoring (the 8-point try) and a scrum clock
  • US minor league baseball is testing a runner on second base during extra innings (also used in Australia’s league), and instituting the Atlantic League as a test league.
  • The NHL’s 3 v 3 overtime was tested in the affiliate AHL, shown to reduce shootouts, and introduced to the senior league.

This is very much a non-exhaustive list. The idea of testing at lower levels before implementing at the top level is the global standard, and introduction without testing is usually reserved for health and safety issues or significant confusion/tactical issues.

A truly evidence-based sandbox process would take a lot longer than the AFL’s secretive ad-hoc approach. Deciding to change the rules behind closed doors and maybe watching a couple of teams play a couple of scratch matches is certainly quick, but it alienates fans and players. And if things don’t work, it puts the AFL on the defensive and send sit scrambling to fix problems it created.

To gather evidence properly, a much larger sample of the effects is required. Evidence could be statistical as well as based on subjective feedback, but in all cases a large volume of information is needed.

Larger samples are always better, but a good rule of thumb is that any sample under 100 is close to meaningless, so at an absolute minimum we need to compare entire seasons of football with other seasons. In the past, we have looked at rule changes by comparing seasons in this way, for example comparing the SANFL’s last touch rule and the TAC Cup’s anti density dictats for their multi-year correlation with scoring:

For many rules, as the charts suggest, it probably takes longer than a single season to see how teams adjust and develop strategies and counterplay. Next year, for instance, it seems likely that clubs will approach centre bounce positional restrictions differently, having had a year to see what works.

Some rules may take several years to retain or discard, and some definitely will be discarded. Imagine if the 2011-15 substitute rule fiasco had been played out in a sandbox setting, instead of suddenly ruining the careers of half the ruckmen in the AFL.

Through this testing process, there should be clear statements from the league about tests being implemented, and what they hope to achieve, along with data along the way about what might or might not be working.

Use the NEAFL as the main sandbox

The AFL does not have a single second tier league, and for logistical, historical, contractual, and talent development reasons it probably will never bother bringing one back. While some may bemoan this messiness and lack of clear delineation, it isn’t that unusual in global sport, and may provide more opportunities rather than obstacles.

Instead, there’s five peak in-season state leagues sitting below the AFL. Four of these five contain AFL reserves sides. These leagues are the obvious places to establish a sandbox league, since they still contain professional or near-professional players, as well as linkages with AFL coaching setups. Indeed, the AFL recognised this with its figleaf rules trial last year, asking a few bottom VFL sides to trial its rules in three games.

The AFL has no direct control over the SANFL and WAFL, and while experiments such as the SANFL’s ”last disposal” out of bounds free kicks are useful, and there may be scope to request tests in those leagues, the lack of direct control means those leagues cannot be a reliable experimental testbed. It is also worth noting that since the introduction of the mid-season draft, tensions have risen between these two leagues and the AFL administration.

The VFL is another candidate, but using it as an experimental league may provoke the ire of traditionalists (which is another concern for using the SANFL and WAFL). And the Tasmanian State League, with its lower salary cap, lack of AFL reserves sides and likely lower standards of play, might be a touch tricky while also hitting some of that traditionalist and parochial resentment.

The NEAFL may be the easiest sell as an official sandbox. The NEAFL is a creation of the AFL’s development and reserves needs, established in 2011 as a union of top clubs from the ACT, Sydney and Queensland leagues, and also including a government-supported NT Thunder side which previously played in Queensland. It contains four AFL reserves sides and six club sides based in four states and territories. Although most of the club sides have decades of history, in some cases a century or more, there are no major traditionalist fanbases to upset. The league and state bodies are fully under the control of the AFL itself. The NEAFL’s AFL and club teams are, to put it mildly, likely to be easier to push around than the full might of the Victorian club bloc.

Given that a true sandbox means more radical testing than we have so far seen, the NEAFL is probably politically easiest. AFL clubs or community club sides might well object to their reserves suddenly being asked to play 15-a-side, or with different out of bounds rules, or with the running bounce placed at 30 metres or completely eliminated. So it would be best if the sandbox league were as pliant as possible to maximise the range of possible experiments.

The NEAFL salary cap of $200,000 is smaller than the $300,000 to $500,00 salary caps of the VFL, SANFL or WAFL, but this could be increased with AFL funding to attract more quality players. From a player and club perspective, the use of the NEAFL for trials would place a greater focus on the talent in the competition, and it may attract fringe prospects to try their luck under the eyes of analysts and scouts.

A model regime for testing, including the public disclosure of data for analysis (as has been the case overseas) would be optimal. While these details are critical, they are too remote to be fleshed out now in an amateur blog post.

Onfield is not complete transparency

As alluded to above, using the NEAFL as a rule sandbox is only one element of increasing transparency and building trust.

It’s the opinion of HPN that, at its broadest strokes, the game is as healthy as ever when looking at historical records and remembering times of our youth. Despite the flaws that some see, the game is in a financially healthy position off-field, is more inclusive than it ever has been before (with a long way still to go, of course). Even the game on-field is likely just as attractive as ever and continues to develop and innovate tactically. While most people are naturally nostalgic for the memories of their particular youthful eras, replays of randomly selected older matches really don’t generally hold up compared with mediocre matches of the current era. We promise. Go try it.

However, the AFL must be committed to actively bringing stakeholders and fans along with the decisions it makes, rather than leaking in heavily spun dribs and drabs to preferred and aligned media sources. If it doesn’t, the previous paragraph will all be for nought, and fans will continue to call for resignations at AFL House.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *