AFL strong, but beset by issues

The AFL should be riding a glistening, perfect $2.5 billion wave into the 2016 season.

Instead there are rips, chop and muddied waters as the league deals with the ongoing challenges of being the biggest deal in Australian sport.

Football bosses hope the next few months will set the game up for decades as they work out how to spend their record $2.5 billion broadcast rights deal.

They intend to solve out all their major financial issues, including the pivotal collective bargaining agreement with the players, in one hit.

But it hasn’t been a happy few weeks for the AFL.

The year started with CAS upholding WADA’s appeal, meaning 17 current players must serve doping bans relating to the Essendon supplements scandal.

The 34 current and past Essendon players have launched an appeal.

The league was also either blindsided on the issue of Brent Prismall’s employment at the Western Bulldogs or it cocked up the matter.

Whatever the circumstances, there was embarrassment when the Bulldogs had to stand down Prismall while he serves his Essendon-related doping ban.

And the Bombers’ big pre-season losses to Geelong and West Coast are ringing alarm bells about how much they will skew the competition this year, given 12 of their current players are suspended.

The supplements scandal is the tsunami that keeps wrecking.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan also had to twice blast Ticketek in the space of a week over troubles with fans buying MCG tickets.

One of McLachlan’s biggest aims as AFL boss is to make the game more fan-friendly.

And then there’s Collingwood, first filthy with the move of their round-one game from ANZ Stadium to the MCG.

Then Magpies boss Eddie McGuire unveiled his grand plan to bulldoze Etihad Stadium and build a new ground, which conveniently would be across the road from Collingwood HQ.

The idea would never fly … would it?

But for all the bickering, politics, dramas and controversy, first things first – the AFL remains extraordinarily powerful.

And the record broadcast deal signed last year cements that clout.

“The $2.5 billion deal has the opportunity to set up our industry – if we invest it the right way – for a generation,” McLachlan said.

“We are clearly going to invest this money not just for six years, but hopefully for 20.”

The trick will be balancing the interests of AFL players, their clubs, community football and fans as the pie is carved up and served.

For all the dramas, there is progress – McLachlan says the growth of women’s football is “staggering”.

The “haves” and “have nots” among the 18 clubs remains a big issue.

But last year was the first time in a while that McLachlan can recall net club profitability and net club debt both moving in the right direction.

As for the game itself, the match review panel overhaul is working and the AFL is confident that the scrapping of the substitute and the interchange cap of 90 per game will have the right impact.

Patrick Dangerfield’s arrival has helped fuel a bullish mood at Geelong. Melbourne are coming off a strong pre-season and the Magpies are determined to make a top-eight return.

As everyone tries to stop Hawthorn from becoming Four-thorn, McLachlan says the AFL ship is on the right course in sometimes-lumpy waters.

“How are we going? We’re in pretty good order,” he says.

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