Game Theory: Why AFL journos are so chummy with football clubs

The Essendon drugs saga has revealed an awful truth about football journalism. Most sports reporters are sycophants who live in fear of upsetting footy clubs.

One journo revealed herself to be a shining exception, but she is just a speck in the bustling crowd that produces footy news.

Journalists hearing about the sacking of Melbourne coach Mark Neeld. Photo Source: Backpage Lead
Journalists hearing about the sacking of Melbourne coach Mark Neeld. 

[Photo Source: Backpage Lead]

The chumminess of journos and clubs can be shown in another way too – when the AFL launched its own, in-house news service, it actually compared quite well to the existing reporting. 

Compared to the way politicians and companies are treated, much football journalism is as tough as being stroked with a mink mitten.

For example, here’s a story that definitely did not come straight out of an AFL marketing department: Players Back Coach.

Here’s a great quote from that story:

“Mick has remained positive and very supportive of the players,” Yarran said. “Hopefully, he goes on. It is in the best interest of us if he stays. He has been fantastic for me and for the footy club.”

The reason for the sucking-up is access. There are nine Melbourne clubs and far more journos. The clubs offer players and coaches for interviews with favoured news outlets. And the longevity of the clubs is secure. 

How would this change if we had relegation?

In the UK, football journalists hold far more cards and have a far more antagonistic relationship with clubs in the Premier League.

That may be because a club does not hold all the cards. Three of the 20 teams are relegated out of the Premier League each year. The journalist knows that they can pursue a story about a club that will cause major damage to the club and the club can suffer so much it eventually disappears. It is not unlike the way a political reporter can hound a politician on a really big story that could end that politician’s career.

But in the AFL, if you hound a club on drugs or violence, sexism or a culture of persistent failure, they’ll be there next season, and the one after, and the one after. They are likely to last far longer than a football journo. Unlike politicians or even businesses, you can’t play a club off against another club – their survival does not depend on another’s failure.

Access is a – maybe even the – key resource which a good journo has. Game theory says that in an interaction that will be repeated every week, every season, for years to come, you are best to cooperate. 

About the only topic on which AFL journos will sometimes have a swing is coach performance. Is it any coincidence that coaches are hired and fired in the free market, and sometimes let go mid-season? I say no.


Introducing relegation into AFL would dramatically change the nature of the game, and make the AFL’s job of equalising the league far far harder. I’m a fan of an even competition and I am not seriously suggesting relegation.

Another alternative would be to have sports reporters whose goal is to make it as journos, not just as football journalists.

They would not be afraid to dig dirt on a club if they know they have a two-year tenure as footy journos before they get moved onto state politics, courts reporting, or restaurant reviewing…

Your thoughts? Egregious examples of sycophantic sports reporting? Favourite worst reporters? Please leave a comment below.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “Game Theory: Why AFL journos are so chummy with football clubs”

  1. A progressive national competition with relegation sounds like a good idea to me. Here’s why.

    AFL bosses seem to be surprised by the way the competition is changing. They should not be, after all, it was THEY that pushed for broad national involvement and provided cash to build the newest teams; THEY messed with the game-day experience with ridiculous LED screens everywhere, and blaring music between every on-field achievement; THEY frustrated grassroots fans with greedy multi-tiered ticket pricing; and THEY tried to manipulate the fixture to manufacture matches that made good TV instead of good competition. Well, the tinkering has backfired, fans are disillusioned, and AFL attendances are falling.

    While I quite enjoyed seeing Hawthorn smash Carlton in Friday night’s ‘practice’ match (round 17, 24 July 2015), it’s not great football. The best football is competitive and heartfelt – like the closely contested Port v Crows match last week. I enjoyed that match waaaay more, despite how much I dislike both teams.

    So where to next for the AFL?

    It’s impossible to ‘undo’ the national competition, so that will have to stay. But there’s a whole tier of football just beneath the national competition that the AFL has ignored for too long – the multitude of state and regional comps, where many of the AFL listed players are ‘rested’ during off weeks. It’s time to overhaul these comps and arrange them into pools of serious ‘B league’ competition.

    It’s also time to reduce the salary cap and the number of players in the senior list, and enforce a split for players: either you play in an AFL national team, or you play in a team in the ‘B league’, but not both.

    Lastly, reduce the number of teams in the national competition to, say, 14. That’s an average of 2 per state. The bottom 4 teams in the current comp get to join the B league.

    THEN, the AFL finally can introduce some much needed magic into the national competition: the opportunity for promotion and relegation. Top 2 finishers in the ‘B league’, get promoted to the national competition. Bottom 2, get relegated to the B pool.

    How does this all help? It gives the opportunity for AFL to rebuild at grassroots level. Local teams can build local fan bases, local loyalty, with the tantalising golden potential of being able to make it to the big-time, one day, if they’re good enough. The teams in the national competition get to play competitive football, and work hard to avoid relegation. Goodbye tanking.

    With fewer national league teams and games each week, the football audience is not diluted, and there’s room for fans to actually live in the real world and follow other codes, other competitions, and have other interests. (Heaven forbid!)


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