Bullish Bulldogs put a bite into equalisation

Bulldogs supporters greet Mitch Wallis after victory over Port Adelaide. Photo: AFL Media/Getty ImagesFollow the Age Sport on Twitter

The Western Bulldogs’ rise this season has been a feel-good story – and an example to others – for many reasons, perhaps none more than it shows what can be done despite an unbalanced equalisation pool.

What the Bulldogs have shown is that the vagaries of equalisation aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to a club’s fortunes.

Equalisation remains one of the key off-field issues, and was a major talking point at last week’s gathering of club chief executives and the AFL executive.

The off-field gap and ability to spend between the league’s richest clubs, and their so-called poorer brethren, some of whom are sucking on the AFL’s teats, remains great, with industry figures suggesting it is more than $6 million. There are various reasons for this, including historical ones.

As Geelong president Colin Carter said recently, Collingwood could probably profit from an idea four times the amount a North Melbourne or Bulldogs could, simply because of their huge fan base. This extra money can then be parlayed into off-field facilities, coaching and other resources, although the new football department tax may quell this gap.

When it’s all boiled down though, equalisation is primarily about ensuring players from all clubs have a legitimate chance of playing in the finals and even a grand final at various stages through their careers.

It’s part of the Any Given Sunday philosophy of the American NFL, although AFL players are realistic enough to understand that a finals window won’t be open every year – by nature sport will always have its strong and weak teams, with injuries and poor form also contributing to on-field performance.

But it’s crucial for that opportunity to be a cycle, and not a flatlining norm where your club is mired near the foot of the ladder for years. Just ask what Melbourne supporters think about their past decade.

This cycle is one area of concern noted by club bosses, and it can have long-term repercussions. Poor clubs will retain most of their hardcore supporters, but it’s the occasional viewer, the young child with stars in his or her eyes, clubs need to attract to widen their base, in the short and long term.

Sustained poor performances means little, if any, exposure in the marque Friday-night timeslot, or the newish Thursday-night prime-time slot. They are times when a club can spread its appeal.

That’s why the Dogs’ rise this year is all the more entertaining.

They have not enjoyed that prime-time exposure this year. So low were the expectations from league headquarters that they were not even granted a solitary Friday-night clash.

While they do boast an excellent training facility, the Dogs were said to have had the lowest football department spend of Victorian clubs last season but, under president Peter Gordon, continue to invest in this area.

However, having found the right new coach and capitalised on their shrewd recruiting of recent years, and preached the patience football director Chris Grant called for three years ago, they have emerged as a top-four candidate.

In doing so, they have come good at a time many, including league chiefs, would consider to be the appropriate point of a rebuilding or equalisation cycle, one which hasn’t ticked off their loyal fans.

They last featured in the finals in 2010 – the third of three straight trips to a preliminary final. The Dogs then opted to strip back, and here they are a handful of years later boasting one of the most exciting groups of talent young and old.

St Kilda appears to be on the same path. By contrast, Carlton and Essendon opted for a quick fix in recent years, and now find themselves at the foot of a rebuild.

The Dogs have got the two most important areas right – the senior coach, which can be impacted by equalisation in terms of how much a club can spend, and recruiting. The latter has been particularly fruitful.

With the talent of the likes of Luke Dahlhaus and Marcus Bontempelli on show, along with a flourishing and watchable game plan, the Dogs have posted record membership this year and can expect to have a handful of prime-time matches next year.

They have shown that regardless of a club’s spot in the financial pecking order, success can be achieved through smart decisions and patience. Now that’s something all clubs would wish was equal.

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