The Australian Football League stages the highest-level senior Australian rules football competition in the country. However, since the late 1980s, when the former Victorian Football League expanded interstate to become the modern Australian Football League, there has not been a league-wide reserves competition; and, since 2000, there has been no dedicated reserves competition of any kind. As a result, AFL-listed players who are not selected in their senior teams are made eligible to play in one of the second-tier state leagues: the Victorian Football League, South Australian National Football League and West Australian Football League. The system used to accommodate AFL-listed players within these leagues varies considerably from state to state.
For the 2021 season, the eighteen Australian Football League clubs will have the following reserves arrangements.
|AFL club||Reserves arrangement||Affiliated club||Affiliated league|
|Adelaide Crows||Stand-alone reserves team||Adelaide Crows||SANFL|
|Brisbane Lions||Stand-alone reserves team||Brisbane Lions||VFL|
|Carlton Blues||Stand-alone reserves team||Carlton Blues||VFL|
|Collingwood Magpies||Stand-alone reserves team||Collingwood Magpies||VFL|
|Essendon Bombers||Stand-alone reserves team||Essendon Bombers||VFL|
|Fremantle Dockers||Club affiliation||Peel Thunder||WAFL|
|Geelong Cats||Stand-alone reserves team||Geelong Cats||VFL|
|Gold Coast Suns||Stand-alone reserves team||Gold Coast Suns||VFL|
|Greater Western Sydney Giants||Stand-alone reserves team||Greater Western Sydney Giants||VFL|
|Hawthorn Hawks||Club affiliation||Box Hill Hawks||VFL|
|Melbourne Demons||Club affiliation||Casey Demons||VFL|
|North Melbourne Kangaroos||Stand-alone reserves team||North Melbourne Kangaroos||VFL|
|Port Adelaide Power||Stand-alone reserves team||Port Adelaide Magpies||SANFL|
|Richmond Tigers||Stand-alone reserves team||Richmond Tigers||VFL|
|St Kilda Saints||Club affiliation||Sandringham Zebras||VFL|
|Sydney Swans||Stand-alone reserves team||Sydney Swans||VFL|
|West Coast Eagles||Stand-alone reserves team||West Coast Eagles||WAFL|
|Western Bulldogs||Stand-alone reserves team||Footscray Bulldogs||VFL|
During the 20th century, up to the 1980s, the Victorian Football League was based solely in the state of Victoria, and operated three grades of competition: seniors, reserves (established in 1919), and under-19s (established in 1946). Local players were primarily recruited via the league's metropolitan and country zoning rules, and the clubs had full ability to develop its players through its junior and reserves teams. This same basic structure was used consistently across all of Australia's major state leagues (VFL, SANFL, WAFL and TANFL).
Two factors in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the end of this traditional arrangement in Victoria:
As a result, the AFL relinquished direct control of the Victorian reserves and junior grades at the end of 1991. The under-19s grade and the twelve participating AFL clubs' under-19s teams were shut down and replaced by the TAC Cup, with six new, independent and zone-based under-18s clubs.
The change to the reserves league was mostly administrative: it became known as (and was governed by) the Victorian State Football League, but it was otherwise identical to the former VFL/AFL reserves and is considered a direct continuation.
The VFL/AFL reserves and the VSFL were contested by all twelve Victorian clubs. The Sydney Swans continued to participate after South Melbourne relocated in 1982, and the Brisbane Bears participated for five years, but none of the South Australian or Western Australian clubs were ever involved.
Following the 1999 season, the VSFL merged into Victoria's second-tier senior football league, the Victorian Football League (known until 1995 as the Victorian Football Association, and with a history dating back to 1877). Such a merger had first been proposed as early as 1980, and a formal attempt to enact the merger for the 1995 season was defeated after strong opposition from the clubs. Since the merger, the VFL has served as both a distinct second-tier senior competition and a reserves competition for AFL clubs.
Since the merger, there have been three types of club participating in the VFL:
A fourth option, under which a team's reserves players are spread across all of the league's VFL clubs, will be established from 2021 as an option for AFL clubs seeking cost savings in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, there are no limitations on how many AFL-listed players may play in a VFL team on any given weekend—except during finals, when only players who have played a certain number of VFL games during the season are eligible. There was previously a rule known as the 12–10 Rule, which stated that in a match between an affiliated VFL team and a stand-alone VFL senior team, the affiliated team could play of at most twelve AFL-listed players, with the other ten to be VFL-listed players; and, where the AFL club had more than twelve reserve players available, the extras would play in the VFL reserves. The rule was abolished in 2011.
For all clubs in this list, the club fielded a reserves team in the VFL/AFL reserves up to 1991, and then in the VSFL from 1992 until 1999; additionally, the Fitzroy Football Club fielded a reserves team in these competitions until the club merged with the Brisbane Bears at the end of 1996. This listing shows all reserves affiliations and arrangements since 2000.
After Adelaide and Port Adelaide had entered the AFL in 1991 and 1997 respectively, South Australia had two AFL teams and a strong nine-team state league (the SANFL). Until 2013, the AFL clubs were affiliated with the entire SANFL, rather than with an individual club as is seen in Victoria; this meant that the reserves players from each AFL club would be dispersed throughout the SANFL, playing for different teams. This arrangement was governed by the annual "AFL–SANFL Interchange Agreement".
The method used to allocate players to the state league teams varied depending upon whether the player was from South Australia, or had come from interstate:
Regardless of which method is used to allocate the player, he typically remained allocated to the same SANFL for his entire career, although there were provisions in the rules for players to be re-allocated to a different club on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that the AFL-listed players were given the appropriate opportunities to develop; e.g. an AFL club could seek a re-allocation for a developing key forward on its list, if the player's opportunities were limited by the presence of an established key forward in his allocated team.
This arrangement, or a variation of it, was the sole mechanism for distribution of reserves players in South Australia until 2013.
In August 2013, the SANFL clubs agreed to allow Adelaide to enter a stand-alone reserves team into the SANFL senior competition as a tenth team.
Among the arrangements, Adelaide's reserves team were required to pay an annual $400,000 licence fee (which adjusts for inflation) and is dispersed amongst the remaining clubs, play most of its games as the away team, and does not wear the Adelaide Crows AFL guernsey. The team consists of Adelaide Crows players who are not selected for the AFL team, one permanently contracted former Crows player to serve in a leadership position, and young top-up players from other SANFL clubs or suburban competitions. The arrangement is in place for fifteen years.
The SANFL also agreed to permit Port Adelaide to use the Port Adelaide Magpies as a stand-alone reserves team. After Port Adelaide entered the AFL in 1997, the SANFL established the Port Adelaide Magpies as a separate legal entity from the Port Adelaide club which participated in the AFL. The clubs were reunified via an official merger in 2010, ending 13 years of separation, and since 2014 it has been Port Adelaide's reserves team. It is subject to the same playing conditions as Adelaide's reserves team, except for the fact it wears the traditional Port Adelaide Magpies guernsey and plays home games at Alberton Oval.
From 2015, Port Adelaide operated an academy team of father-son selections and international and interstate scholarship holders in the SANFL Reserves competition, and shut down its traditional junior grade teams and surrendered its SANFL recruiting zones. In 2018 the club dissolved the academy team and ended its participation in the SANFL Reserves league.
Like South Australia, Western Australia has two AFL clubs (Fremantle and West Coast) and a strong ten-team state league (the West Australian Football League). Initially, the Western Australian AFL clubs were involved in a league affiliation with the WAFL, which functioned in the same way as the SANFL's league affiliation. From 1999 until 2001, both clubs established affiliations with a single WAFL club, similar to (and, in fact, pre-dating by one year) those seen in Victoria, and known locally as "host-club arrangements". After the three years, the WAFL clubs voted to end these arrangements, and returned to a league affiliation for the next twelve years with players playing with their junior WAFL clubs or host clubs for those who came from other states.
Starting in 2011, the two AFL clubs started to push hard to end the league affiliation model; their preference was to field stand-alone reserves teams in the WAFL, but this was rejected by the WAFL clubs. In October 2012, after two years of negotiations, the clubs agreed to return to host-club arrangements – West Coast with East Perth and Fremantle with Peel Thunder – to commence from the 2014 season, with some transitional arrangements beginning in 2013. The original deal lasted for a minimum of five seasons.
After the initial five-year period of its agreement, West Coast ended its agreement with East Perth and were approved to field a stand-alone reserves team, which commenced playing the 2019 season.
In New South Wales and Queensland, all four AFL clubs field stand-alone reserves teams in the Victorian Football League.
Starting in around 2011, there was considerable interest by many AFL clubs in abandoning league affiliations or host-club arrangements and forming stand-alone reserves teams. A large contributing factor to this interest was the perception that the developmental autonomy Geelong and Collingwood enjoyed as the only two clubs fielding stand-alone reserves teams in the VFL was responsible for the very strong senior AFL performances of those two clubs between 2007 and 2011, during which time they shared four of the five AFL premierships. From 2003 to 2007, Geelong had won 67 of 118 AFL matches despite being the only AFL club to maintain a standalone VFL team in this time, and continually since the disbandonment of the AFL Reserves post 1999.
In Victoria, some VFL clubs with a strong existing identity were also interested in ending their AFL affiliations after the strong performance of stand-alone VFL side Port Melbourne in its unbeaten 2011 season.
This represented a shift from the prevailing thinking of the 1990s, when the affiliations were arranged. At that time, particularly during the early 1990s recession, many clubs' finances were tight, so operating costs drove many decisions. At that time, some Victorian AFL clubs favoured the establishment of a WAFL/SANFL style of affiliation, with reserves players scattered throughout the VFL, because it would result in minimum management costs for the AFL club. The desire for teams to re-establish stand-alone reserves teams came at a time when most clubs were in a much stronger financial position. The total licence and running costs for a stand-alone team were estimated to be $500,000 per year in 2011. Through the 2000s, the AFL preferred that its Victorian clubs retained VFL-affiliations, and offered a disincentive in the form of an inflated licence fee for fielding a stand-alone team; however, the AFL did not otherwise prevent teams from fielding stand-alone reserves teams if they are willing and able to pay the fee.
In South Australia and Western Australia, the debate became more heated than in Victoria. The league affiliation system primarily benefitted the state leagues, by helping to ensure that none of their clubs gained an undue advantage through preferential access to professional AFL-listed players, and by helping to minimise the drain of talent from the league, but this was to the detriment of player development at the AFL clubs, since reserves players end up playing for a variety of different teams, under a variety of different game-plans, and not necessarily in the positions that the AFL clubs would prefer.
As early as 1988, the West Coast Eagles' second season in the then-VFL competition, senior coach John Todd proposed that the Eagles to entered a reserves team in the VFL reserves, but the West Australian Football Commission point-blank rejected the proposal.
From 2011, Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Fremantle and West Coast actively sought to establish stand-alone reserves teams. There was considerable opposition from the SANFL and WAFL teams about including those reserves teams in the state leagues, with the clubs concerned about the impact this would have on depth of talent, league competitiveness, and gate takings, with the WAFL and SANFL both on several occasions outright rejecting any proposal which would see an AFL club's reserves team participate in those leagues.
In Western Australia, a wide range of compromise solutions was proposed, including: stand-alone reserves teams playing against WAFL clubs in a separate competition during their WAFL bye weeks, a new secondary league including reserves teams from the Western Australian and South Australian AFL clubs, and a return to host-club arrangements. In October 2012, the Western Australian clubs reached a compromise, with two WAFL clubs, Peel and East Perth, forming host club arrangements with Fremantle and West Coast.
In South Australia, Adelaide announced its intention to establish a stand-alone reserves team, but maintained that it would not enter it in the SANFL without full support from all SANFL clubs. However, with the reversal of Norwood's publicly stated opposition to AFL stand-alone involvement, the SANFL gained the constitutionally required support in August 2013. Despite failing to obtain the support of either South Adelaide or Central District, Adelaide entered a reserves side in the SANFL senior level in 2014.
Port Adelaide's situation remained unresolved for longer, as it wanted to operate the Port Adelaide Magpies SANFL team as its host club in the SANFL seniors, but the South Australian football commission informed the club it would be required to shut down its junior grades and forfeit all recruiting zones, thereby severing its connection with the community, if it were to progress with this option. Port Adelaide was highly reluctant to make that sacrifice, but made a compromise deal with the SANFL, with the club being granted permission to run an academy team in the SANFL reserves.
In the 2020 AFL season, AFL-listed players were not permitted to compete in state-level football in any capacity, in order to protect the quarantine bubbles required to play the 2020 AFL season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. None of the affiliations in this page were observed during the season.
In 2017 the AFL Women's (AFLW) competition was launched, providing an opportunity for semi-professional female footballers to compete in a national league. Initially 8 AFL clubs were granted a license to compete in the league, though over the years that number has grown. As of 2021 there are 14 teams in the competition (Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney are the teams currently without AFLW licenses). Since 2021 most female state leagues and local competitions have been aligned with the length of the AFLW season, and the situation for AFLW-listed players not selected for the senior team is as follows:
|AFLW club||Reserves arrangement||Affiliated club(s)||Affiliated league|
|Adelaide||Players from South Australia play for the club they were originally drafted from. Other players are randomly assigned to a particular club.||Multiple||SANFLW|
|Brisbane||Players from Queensland play for a club they have "long-standing" connections with. Other players are assigned to a particular club, with personal preference and proximity being key factors.||Multiple||QAFLW|
|Carlton||Stand-alone reserves team||Carlton||VFLW|
|Collingwood||Stand-alone reserves team||Collingwood||VFLW|
|Fremantle||Players from Western Australia play for the club they were originally drafted from. Other players are randomly assigned to a particular club.||Multiple||WAFLW|
|Geelong||Stand-alone reserves team||Geelong||VFLW|
|Gold Coast||Players from Queensland play for a club they have "long-standing" connections with. Other players are assigned to a particular club, with personal preference and proximity being key factors.||Multiple||QAFLW|
|Greater Western Sydney||As the AFL Sydney women's competition is currently held outside the AFLW season, unselected GWS players usually take part in an extra training session/practice match, typically on the morning of the Giants' AFLW match.||None||None|
|Melbourne||Club affiliation (Non-selected Melbourne players play for the Casey Demons, a team owned by the Casey Football Club though co-managed by Melbourne's AFLW program).||Casey Demons||VFL|
|North Melbourne||Stand-alone reserves team||North Melbourne||VFLW|
|Richmond||Club affiliation (Non-selected Richmond players play for independent club Port Melbourne. Between 2018 and 2019 Richmond fielded a dedicated reserves team).||Port Melbourne||VFLW|
|St Kilda||Club affiliation (Non-selected St Kilda players play for the Southern Saints, a team whose license was originally owned by St Kilda but was transferred to independent VFL club Sandringham in 2020. The two clubs co-manage the team)||Southern Saints||VFLW|
|West Coast||Players from Western Australia play for the club they were originally drafted from. Other players are randomly assigned to a particular club.||Multiple||WAFLW|
|Western Bulldogs||Stand-alone reserves team||Western Bulldogs||VFLW|