The AFL Australian Football League is the top professional Australian rules football league in the world. The league consists of eighteen teams: nine based in the city of Melbourne, one from regional Victoria, and eight based in other Australian states. The reason for this unbalanced geographic distribution lies in the history of the league, which was based solely within Victoria from the time it was established in 1897, until the time the league expanded through the addition of clubs from interstate to the existing teams starting in the 1980s; until this expansion, the league was known as the VFL (Victorian Football League).
The Victorian Football League was established in 1896 when six of the strongest clubs in Victoria – Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne and South Melbourne – broke away from the established Victorian Football Association to establish the new league. The six clubs invited two more VFA clubs – Carlton and St Kilda – to join the league for its inaugural season in 1897. Among the notable initiatives established in the new league was an annual finals tournament, rather than awarding the premiership directly to the team with the best record in the season; and, the formal establishment of the modern scoring system, in which six points are scored for a goal, and one point is scored for a behind.
Although the Victorian Football League and the Victorian Football Association continued to compete for spectator interest for many years, the VFL quickly established itself as the premier competition in Victoria. In the early years, Fitzroy and Collingwood were the dominant teams. Following the arrival of Jack Worrall as coach in 1903, Carlton began a dominating period, during which they won three successive flags from 1906 to 1908; although Worrall was the club secretary, he took on a player management and direction role which is today recognised as the first official coaching job in the league. Essendon won flags in 1911 and 1912, also under Jack Worrall's coaching.
In 1908, the league expanded to ten teams, with Richmond crossing from the VFA and University from the Metropolitan Football Association. University, after three promising seasons, finished last each year from 1911 until 1914, including losing 51 matches in a row; this was in part caused by its players' focus on their studies rather than football, particularly during examinations, and it was partly because the club operated on an amateur basis at a time when player payments were becoming common – and as a result, the club withdrew from the VFL at the end of 1914. University teams now compete in the Victorian Amateur Football Association.
From 1907 until 1914, the VFL premier and the premier of the Adelaide-based South Australian Football League met in a playoff match for the Championship of Australia.
Main article: The VFL during the World Wars
In 1919, the VFL established a seconds/reserves competition to run alongside the senior competition. In 1924 the VFL inaugurated the Brownlow Medal for the player who received the most votes from the umpires for the fairest and best player. Richmond won its first Premierships in 1920 and 1921 but Essendon – battlers since their 1912 flag – took over as the dominant team between 1922 and 1926.
In 1925, the VFL expanded from nine teams to twelve, with Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne each crossing from the VFA. North Melbourne and Hawthorn remained very weak in the VFL for a very long period. North Melbourne did not win more than eight games in a season until 1944 and Hawthorn only once won more than seven until 1954. Between them, Hawthorn and North Melbourne finished in last place fifteen of the twenty-nine years from their admittance until 1953. Footscray adapted to the VFL with the most ease of the three clubs, and by 1928 were well off the bottom of the ladder.
Between the years of 1927 and 1930, Collingwood became the first and so far, the only, team to win four successive Premierships. The club also finished the 1929 home-and-away season without losing a game, a feat yet to be repeated. This team became known as "the Machine" because of the organised and consistent way it played. With Premiership victories in 1935 and 1936, the Collingwood Football Club had already won 11 Premierships, four more than the next most successful club, Fitzroy (7).
In the 1930s, Richmond and South Melbourne rivaled Collingwood as the best team. Melbourne, which had won the Premiership in 1926 but fallen off sharply, developed a powerful attacking side that swept all before it between 1939 and 1941 to win three successive flags. Essendon, after a lean decade in the 1930s, enjoyed a dominant period with nine grand final appearances between 1941 and 1951. For more information on how world wars affected the VFL see: The VFL during the World Wars.
In 1946, the VFL established an Under 19s grade of competition, to run alongside the seniors and reserves. In 1951, the McClelland Trophy was established as a prize for the best performing team across all three grades. In 1952, the VFL hosted 'National Day', when all six matches were played outside of Melbourne. Matches were played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Brisbane Exhibition Ground, North Hobart Oval, Albury Sports Ground and Victorian country towns Yallourn and Euroa.
In 1959, the VFL planned the first purpose built mega-stadium, VFL Park (later known as Waverley Park), to give it some independence from the Melbourne Cricket Club, which managed the Melbourne Cricket Ground. VFL Park was planned to hold 155,000 spectators, to make it making it one of the largest stadiums in the world – although it would ultimately be built with a capacity of 78,000. Land for the stadium was purchased at Mulgrave, in those days just farmland, but one day predicted to be near demographic centre of Melbourne's population.
Geelong was the stand out team at the beginning of the 1950s, winning the Premiership in 1951 then setting an enduring record of 23 consecutive wins starting in Round 12, 1952 and ending in Round 13, 1953. This streak included the 1952 Premiership. Footscray became the first of the 1925 expansion teams to win the premiership in 1954.
Melbourne became a powerhouse during the 1950s and early 1960s under coach Norm Smith and star player Ron Barassi. The club contested seven consecutive grand finals from 1954 to 1960, winning five Premierships, including three in a row between 1955 and 1957.
Television coverage began in 1957, with direct telecasts of the final quarter permitted. At first, several channels competed through broadcasting different games. However, when the VFL found that television was reducing crowds, it decided that no coverage was to be allowed for 1960. In 1961, replays (in Melbourne) were introduced although direct telecasts were rarely permitted in Melbourne (other States and Territories, however, enjoyed live telecasts every Saturday afternoon).
The VFL Premiership Trophy was first awarded in addition to a pennant flag in 1959; essentially, the same trophy design has been in use since.
In the 1960s, television began to have a huge impact, which continues unabated to this day. Spectators hurried home from games to watch replays and many former players took up positions as commentators on pre-game preview programs and post-game review programs. There were also several attempts at variety programs featuring VFL players. The VFL played the first of a series of exhibition matches in 1962 in an effort to lift the international profile of the league.
Hawthorn won its first premiership in 1961, beating Footscray. Melbourne's extended its success from the 1950s by winning the premiership in 1964, but its success ended abruptly when Barassi was recruited by Carlton as captain-coach after the season, followed by Norm Smith being sacked during the 1965 season. Melbourne would not return to the finals for twenty-five years, and did not win the flag until 57 years later in 2021.
St Kilda, which had never won a VFL or VFA premiership in more 93 years of competition, won its first and, to date, only premiership, in a famous grand final victory against Collingwood by one point in 1966.
With the number of players recruited from country leagues increasing, the wealthier clubs were gaining an advantage that metropolitan zoning and the Coulter law (salary cap) restricting player payments had prevented in the past. Country zoning was introduced in the late 1960s, and whilst it pushed Essendon and Geelong from the top of the ladder, it created severe inequality during the 1970s and 1980s. Between 1972 and 1987, only six of the league's twelve clubs – Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Richmond – played in grand finals; by comparison, nine different clubs had contested grand finals between 1961 and 1967.
The 1970 season saw the opening of VFL Park, with the inaugural match being played between Geelong and Fitzroy, on 18 April 1970. Construction work was carried out at the stadium as the 1970s progressed, culminating in the building of the now heritage listed Sir Kenneth Luke stand. The Queen of Australia, Elizabeth II was a guest at the game and officially opened the stadium to the public. The 1970 grand final between traditional rivals Carlton and Collingwood, arguably the league's most famous game, saw Carlton recover from a 44-point deficit at half-time to win the game by ten points, featured a famous spectacular mark by Alex Jesaulenko, and was witnessed by a record crowd of 121,696.
Carlton and Richmond won three premierships each between 1968 and 1974, facing each other in three grand finals. North Melbourne, after struggling for most of its time in the VFL, finally won its first premiership in 1975, and contesting the grand final each year from 1974 to 1978, winning two; three of those deciders were against fellow 1925 expansion team Hawthorn, who also won two premierships. Carlton won three premierships in four years from 1979 to 1982.
Among the notable rule changes made during the decade were:
The 1980s was a period of significant structural change in Australian football around the country. The VFL was the most popular and dominant of the state leagues around the country in terms of overall attendance, interest, and money, and began to look towards expanding its influence directly into other states. The VFL and its top clubs already had the buying power to recruit top players from interstate. As a result of this, rising cost pressures were driving some of Victoria's weaker clubs into dire financial situations.
But in spite of the increasing dominance of Victoria, the country's three top leagues – the VFL, South Australia's SANFL and Western Australia's WAFL – were never closer to an integrated competition than they were in the early 1980s, with teams from all three leagues competing in the Australian Football Championships Night Series, a competition run separately to the league competitions on weekday evenings.
South Melbourne became the first VFL club to relocate interstate, and the club moved to Sydney to become the Sydney Swans in 1982; under the private ownership of wealthy Dr Geoffrey Edelsten during the mid-1980s, Sydney became a successful team on-field. In 1986, the West Australian Football League and Queensland Australian Football League were awarded licences to join the VFL as expansion teams, leading to the establishment of the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears, who both joined the league in 1987. These expansion team licenses were awarded on payment of multimillion-dollar fees which were not required of the existing VFL clubs. Interstate clubs dropped out of the Night Series, and by 1987 it consisted solely of VFL clubs; it was shifted to become a pre-season competition in 1988. In 1989, financial troubles nearly forced Footscray and Fitzroy to merge, but a fundraising event from Footscray supporters stopped the proposed merger at the eleventh hour.
The 1980s first saw new regular timeslots for VFL matches. VFL matches had previously been played on Saturday afternoons, but Sydney began playing its home matches on Sunday afternoons, and North Melbourne pioneered playing matches on Friday night. These have since become regular timeslots for all teams.
In the late 1980s, the former zoning arrangements which had led to such inequality between the stronger and weaker clubs began to be phased out. The first National Draft was introduced in 1986, and a salary cap was introduced in 1987. Over the following decade, these changes helped to equalise the clubs, minimising the ability for the richer clubs to dominate the league.
In 1984, there was a revival of the International Rules representative series, which had first been played in the 1960s. The matches were played with a hybrid set of rules based on Australian rules football and Gaelic football. It also began to pave the way for Gaelic footballers to convert to Australian football; pioneered by Melbourne and known as the Irish experiment, Irish players Sean Wight and Jim Stynes began their successful VFL/AFL careers in the mid-1980s. Many Irish players have since played professional AFL football.
On-field, the 1980s were dominated by Hawthorn, Essendon and Carlton: Hawthorn contested seven consecutive grand finals for four premierships; Carlton contested four grand finals for three flags; and Essendon contested three consecutive grand finals, all against Hawthorn, winning two, and establishing a bitter rivalry. In the process, Carlton and Essendon both passed Collingwood in terms of number of premierships won; since 1982, Carlton has continuously been the team with most premierships won, holding the position jointly with Essendon for much of that time. The 1989 grand final between Hawthorn and Geelong is considered one of the finest grand finals, with many strong physical encounters, a joint-grand-final-record nine goals by Geelong's Gary Ablett Sr., and Geelong coming back from a 36-point deficit at three-quarter time to fall six points short of victory.
The league was officially renamed the Australian Football League in 1990 to reflect the new national perspective; the VFA later took over the Victorian Football League name in 1996. Functionally, the AFL gave up control over its Victorian-based minor grades at the end of 1991 – clubs continued to field reserves teams in the independent Victorian State Football League, while an entirely new under-18s competition (the TAC Cup) was established with new, zone-based clubs. Without minor grades, the McClelland Trophy was now awarded to the senior minor premiers.
Collingwood won the AFL Premiership in 1990, ending a 32-year premiership drought, which featured a string of near misses known as the Colliwobbles that had seen the club lose eight grand finals.
In 1990, the SANFL's most successful club, Port Adelaide, made a bid for an AFL licence. In response, the SANFL established a composite South Australian team called the Adelaide Crows, which was awarded the licence and joined the league in 1991 as the fourth interstate club. The same year saw the West Coast Eagles become the first interstate club reach the grand final, losing to Hawthorn; the Eagles would then win the premiership in 1992 and 1994. In 1994, the Fremantle Football Club was formed in Western Australia, and joined in the AFL in 1995, becoming the fifth interstate club.
In 1996, the VFL/AFL celebrated its centenary; the Australian Football Hall of Fame was established and the VFL/AFL Team of the Century was named. However, several Victorian clubs were in severe financial difficulties, most notably Fitzroy and Hawthorn. Hawthorn had proposed to merge with Melbourne to form the Melbourne Hawks, but the merger ultimately fell through, and both teams continued as separate entities. For Fitzroy, however, the club was too weak to continue by itself; the club nearly merged with North Melbourne to form the Fitzroy–North Melbourne Kangaroos, but after the other clubs voted against it, the club merged with Brisbane to become the Brisbane Lions instead. Fitzroy played its last match at the end of 1996. With the Brisbane–Fitzroy merger, Port Adelaide was awarded an AFL licence, and joined the league in 1997. The AFL rejected bids from Queensland club Southport Sharks and the Tasmanian government to enter teams, the latter of which has seen renewed continual interest for the 25 years following this big rejection.
Some of the rule changes of the decade included the introduction of a third field umpire in 1994, a blood rule in 1994, and the introduction of a third (1994) and fourth (1998) interchange player. The International Rules series against the Gaelic Athletic Association was revived again in 1998, and has become a semi-permanent fixture since. The finals series was expanded from five teams to six in 1991, and then to eight teams in 1994.
Through the 1990s, there was a significant trend of Melbourne-based teams abandoning the use of their small (20,000–30,000 capacity) suburban venues for home matches, in favour of the larger MCG and Waverley Park. The 1990s saw the last matches played at Windy Hill (Essendon), Moorabbin Oval (St Kilda), Western Oval (Footscray) and Victoria Park (Collingwood), and saw Princes Park abandoned by its long-term co-tenant Hawthorn. The transition to the use of only two venues in Melbourne was ultimately completed in 2005, when Carlton abandoned the use of Princes Park.
There was no dominant club in the latter part of the 1990s, although North Melbourne was the most successful, winning two premierships from three grand finals. Adelaide won two grand finals, and Carlton won one grand final from two appearances.
In 1999, the league sold Waverley Park stadium and used the funds in a joint venture to begin construction of a brand-new stadium situated at Melbourne's Docklands. Representative state football came to an end, with the last State of Origin match held in 1999.
The AFL logo was again changed in 2000, with a new look intended to coincide with the new millennium. Rivals Collingwood and Carlton played a pre-season match known as the 'Millennium Match' on New Year's Eve 1999. The new Docklands Stadium hosted its first match in Round 1, 2000, and it was the first AFL match played under a retractable roof. After Victorian State Football League ceased operations at the end of 1999, the Victorian-based AFL clubs established connections with the Victorian Football League (a rebranding of the former VFA), with clubs either fielding reserves teams in the VFL, or entering into affiliations with existing senior VFL clubs to serve as feeder teams.
The early 2000s were dominated by Essendon, Brisbane and Port Adelaide, who shared the five flags from 2000 to 2004. Essendon won minor premierships in 1999–2001, but converted only the 2000 season into a premiership; Essendon's 2000 season set an enduring record, with a win–loss record of 24–1 across the home and away season and finals, the best ever recorded. Brisbane contested four consecutive grand finals, winning three from 2001 to 2003. Port Adelaide won minor premierships from 2002–2004, and broke through for its first premiership in the 2004 season after being labelled "chokers" for failing to capitalise on their previous two years at the top of the ladder. The dominance of interstate clubs continued to six consecutive flags, with Sydney and West Coast facing each other in both the 2005 and 2006 grand finals—for one flag each—with both matches decided by less than a goal.
The 2002 season saw the Carlton Football Club finish last, becoming the last of the twelve VFL clubs to win its first wooden spoon, before being heavily penalised for cheating the salary cap a few years earlier; the penalties saw Carlton stay near the bottom of the ladder in most of the subsequent seasons.
A series of new rule changes were introduced for the 2006 season, intended to speed up the game, allowing full-backs to kick in more quickly after a behind, and limiting the length of time that a player was allowed to hold the ball after a mark to 8 seconds for a mark in general play, and 30 seconds for a set shot.
Several teams established a regular presence in other parts of Australasia during the 21st century, generally by playing between one and four home matches in the alternative location. Among the notable contracts were including Hawthorn (Launceston), St Kilda (Launceston and Wellington), North Melbourne (Gold Coast, Canberra and Hobart), Richmond (Cairns), Port Adelaide (Darwin) and the Western Bulldogs (Darwin).
In 2007, Geelong beat Port Adelaide by a record 119 points in the grand final. In 2008, Hawthorn beat the dominant team, Geelong, to win the flag. In 2009, Geelong claimed vindication from their 2008 premiership loss, by being the only team of the modern era to overcome a three-quarter-time deficit to defeat St. Kilda in the 2009 grand final. In 2010, Collingwood and St. Kilda contested the first drawn grand final of the modern era. The AFL faced much scrutiny, with the current rule at the time having the grand final being replayed the following week. The rule now currently has a period of extra time being played in lieu of a replay the next week. Collingwood won the grand final replay decisively. In 2011, Collingwood played Geelong in the grand final. Collingwood had only lost to one team all year, Geelong, and now faced them to win back-to-back premierships. The game was in the balance until the final quarter where Geelong pulled away to win their third flag in five years.
In the late 2000s, the AFL looked to establish a permanent presence on the Gold Coast, which was fast-developing as a major population centre. North Melbourne, who was in financial difficulty and had played a few home games on the Gold Coast in previous years, was offered significant subsidies to relocate to the Gold Coast, but the club declined. The AFL then began work to establish a club on the Gold Coast as a new expansion team; the Gold Coast Suns were established, and joined the AFL in 2011 as the 17th team. The Greater Western Sydney Giants, based on both Western Sydney and Canberra, were then established and entered the league as the 18th team in 2012.
In 2012, the Sydney Swans beat the Hawthorn Hawks in the grand final. In 2013, Hawthorn beat first-time grand finalist Fremantle. In 2014, Hawthorn got revenge on the Sydney Swans for the 2012 loss by winning the second of their back-to-back flags. In 2015, West Coast made the grand final, after beating Hawthorn earlier in the finals, and faced them in the grand final. Hawthorn then won their third flag in as many years. In 2016, the Western Bulldogs, plagued by injuries, finished the regular season in seventh place, the second lowest of teams that qualify for finals. The Western Bulldogs won the 2016 flag, after a 62-year premiership drought. And in 2017, the Richmond Tigers won the flag after a miraculous season and a surprising win over minor premiers Adelaide Crows. Richmond won their first in 37 years and broke a record for biggest comeback season after finishing 13th in 2016. Collingwood almost did the same in 2018, losing to the West Coast Eagles by five points.