Zoning (Australian rules football)
In Australian rules football, zoning (originally called district football) refers to a system whereby a given area, either region or lower-level football league, is reserved exclusively for one club.
Zoning has been historically an important part of most major Australian football leagues, being usually justified as necessary to ensure a reasonably equitable competition.
In the early days of Australian rules football, players, though required to be amateurs, were free agents. Because a small number of clubs (such as Norwood in the SAFA and Fremantle in the WAFA) perennially dominated the competition, pressure to eliminate this inequality was always considerable. District football was first introduced in the SANFL in 1897, the year the VFL was formed from the VFA.
Under district football, a player could only play for the club whose district he resided in, and the effect on the competitiveness of the SANFL was noteworthy: whereas previously clubs often had won three premierships in a row or four premierships in five years, neither occurred again until West Adelaide, who had perennially struggled and were close to or at the bottom of the ladder in their first ten years in the competition (1898-1907), won four premierships between 1908 and 1912.
The VFL formally adopted metropolitan zoning in 1915 under laws which required a player to play for the club in his zone he lived, unless he:
- a) moved home after becoming an established player for three years, or
- b) was discarded by the club to which he was zoned
Metropolitan zoning has been seen by historians of the VFL as improving the competitive balance of the league in the years following World War I. When Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne were admitted for the 1925 season, they were allocated zones. Over time, boundaries were changed to cope with demographic shifts.
Whilst recent studies have shown that metropolitan zoning became less effective at equalising playing strength following the admittance of the three new clubs in 1925 (done primarily to avoid the necessity of a bye each week), it was already firmly accepted by the majority of club officials in most Australian Rules competitions by the late 1920s and at no stage during the following forty years was there ever any thought of abolishing it, while a tradition of club loyalty further entrenched the viewpoint that zoning was a legitimate policy.
With the great urban sprawl after World War II, newly developed areas were zoned almost as soon as they were developed. In the case of the VFL, such areas were quite often zoned to a different club from the one who held adjacent previously developed areas, whereas the SANFL tried to keep zones contiguous. These and other leagues remained concerned about the possible impacts if zoning were removed, and this caused their zoning laws to ossify.
In the early days of Australian Rules football, metropolitan clubs were unable to buy players from rural leagues, but the growth of Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth due to urbanization in the 1950s meant that city clubs could offer much more money (even if not as direct payments) than country clubs could. This permitted wealthier clubs to circumvent the restrictions imposed by metropolitan zoning, as top country players tended to go to the club who was able to offer them most money by gifts such as motor cars and signing-on fees.
From the mid-1960s, Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond (and to a lesser extent Geelong) perennially dominated the competition because their greater wealth allowed them to monopolise top country players and build up greater playing strength than was previously possible, while Footscray, North Melbourne and Fitzroy were in grave danger of folding.
The VFL’s response was to zone rural Victoria and the Riverina of New South Wales in a similar manner to metropolitan Melbourne. Because of the sparseness of Australia’s rural population, the country zones related not to the player’s address, but rather to the league in which he played. This difference made zone boundaries impossible to adjust and was a critical component of the failure of country zoning.
Because the VFL was aware that discrepancies existed in the strength of each zone, it was originally planned that the zones would be rotated every year so that each club would obtain a chance of receiving the best young country players. However, Carlton, Hawthorn and Richmond had productive zones and were naturally unwilling to give them up for less productive ones, so the zones remained the same from the inception of country zoning until it was abolished in 1986. There was also no provision for demographic changes which occurred in the various country zones, which exacerbated the problems mentioned above.
Major Country Leagues and their allocated clubs
- Bendigo Football League to Carlton
- Western Border Football League to Collingwood
- Wimmera Football League to Essendon
- Hampden Football League to Fitzroy
- Gippsland Football League and Latrobe Valley Football League to Footscray
- Geelong & District Football League and Mid Murray Football League to Geelong
- Goulburn Valley Football League to Melbourne
- Mornington Peninsula Football League to Hawthorn
- Ovens & Murray Football League to North Melbourne
- Sunraysia Football League to Richmond
- Riverina Football League to South Melbourne
- Ballarat Football League to St Kilda
Effects of country zoning
Although the more even distribution of top country players at the beginning of the 1970s was such that the SANFL and WAFL quickly adopted country zoning, its gains were very short-lived. Carlton, Richmond, Hawthorn and North Melbourne won every VFL premiership between 1967 and 1983, a period of dominance not known in any other era, as strong country zones gave these clubs lists more powerful than any club could build without zoning.
In contrast, the clubs with the worst zones, Melbourne and South Melbourne, took eight wooden spoons between them in that period. South Melbourne played only two finals in 1970 and 1977, whilst Melbourne did not play a final until 1987, after country zoning had been abolished.
Some writers on VFL history have argued that the inequalities created by country zoning were much greater than those created by club wealth beforehand and that some clubs lost many players they would have gained were players able to move to the club nearest to them. Most significantly, St Kilda’s return to the bottom of the ladder in the mid-1970s after a period of success from 1961-1973 has been related to its loss of many players to Hawthorn from the Frankston area, which was already becoming part of metropolitan Melbourne when country zoning began.
Defenders of country zoning have argued that it provided greater incentive for VFL clubs to look for players in country leagues, and that its abolition has meant that this incentive has been lost.
End of VFL zoning
In 1981, the system of player permits based on country and metropolitan zoning was threatened by two cases.
In the better-known of these, a full-back from SANFL club West Torrens, Doug Cox, had his permit to play with St Kilda challenged because he had played in 1975 for South Mildura, which was within Richmond’s country zone. St Kilda temporarily lost eight points for two wins against Footscray and Melbourne, later reinstated on appeal, and were fined $5,000 for playing Cox in the first eight rounds. Soon afterwards, South Melbourne centre-half forward Michael Smith admitted he gave false information on his application for a permit to play with South, and his true address was in St Kilda’s zone. South were going to lose four points but since the VFL, challenged by the Cox case to be more lenient about its now-archaic zoning laws, was considering changing the rules, South were not punished.
The Foschini Case of 1983, where teenage rover/forward, Silvio Foschini did not want to move to Sydney when South Melbourne did so in 1981/1982 but was refused a clearance to play with St Kilda, declared previously unchallenged zoning an illegal labour market restraint. Although the VFL retained zoning for two more years, it had to radically alter the system of clearances and player contracts, and in 1985, with the competition less competitive than ever (only six clubs had made the Grand Final since 1972), reform of the system of player trading began. Zoning was replaced with a player draft, which studies have shown to be much more effective at equalising club strength than country zoning ever was.
In competitions such as the SANFL and WAFL, however, country and metropolitan zoning are still used today, despite the declarations concerning their use in the VFL. The SANFL, which introduced country zoning of South Australia in 1973 has made efforts to make country zoning less inflexible than it proved in the VFL though making provisions for the adjustment of zone boundaries. In the WAFL, however, there is already distinct concern country zoning is creating inequalities in available talent.
- Victorian Recruiting Zones
- TAC Cup
- See Groot, Loek; “Competitive Balance in Team Sports: The Scoring Context, Referees, and Overtime”; Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 165 (2009), pp. 384–400. ISSN 0932-4569
- Wilson, David; “QC warns of Loopholes in League Rules: VFL Zoning in Doubt”; The Age, 23 July 1981; p. 26
- Booth, Ross; “History of Player Recruitment, Transfer and Payment Rules in the Victorian and Australian Football League”; in ASSH Bulletin No. 26 (June 1997); pp. 13-33
- Stewart, R.K.; “The economic development of the Victorian Football League 1960–1984” Sporting Tradtions, 1985 Vol. 1 No. 2 pp. 2-26
- Booth, Ross; “The Economics of Achieving Competitive Balance in the Australian Football League, 1897–2004”; Economic Papers: A journal of applied economics and policy, Volume 23, Issue 4 (December 2004), pp. 325–344
- “How the Doc Hopes to Cure the Ailing Saints”; in The Age, 12 February 1987, p. 30
- Wilson; David; “The Cox Wrangle: The Year That Cost 8 Points”; The Age, 22 May 1981, p. 22
- Carter, Ron; “League Takes All St Kilda’s Points”; The Age, 21 May 1981; p. 1
- Carter, Ron; “St Kilda Regains Points”; The Age, 30 July 1981, p. 30
- Carter, Ron and Slattery, Geoff; “Second Wrong Permit in VFL: South’s Turn to Lose Points”; The Age, 22 June 1981, p. 26