Australian Rules Football has many long standing traditions. Two of the most publicly exercised are hating Collingwood and criticising umpires. Although there is nothing the AFL can do to address the first, the league has embarked on many crusades to protect and sustain the lifespan and sanity of its men (and women) in white. So why is it that in this modern age of stemcells and plasma screens that fans’ frustrations are still at an old-school premium? The answer is simple, unlike the sport’s rules.

There are differing schools of thought on what should be paid a free kick and what should be play on. That’s it. Done. My summation of the most influential issue in today’s football. The AFL has a contrasting opinion of the rules in comparison to you and me. The league then enforces their interpretations onto the field umpires in charge of the games each weekend. The guys that officiate the matches have no choice but to do what their boss tells them to do and hence, when we pay to sit in the stands and watch it all unfold, it does so in a way that we believe to be incorrect.

Don’t get me wrong, even if we all had exactly the same ideas about umpiring the poor blokes trotting around would still get called maggots. However, more often than not in that case it would be regarding decisions that genuinely could have gone either way. Our emotionally-driven anger would be derived from, and directed towards, what we believed to be mistakes. And that is a considerably relevant aspect of what I am acknowledging. Our disdain for the umpires has spawned into a general disagreement with the interpretation of the rules nowadays, rather than the good old disagreement with the particular umpire’s assessment. I feel sorry for them, they are the messengers of the AFL’s Rules Committe and they are covered in crosshairs. It is as though they are forced to deliver a speech that they recognise the footballing masses will disagree with. They are the pawns on the AFL’s giant chess board sent into the trenches on the orders of some faceless conglomerate.

I am of the opinion that the AFL needs to start taking umpires more seriously. We need to make them full-time employees of the league. It may seem outlandish to some readers that I am actually suggesting we offer them MORE money, nevertheless that is what I am implying, bear with me. They are too important to the game to be undervalued any longer.

Let’s take the ten best, or maybe for the instigating stages let’s take the ten most experienced umpires the AFL has at its disposal. Let’s offer all ten of them a 12-month contract to be full-time umpires of the AFL. Now I am not sure what would be a reasonable figure to offer in the ways of renumeration, but I would say it needs to be attractive to secure the services of the best, however easily justified, how about $55Kpa? That roughly equates to half a million dollars, not much at all in the context of the AFL’s annual budget.

Now these top ten centrally contracted AFL umpires each officiate two matches every round without fail. On top of that they are expected to spend a considerable amount of their week reviewing match footage, going over their mistakes, discussing their decision making processes, justifying their performances as well as a healthy dose of training. They are expected to hone their craft, because if they don’t then a different umpire will be offered their contract next season, just like the world of AFL players and coaches.

So with the ten contracted umpires covering two games every round, then that leaves four empty slots which are offered to the best up-and-coming, non-contracted umpires. These guys are paid the usual rate, on a casual basis as is the case now, I think it is a little over $1,000 per match, actually it’s probably more. These umpires represent the best talent on offer from leagues like the SANFL, WAFL and VFL. They are essentially pushing for senior selection, trying to impress the selectors to get a gig each week in the big leagues.

This results in many advantages for the overall health of AFL footy. Firstly, the umpires are exposed to several levels of genuine scrutiny, with something substantial at stake. They are encouraged to work on their implementation and to become as good of an umpire as possible. Secondly, the resultant and encessant pressure. Umpires from lower ranks are working hard to attract the positive attention of the selectors, perhaps while emulating the top echelon of their profession. This is why the Australian Cricket Team is so strong. Thirdly, the level of umpiring in the AFL would be enhanced. And isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

Of course in order for all of that to work effectively, we first need to ensure that all facets of the footballing commuity in Australia are in agreeance regarding the free kicks that should be paid, see paragraph one! In general, and blatantly speaking, the AFL needs to get over itself and appreciate that the opinions of the captains, coaches and players are significantly more informed and extensively more important than anything they might think they know about today’s game.

The most important step towards aligning football opinions is to open the lines of communication. A new structure in thinking should ensure that the frustrations and ideas of the captains are productively received as they are invariably speaking on behalf of the entire playing fraternity, the most important group of all. Regular and compulsary meetings of the coaches should be scheduled for post, mid and pre seasons, with the AFL taking a back seat and absorbing what is placed onto the table for discussion. The newly, full-time employed AFL umpires should meet with captains and coaches directly, in separate instances, perhaps once a season and ensure that the opinions being put forth from all parties (2-way street) are done so without the distorting filters of the league. Finally, as idealistic as it may seem, the AFL should listen to its fans, the lifeblood of their very existence. The AFL website (don’t get me started) could host a series of always accesible polls, surveys and feedback forums where the web-savvy fans of the sport can at least feel as though their opinions are being heard. In addition to this there could be some market researchers adopted to interview footy fans at the games each weekend regarding specific areas of the league’s operation while asking for any further ideas.

If you think about it, there are so many characteristics of the game that 95% of fans completely agree on. It would do the league a world of good to be informed of these overwhelming majorities, and then if changes are made they could refer to some actual market research to help justify their seemingly flippant alterations to a product that has prospered swimmingly for over a century.

I am beginning to feel as though things are becoming over-complicated and overly litigious. I am aware that the AFL has reached a level never before experienced by a sports governing body in this country, however, I just feel it is time to harness that in a manner that pays it the credit it deserves. Maybe we need to make the AFL more accountable in general, we could float it on the share-market so every decision it makes is scrutinised by share-holders that won’t stand for mistakes and failed experiments in the same way we have been forced to as mere members. The league needs to stop imposing change for the sake of c
hange and needs to listen to the fans, coaches and players. Umpires need to be treated as an important cog in the overall scheme of things and not like some annoying, temporarily employed, work experience kids. If the AFL has reached such dizzying heights of professionalism, like we’re so often told, well then I expect better.

Article written by Mark Franklin from