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Eagles, Swans emerge well-placed as fixture bids to share the spoils

The 'Weighted' fixture, how it works How the AFL constructed
THE WORD of the year around AFL headquarters has been equalisation and, inspired by their visit to the US in August, League bosses have been driven not just to grow the pie but also to share the spoils more evenly.

A case in point has been the 2014 fixture, which was revealed on Thursday.

The AFL has doubled the number of Thursday nights from three to six and has introduced six Sunday night games as well.

But with 25 Friday night slots still to be filled, it paves the way for some fresh faces in what remains the prestige timeslot and in 2014, Richmond and North Melbourne earn their time in the spotlight.

Anzac Day feast headlines 2014 fixture release

The Tigers will feature in four Friday night matches as well as what next year will be the Thursday night MCG opener, as opposed to the season opener, against Carlton. And deservedly so, following this year's barnstorming run to their first finals appearance in more than a decade.

The Kangaroos have been backed in on the hunch that they a) will continue to be great to watch and b) will be very, very good. The original Friday night football pioneers play five Friday night games and also feature in two of the new Sunday night slots.

Three years into a five-year media rights deal, the new timeslots won't mean more money for the AFL from its media partners.

But what better time is there for the AFL to tinker with its match scheduling? If the ratings are up, sponsors are happy and the crowd figures don't take a hit, then it will paint a rosy picture for the game ahead of the next broadcast rights negotiation, which will be with us before we know it.

The Thursday and Friday fixtures are as fan-friendly as possible, scheduled for the start of the season when anticipation is high and then for school holidays and the eve of public holidays, when the need to "get the kids home to bed" isn't as pressing.

And there are some beauties among them:  Essendon-Carlton and Collingwood-Carlton on Sunday nights, Richmond-Carlton, Adelaide-Collingwood, Sydney Swans-Geelong and Fremantle-Carlton among the Thursday nights.

These might be experiments, but they are grand experiments all the same.

Good Friday footy 'gathers momentum' at headquarters

Traditionalists will decry that the new timeslots means a further erosion of Saturday afternoon football. And they're correct to a point.

Games have to be taken from one timeslot to feed another and on Saturday afternoons, the AFL has to compete with local sport, retailers and a myriad of other distractions.

But with games such as Adelaide-Sydney Swans in round three, which will mark Kurt Tippett's first game against his old club, Richmond-Fremantle in round 13, and Hawthorn-Collingwood in round 14, Saturday afternoon at the football will still hold some appeal.

Another feature of the draw is the early start. The season proper will be underway by March 14 when the Pies and Dockers start things off at Etihad Stadium.

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Etihad Stadium will host four games over the fortnight of the opening round while the MCG remains unavailable, but the key reason for the early start is to have live AFL content in the northern states at the same time as the rugby codes start their seasons. The GWS-Sydney Swans derby at Giants Stadium is already shaping as heated and divisive.

The Suns also play at home in the first weekend and the Lions play away in the second, so there is AFL content for the northern states in both weeks.

Another key feature is the weighted draw, which gives clubs more games against those sides that were similarly placed on the 2013 ladder. But there are still some quirks.

The Swans play double fixtures against only Hawthorn and Port Adelaide from the top six, with their once-only games against Fremantle and Geelong both at the SCG. Hawthorn, by contrast, cops the Cats, the Swans and the Dockers twice and also plays a dangerous Collingwood and fast-improving Gold Coast twice.

Not only do the Hawks face the toughest slate of opponents, they will also negotiate nine six-day breaks, the most of any team in the competition. Geelong, Carlton and North with eight, come next.

West Coast sank to 14th in 2013 but is ideally placed for a quick rebound with the weighted draw offering cross-town Fremantle as the only top-six team it plays twice. Bottom-six clubs Gold Coast, St Kilda and Melbourne are among the other clubs it plays twice. Adam Simpson needs a bit of luck as he settles into the coaching chair at the Eagles and he has got it.

Equalisation has also struck in other ways. An unprecedented nine Collingwood games will not be shown on free-to-air TV, including five on the trot from rounds 18 to 22. Not that the Collingwood brand needs further polishing, but it is an awfully long time for the biggest club in the land to have limited exposure.

Football comes to Adelaide Oval in 2014 and the Crows and Power have been well accommodated. Collingwood, Hawthorn, Richmond and the Swans will visit to play the Crows, while Geelong, the Hawks, Essendon, Richmond and Carlton are the popular Victorian clubs who will play away to Port Adelaide at the redeveloped venue.

Anzac Day takes centre stage with a triple-header, which starts at the MCG and heads across the ditch to Wellington before finishing in Perth. And apart from the Pies and the Bombers, this huge day also offers exposure to the otherwise unfashionable Saints and Lions, and the emerging North Melbourne.

Darwin gets only one game next year, but Alice Springs gets its first game when Melbourne hosts Port Adelaide at TIO Traeger Park in round 11.

Other quirks? How about Carlton not leaving Victoria until round 11? The Western Bulldogs closing the season with five of six at Etihad? St Kilda and North playing just twice at the MCG while the Giants get three games at the home of football.

All of this is part equalisation, part fairness and part the result of trying to create 22 rounds of football over 25 weeks with a stack of restrictions and limitations.

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Twitter: @afl_hashbrowne
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs