THE RACE for the most hyped No.1 pick in the history of the National Draft became a fascination through the year and features in the next instalment of AFL.com.au's 50 biggest stories of 2023, with an established star of the game becoming involved in a saga of his own.
As some of the AFL's most accomplished and popular players said farewell to the game, a new crop of young stars announced themselves, while a Lion King was crowned for a second time.
In a six-part series, AFL.com.au is counting down the biggest football stories and most memorable on-field moments from 2023, continuing with 20-11.
PART ONE 50-41 Biggest stories of 2023
PART TWO 40-31 Biggest stories of 2023
PART THREE 30-21 Biggest stories of 2023
PART FOUR 20-11 Biggest stories of 2023
PART FIVE 10-6 Biggest stories of 2023
PART SIX 5-1 Biggest stories of 2023
20. CBA brings Leagues together
There were significant changes throughout the AFL's new pay deal with the players, but none more important than the wage rise for AFLW players, which further cemented the League as a viable career for young athletes. Following a 94 per cent pay rise for AFLW players last year, the new $2.2 billion pay deal resulted in an average wage for players of $82,000 by the end of 2027, up from $46,000, while players will have the certainty of 12-month contracts and the ability to negotiate longer deals. The length of the AFLW season will also extend to 12 matches by 2025 and potentially 14 by 2027. In an historic deal that was the first to cover both AFL and AFLW players, AFLPA chief Paul Marsh said it had enshrined all players as "true partners in the game".
19. Modern-day greats among retiring class of 2023
There were premiership heroes, club champions, and Norm Smith, Coleman and Brownlow medallists among the retiring greats we farewelled in 2023, with some of the game's revered on-field leaders calling time. Richmond flag heroes Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt, who changed that club's course, left as the Tigers start a new era. West Coast farewelled captains Luke Shuey and Shannon Hurn and the transformative ruckman Nic Naitanui after an era of success, while Isaac Smith left as a flag hero at both Hawthorn and Geelong. Ben Cunnington and Jack Ziebell will leave holes at North Melbourne after their immense contributions, with Daniel Rich, Phil Davis and Tom Jonas all celebrated among the many retiring stars. Then there was one of the best we have ever seen, who was a story of his own.
18. Harley hype matches bidding war
The 2023 season provided a perfect storm for a story like Harley Reid's to take off. West Coast and North Melbourne were locked in a wooden spoon battle from the early rounds, Reid himself had been identified as the player clubs would take with pick No.1 from as early as mid-2022, and fan interest in the draft and trade periods increased again. Reid's football highlights made him a social media sensation, his engaging personality drew fans to him before he was even drafted, and clubs clamoured for capital to trade their way into the No.1 pick. Then there was the rumoured 'go-home factor', which Reid quashed as he proudly wore his first West Coast jumper on Draft night. The hype hasn't stopped, with Perth quickly falling in love with Reid and desperate to see him help a rebuilding Eagles team and add some excitement after two forgettable seasons.
17. Suns commitment to Dew short-lived
Only six days passed in early July between Gold Coast chief executive Mark Evans declaring his support for Stuart Dew and the board then sacking the embattled coach. Having declared the need for stability and floated the possibility of Dew coaching beyond his current deal, the Suns ran out of patience after the team's 33-point loss to Port Adelaide, which included a nine-goal quarter for the Power. The Suns enjoyed some terrific performances in 2023, beating Geelong, the Western Bulldogs and Adelaide under Dew, who finished his 121-game tenure with a 30.2 per cent win rate. There were too many poor periods in games, however, with the club eventually moving in a new direction in one of the bombshell stories of the year.
16. Dramatic collision leaves Brayshaw sprawled
A fuse was lit at the MCG in the qualifying final when Collingwood defender Brayden Maynard leapt from the ground in a smothering attempt before cannoning into Melbourne opponent Angus Brayshaw. It was the most dramatic and emotive collision of the season, causing an immediate scene on-field and later resulting in a four-hour Tribunal hearing that split fans and had premiership implications. It was emotive given Brayshaw's own concussion history, and the fact the Demons lost a key player so early in a crucial final and for the rest of their campaign. There were also details leaked after Maynard visited Brayshaw's house the following day in good faith. The defender was ultimately cleared of rough conduct and free to play through the finals, becoming a premiership player.
15. Lions turn fortunes around in epic AFLW decider
North Melbourne was the fairytale story leading into the 2023 AFLW Grand Final, but Brisbane's ability to come from behind at Ikon Park in a brilliant decider meant season eight belonged to the Lions. Premiers in 2021 and runners-up last season, the Lions triumphed by 17 points after Dakota Davidson booted two final-quarter goals after entering the match under a serious injury cloud. The persistence of Lily Postlethwaite after two knee reconstructions was rewarded, while Cathy and Ruby Svarc became just the second pair of sisters to win an AFLW premiership together. Brisbane captain Bre Koenen was immense in winning the best-on-ground medal, while coach Craig Starcevich was hailed for his ability to lead the team to another premiership after a dramatic off-season of list changes.
14. Next gen emerge as Neale claims second Brownlow
Lachie Neale was left "pretty rattled" after becoming the 16th player in VFL/AFL history to win the Brownlow Medal multiple times. The brilliant onballer was caught by surprise as he emerged as a winning threat through the evening, eventually polling 31 votes to win from Western Bulldogs captain Marcus Bontempelli on 29. While specific voting games were inevitably scrutinised, Neale provided perspective when he spoke about "the beauty of the Brownlow" and the swings and roundabouts that can occur in umpire voting. He was ultimately rewarded for another terrific season. The secondary story on the night, however, was the emergence of a new generation of vote-getting stars who will challenge for future Medals, led by Nick Daicos (28 votes), Errol Gulden (27), Zak Butters (27), Caleb Serong (24) and Noah Anderson (22).
13. Tasmania licence confirmed
An historic day for the competition arrived in early May when chief executive Gillon McLachlan announced the 19th licence had been awarded to Tasmania, following the endorsement of all 18 clubs and unanimous support of the AFL Commission. It was hailed as a day that will "finally make our competition truly national", with binding commitments in place to deliver a new stadium on the Hobart waterfront before a team enters the competition in 2028. "Today is an important and historic day, for football in Tasmania, for football in Australia, for footy supporters all around the country," McLachlan said. "Today we are here to ensure a foundation football state, filled with believers, supporters and gravel rash grit, get the opportunity to unite their state and unite behind a single cause." The club announced its inaugural board in September and will reveal its name and colours early next year.
12. Twists in Oliver saga
Melbourne star Clayton Oliver had the most watched hamstrings in the AFL in the lead-up to finals as his scheduled return was repeatedly set back, with the gun midfielder training two days after the injury in round 10 but not returning until round 22. There were setbacks throughout, including an infected blister, and the Demons faced criticism for how the injury and its communication was handled. That was only half of the Oliver story in 2023, however, with the 26-year-old making headlines during trade period when clubs sensed an opportunity to snare him away from the Demons. The four-time club champion then spent time in hospital following a seizure that resulted in a head injury, speaking later about the pressure his body and mind had been under. It all came at a time when the Demons' club culture was under question following a positive drugs test for utility Joel Smith.
11. AFL reaches agreement after racism allegations
The AFL closed its investigation into allegations of historic racism at Hawthorn in May after a long ordeal, striking a deal with the families of the First Nations players that made the allegations and making no findings against former club staff Alastair Clarkson, Chris Fagan and Jason Burt. With allegations strenuously denied, the complainants did not wish to pursue the AFL's investigation. Under the arrangement, the former Hawthorn players retained their rights to pursue the matter through other avenues, including the Human Rights Commission, but not against the AFL. The prospect of Hawthorn facing penalties for its role in the affair also remained open.