THE AFL seems increasingly likely to order the slashing of playing lists, with 35 firming as the ideal number.

Smaller list sizes were a talking point before the coronavirus cash crisis, as revealed in early February, but there is now double the motivation.

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Back then, the potential of a less-lucrative broadcast rights deal – the current one expires at the end of the 2022 season – was one reason a new plan had to at least be hatched.

Since then chaos has reigned on society in the form of a global pandemic, with a dramatic flow-on effect to the AFL industry and season, which is on hold until at least May 31 but, realistically, indefinitely.

Here's what you need to know to get up to speed with how we got here and what might eventuate.

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What do we know so far?

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan confirmed in mid-March there would be only 17 rounds this season rather than 23, with the likelihood of games every four to six days to fit them in.

The fewer matches means there is already far less money in the pool.

What we also know is the AFL has asked the 18 clubs to cut its soft cap expenditure from $9.7 million to $8.7 million this year, and again to $6.7 million by the start of 2021.

The players and umpires have accepted new pay terms for this year, while most other staff were stood down and even made redundant in some cases.

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How many players are on AFL lists now?

Teams have between 38 and 40 footballers on their 'primary' list, and either four, five or six Category A rookies for a maximum combination of 44.

There is also the option, on top of those restrictions, to have three Category B rookies, who can play AFL football only when a primary or Category A teammate is placed on the inactive or long-term injury lists.

Rookie-list wages do not count in clubs' salary cap and are instead included in the soft cap.

For example, Geelong has 40 players on its primary list, four Category A rookies and two Category B rookies this year.

Gold Coast received special concessions last year that enable it to select up to 10 rookies, and as a result there are 51 footballers on the Suns' 2020 playing list.

How does a player get onto an AFL list?

The most common route to becoming an AFL footballer remains the annual drafts, which are typically held in November each year.

There is the NAB AFL Draft then the rookie draft, while players can switch clubs during the Telstra AFL Trade Period and more recently as a delisted free agent.

Another new addition is the pre-season supplemental selection period (SSP), where delisted footballers or those overlooked in the most recent drafts can train and potentially sign with a club between December and March.

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Success stories include Carlton's Michael Gibbons, Giant Shane Mumford and Richmond's Sydney Stack, while Keegan Brooksby this year became the first player chosen this way twice.

The AFL also introduced the NAB AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft last year, where clubs with vacant list spots could select – in reverse ladder order – eligible footballers.

Richmond recruited Marlion Pickett that way before he made a memorable debut in the Grand Final.

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Are any other recruiting methods being considered?

The prospect of clubs playing games every four to six days once the 2020 season resumes means there is talk of a mini-draft to help teams add players to negotiate those periods.

However, many list bosses prefer a US-style waiver system, as revealed in March, where reverse ladder order would be used.

If that system came in, the club highest on the waiver order that bids on an eligible player would win his services.

How are state league clubs affected?

The relatively new SSP and mid-season draft have been bones of contention among state league clubs, particularly from the VFL, SANFL and WAFL.

South Adelaide is the club hardest hit so far, losing three key big men in the past two seasons: Hayden McLean (Sydney) and Keegan Brooksby (West Coast then Hawthorn) via the SSP and Michael Knoll (Sydney) in the mid-season draft.

The biggest complaint centres on the timing of losing such players, whether on season eve or midway through a season – in both scenarios it is difficult to replace them.

Teams that lose a footballer in the SSP receive $10,000 compensation, while the figure increases to $15,000 if one of their players is a mid-season draftee.

State league clubs are bracing to be raided further if AFL list sizes shrink but South Adelaide chief executive Neill Sharpe told there could be a silver lining.


"The thing that probably sticks out and what's hurt us is the type of player that gets taken and when they get taken," Sharpe said.

"I don't think you're ever going to overcome that … but it is more palatable if there are more players playing in your competition, because there are less players on AFL lists.

"What's strong about the SANFL is that every week, every team is out there wanting to win a game of footy. We develop our players but it's about whatever you can do to win a game of footy."

Therein lies part of the complication from an AFL club perspective, where individual development and preparation for the elite level is a higher priority than winning games.

On the flipside, the history of state league clubs is part of the fabric of Australian Football, and something overseas sports don't have.

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What do American sports have in place?

The four biggest sporting organisations in the United States – the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL – all do it slightly differently.

The NFL doesn't have a development league, although it once had NFL Europe, while a series of owners tried and failed to set up a competition they hoped would eventually serve this purpose.

Instead, each team has up to 10 players designated as practice squad members, and the college system is viewed as a development pathway as well.

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The NBA has the G-League (previously the D-League), which was developed in 2001 as a breeding ground for talent and has increased from eight to 28 sides.

NBA teams can each sign two 'two-way' players, who spend a maximum of 45 days training and playing with them and the rest of the time do so with their G-League affiliate.

MLB franchises own various minor league or 'farm' teams that play at varying levels – Triple-A being the best under the Major Leagues – and baseballers are promoted as they progress.

Minor league hockey is somewhat similar, with many NHL clubs owning teams in those competitions or paying the contract for their player/s while they develop at a lower standard.

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Could AFLW list rules be a window into the AFL's future?

Each of the 14 AFLW clubs has a playing list of 30 footballers.

Some have rookies – such as Irishwomen or dual-code stars – within that list but they all have the same number overall, as well as up to 10 'train-on' players, who join training once a week for match simulation purposes.

A listed footballer can be ruled inactive by January 31 (because of work or injury, for example), and hence be out for the season, which enables clubs to elevate a train-on player to attend every session. 

However, they are ineligible for selection until a team has fewer than 23 available footballers.

Twenty-one players per side compete in an AFLW match, as opposed to 22 in an AFL game, with 16 on the field, and this season was supposed to be eight rounds plus three weeks of finals.

There were complaints about list flexibility and shortages even with the shorter AFLW season, so there would need to be extra security in place for a 23-round AFL campaign.

For example, Melbourne lost two Irish footballers on finals eve because of the coronavirus border-closing measures and cobbled together the bare-minimum 21.

Demons development coach Brooke Patterson, who was delisted last year, received special dispensation to be the sole emergency.