THE AFL'S second-tier and development competitions are set for major reform as the industry braces for significant changes and the inevitability of smaller list sizes.
The catastrophic financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic is forcing the AFL's hand on a number of matters that will transform the Australian Football landscape.
Clubs have to slash $3 million from their soft cap spending by next season – almost a third of this year's limit – with list sizes set to be cut by about 10 players to 35 as another cost-saving measure.
That means more than 180 AFL footballers could depart the system at year's end, with draftees potentially to come in as well, so anyone out of contract would be nervous.
A more extreme suggestion has playing lists dropping to as low as 30 in the future, although this is considered highly unlikely.
The situation is placing doubt on this year's NAB AFL Draft, with clubs possibly needing to make as few as two selections, and some argue it shouldn't be held at all in 2020.
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There are now questions on the size and structure of the NAB League, which has 12 teams at present that also compete against AFL club academies on occasion.
The idea of 'super regions' is being discussed at club level, where there might need to be only half as many NAB League sides since there would be a lower volume of draftees.
No decisions have been made or communicated to club chiefs, who are sympathetic towards those at AFL headquarters tasked with the game's immediate direction.
Sydney list boss Kinnear Beatson, one of the sport's most experienced recruiters, is advising his peers to adapt to whatever the competition looks like this year and entering next season.
"List managers have to take a big breath and assess with the AFL when it's all over what the collateral damage has been – and what the game can afford," Beatson told AFL.com.au.
"Then, we can go forward."
Clubs have been banned from interviewing draft prospects for the next couple of weeks. They were planning to do interviews via Skype, Zoom etc but AFL has blocked that for now. More in @AFLcomau's rolling blog. https://t.co/Dy1py0P6bK— Callum Twomey (@CalTwomey) March 22, 2020
Several football and list bosses conceded to AFL.com.au they won't have the money to pay the necessary staff to run a state league team, plus there won't be enough players if list sizes shrink.
Clubs, on average, had about six footballers unavailable each round last year, while at least some of the four emergencies were held out or travelled with the team.
With a starting senior squad of 22, a maximum of 13 players would be leftover every week for state league selection but that number would more likely be in single digits.
Complicating matters further are the ongoing financial struggles of second-tier clubs, with the Northern Blues already ceasing to exist after Carlton parted ways with them for economic reasons.
AFL clubs' willingness to help state league teams survive in the name of player development will be seriously tested in these unprecedented times.
A national reserves competition wasn't viable even before the coronavirus cash crisis but one option being raised is the merging of the VFL and NEAFL.
Another possibility is a 23-and-under competition, with dispensation to play a certain number of older players, although this idea has obvious flaws.
But as one list boss told AFL.com.au: "There is no silly suggestion at this time."
All sorts of scenarios are being contemplated if list sizes tumble, including a US-style waiver system, run on reverse ladder order, that would make every eligible player outside of the AFL system available.
This would enable clubs to grab a player whenever they had a positional need throughout the season rather than selecting someone at a set time.
It would be a blow to state league clubs but South Adelaide chief executive Neill Sharpe told AFL.com.au the greater depth of talent available with reduced AFL lists would help balance that.
Another second-tier club representative raised players' mental health as a concern, given an individual could potentially be picked up and dumped several times throughout a season.
It's believed AFLW list rules may also come into play, with train-on players who can become injury replacements once there is a certain attrition rate.