The 2020 Marsh Community Series fixture was announced last week, which poses the questions of who or what is 'Marsh'? And what happened to 'JLT'?

Marsh is a subsidiary of the Marsh & McLennan Companies, who provide professional services like risk management and insurance. They're also the new owners of JLT, who'd been AFL partners since 2004.

So, you could say the first few months of 2020 will be January, February and 'Marsh', until round one begins on March 19, eight days after the pre-season fixture concludes.

The summer season format

The AFL pre-season structure has itself undergone many transformations.

It was previously a four to six-week mini-season, whereby teams played for a 'premiership' trophy and sometimes a hefty cash prize.

From a knock-out night series in 1988 when night games were still seen as somewhat of a novelty, to a round-robin format in 2000, back to a knock-out series in 2003, then a conference system in 2011. For teams eliminated early, it meant a less competitive pre-season overall.

Today's much less consequential, more exhibition-like 'Community Series' was established in 2014.

What's in a name?

Naming rights to the series has changed almost as much as the recent renaming of AFL venues, Australian Prime Ministers, or Carlton coaches.

The Panasonic Cup (1988-89) became The Foster's Cup (1990-94, named after the beer - largely because it was the early 90s), then The Ansett Australia Cup (1995-2001, largely because Ansett was still an airline).

Sponsorship became more fiscal-oriented in the new-millennial AFL's more financially aware era, with the Wizard Home Loans Cup 2002-05), NAB Cup (2006-2013) and NAB Challenge (2013-2016) before reaching its current JLT / Marsh Community Series status.

Crowds and locations

Waverley Park was the venue of choice for pre-season Grand Finals until Docklands became the main go-to arena for pre-season 'premierships'. Adelaide was also a common choice when featuring a South Australian team, while the MCG was called upon as needed.

Attendance at these finals often ranged from 40,000 at Docklands; to 75,000 at Waverley.

Today's venues still include Marvel Stadium, but also Morwell, Colac and Burpengary, amongst other regional and/or interstate locations.

Whilst crowds now range from 2,000 to 20,000, some of our biggest stars have become available to some of our smallest cities.

New Year, New Rules

Pre-season competitions have always been an experimental testing ground, not just for coaches and players, but for rules.

Shorter playing times, extended interchange benches, super goals and play-on for backwards kicks were all pre-season rules added over a decade ago.

Last year's JLT Series introduced the 6-6-6 field placement, but its intended high-scoring outcome only lasted about six seconds of the pre-season comp, until any time it rained hard and stoppages reigned supreme.

What it did do throughout the regular season was allow for two extremes. There was either a) less predictable final margins, or b) massive floggings. Footy fans (and coaches) loved or hated the rule depending on which side of the coin, but the general consensus was positive.

Lightning Adapters

The 1996 Lightning Premiership may well have been ahead of its time.

Perhaps the most effective scoring production method/s occurred during its rule changes, many of which could be considered useful today, including:

  • Last touch out of bounds = opposition free kick. If the two boundary umpires on each side of the ground didn't agree or couldn't determine last touch, there'd be a throw in. This effectively cancels out the controversial 'deliberate out of bounds' rule, entices players to maintain possession and keep play alive, and greatly reduces stoppages.
  • Three points for rushed points and three points for hit-the-post. This also effectively cancels out the controversial 'deliberate rushed behind' rule, entices players to maintain possession and would keep game play spicy on the goal line. For the 'post' rule to work, we'd need to improve our goal analysis. Which leads to...
  • Two goal umpires at each end. And ONLY if no mutual decision, we utilise video review.
  • Six-player interchange benches. Teams would avoid being literally hamstrung late in matches. Could also reduce fatigue and possibly injuries, whilst allowing 36 more players to play and/or develop each week.
  • If scores were level at the end of game time, the siren would not sound until a team scored. Similar to the NRL's highly effective golden-point scenario, this would mean no more draws, which is both a positive and negative for football (ironically, a bit like a draw).
  • Full back could kick out while goal umpire still waving flags. This rule has since been implemented in AFL, but breach penalties remain in many amateur leagues.
  • Umpire always throws ball up instead of bouncing it. This has been implemented in pre-season AFL and whilst the bounce has been reduced during regular seasons, its mere existence is sadly still endangered. Our current rule could probably stay as it is.

Why it worked

Despite each Lightning game only lasting 35 minutes (slightly longer than a regular game's single quarter), an average of 10.5 goals were kicked. Stretch this out across a full game, factor in fatigue and defensive game play and we could expect to see teams regularly scoring about 120 points each.

In 2019, AFL teams averaged 80 points, the lowest average in 52 years.

What'll they think of next?

In 2020, another rule which probably should get a serious pre-season trial run is the abolition of ruck nominations. If more than one player from either team contests the ruck, simply award a free kick to the opposition.

A faster game which makes players more accountable and the umpire less influential is what pre-season fixtures should integrate.

Especially when there's no trophy.