BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 07: Dustin Martin of the Tigers celebrates during the 2019 AFL Second Qualifying Final match between the Brisbane Lions and the Richmond Tigers at The Gabba on September 07, 2019 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The 2021 AFL season will be the 125th iteration of the elite competition, and the 32nd following its name change from the VFL in the late 1980s.

There will be 18 teams (like the previous nine seasons) competing over 23 rounds, with the season due to kick off on the 18th March 2021 between 2020 Premiers Richmond and Carlton, with the Blues having not won a premiership since 1995 and holding the record for the most wooden spoons in the 21st century.

There is also a short pre-season, usually of 18 games with each team playing twice. The pre-season is more of a friendly where teams can test out their tactics in a live environment, as there is no overall winner, no prizes, and does not contribute towards final standings. It does however give a glimpse of what is yet to come for the rest of the season, something bookies and tipsters like to keep an eye on.

Format and 2020

The 2021 season is hoping to return to its traditional format following a rather bumpy 2020 season, which saw the competition suspended for three months following round one due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I

t then saw a shortened season, with multiple amendments made to training schedules, quarantining teams in between games, and creating hubs for teams to live in, train in, and play in, as well as restrictions on fan attendance (varying from state to state and from month to month depending on government guidelines.

However, the AFL has contingency plans in place to avoid any disruption to the planned season, so players and fans alike can be sure of enjoying the coming season without the risk of cancellation. Eddie McGuire, president of Collingwood, has previously called for the AFL to start the season mid-February to increase the chances of getting the full season in, but this is not currently being considered by the AFL. There are also many things that the AFL could learn from the 2020 season, and many things to avoid.

2021 top four predictions

  1. BRISBANE LIONS

Despite suffering some defeats at the end of the 2020 season, the Lions have invested heavily into new signings for the upcoming season and with the addition of Joe Daniher and Nakia Cockatoo – creating a more potent forward line. Added to the new talent coming through like Zac Bailey, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

2. GEELONG CATS

Perhaps the best team that didn’t win in 2020, the Cats have an impressive array of talent, including Coleman Medal Winners Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron. With the power of Shaun Higgins and the stamina of Isaac Smith, the Cats are perfectly placed to make a flag tilt.

Geelong Cats Training Session
GEELONG, AUSTRALIA – DECEMBER 08: Isaac Smith of the Cats in action during the Geelong Cats AFL training session at GMHBA Stadium on December 08, 2020 in Geelong, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. PORT ADELAIDE

With a coach voted by his peers as the best in the business, and strong youngsters coming through the ranks, there is no reason that the strong and young Port Adelaide Team cannot give current premiers a run for their money and be successful in securing the premiership.

4. RICHMOND

Last year’s winners show no sign of slowing down, and despite some changes to the list, their clear cohesiveness as a team and ability to adapt and overcome make them a strong contender for the flag.

Comparisons to the NFL

The AFL is a hugely popular sport in Australia, with over 25,000 active professional and amateur clubs across Australia in 2016, and often garners comparisons with the equally popular NFL in the USA.

Both games have many commonalities, not least their place as a cornerstone of national culture. The AFL is the fourth biggest domestic sporting league in the world, and the NFL has broken the top three, and fans are heavily invested in both, following the lives and antics of players both on and off the pitch, with loyalty spanning through generations.

There are some subtle differences, however, such as different sized pitches, different numbers of players on the pitch, different scoring systems, and even the way the league is run is different, with the AFL having 23 rounds and overall performance determining the winner rather than a divisional knockout as seen in the NFL.

Much like the AFL, the NFL has benefited greatly from changes in gambling legislation. Following the Supreme Court ruling overturning PASPA (Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) in 2018, individual states can now determine whether the activity of sports betting online is legal or not.

A year after the law was passed, US$13 billion was wagered on the NFL alone, leading to over US$118 million in tax revenue to the individual states. It is estimated that, once the US sports gambling market matures, the NFL could make in excess of US$2.3 billion dollars in revenue a year from the gambling market alone.

It is predicted that more and more states will follow in the footsteps of New Jersey and Illinois who legalised sports betting last year to take advantage of the tax revenue gained from online gambling, an activity that could benefit both states and sporting events like the NFL.

It is hoped that the 2021 AFL season will run more smoothly than the previous one, but despite all the challenges faced teams have risen to the challenge and the AFL has put contingency plans in place to facilitate the season, building on the lessons learnt from 2020. Much like the NFL, the fans and their enjoyment are paramount to the success of the sport, and the added excitement of a flutter on the bookies is helping to solidify both of these as cornerstones of US and Australian culture.