NSW players walk off the field at half-time of their 1988 State of Origin match against South Australia.  A NSW/ACT vs Queensland match-up could be the way that State of Origin footy returns.

Every year, there are discussions centred around a return of State of Origin for the AFL.  Any combination of the success of the NRL State of Origin, the need for representative football, it being used as a marketable “all-star game”, or to continue the long history of state football are used as a justified reason for the concept to return for Australian football.

I would love State of Origin to return for all those reasons, but these aren’t strong enough reasons for its return.  The NRL State of Origin ‘works’, in large part, because the talent pool is concentrated in the two states and is played at a fully competitive level.  However, as the pinnacle of the sport and influencing the home and away matches that take place around it, it also undermines the nature of the competition itself.  State Australian football was historically played in lieu of a full national competition, and the passion that interstate teams would have had for their state teams are now directed toward an AFL team.  Looking toward the NRL or at the past clearly isn’t the best idea in all cases.

The motivations and incentives of the key stakeholders need to be examined for any possible State of Origin return.  If we accept that the players and the fans would want it to return, and the clubs and the AFL don’t, an examination of the disincentives creating the reason why the the clubs and the AFL are against its return must be undertaken, and then for any subsequent State of Origin proposal needs to adequately address these for the AFL and clubs.

The AFL has publicly stated that there’s no support from the clubs for the AFL, whilst the AFL behind closed doors would probably want to see a significant return for any financial and logistical investment into reintroducing State of Origin.  The risks for the clubs is mainly that of injury of their players.  These disincentives, especially for the clubs, are hard to address – injuries are always going to occur in competitive footy – so the only solution is to increase the incentives significantly, and attempt to ensure they outweigh these disincentives.

As such, the clubs would have to benefit from an State of Origin game, through brand exposure, increased revenue, or something similar.  For some clubs, State of Origin returning is not worthwhile – the increased exposure of the sport or its teams is not beneficial to the likes of Collingwood, Hawthorn and West Coast, who all brought in over $60 million in revenue last year.

There are four clubs, however, that could benefit with a return of State of Origin – the four Northern clubs: Brisbane Lions, Gold Coast, GWS Giants, and the Sydney Swans.

The AFL has invested millions into the northern states to promote and develop the game, the formation of the two expansion sides being the most significant example of investment that has also included investment into academies to improve the AFL talent pool and attempts to increase junior development pathways.  Despite this, attendances at Queensland games remain poor, whilst GWS still have countless promotions in giving away and selling cheaper tickets to attempt to increase the attendance at Sydney Showground Stadium, and despite this, attendances remain low.

State of Origin between New South Wales/ACT and Queensland could be a way to improve interest and incentives in the northern states, which in turn would lead to increased support for these teams.  The catch here, is, though, that this match needs to be largely seen as a marketing vehicle first and foremost.

There’s a lot of things that the AFL shouldn’t borrow from its NRL counterpart for a State of Origin return, but the passion and parochialism of these sports fans is something that can be the case.  For many Rugby League casual fans, their state winning State of Origin is of greater importance than their club winning the premiership, and television numbers and attendances have shown the extremely large group of fans who only watch State of Origin as opposed to week-to-week matches.  If even some of these fans watch for parochial reasons, they could equally watch an AFL State of Origin game to support their specific state in a gladiatorial battle.

Such a game could be played two weeks before the beginning of the season, giving genuine AFL fans a game of football that features talent that is greater than an average AFL game, to open the season.  Fans who pine for a return of State of Origin in the traditional states could be marketed to get them to watch if they truly want a return of State of Origin and it could also be used as a litmus test to see if the ratings are significantly high enough, as a pathway for a for a return of State of Origin footy in the traditional states.

In part due to investments into northern academies and an existence of the two teams in each state, the talent pool is sufficiently large enough that both teams would field high-quality teams.  The player pool would draw largely from these four teams which whilst increasing the likelihood that one of the teams loses a player to injury, it could be a risk they are willing to take given the exposure of their clubs as brands to the population in the northern states.

Such an exposure would occur because the match would be broadcast on the main Channel 7 channel in all parts of Australia, rather than 7mate in the Northern States, where if promoted and advertised correctly to capitalise on the parochial nature of Northern sports fans, could get viewership numbers that are significantly higher than an average AFL broadcast in those markets.  A ticket to the game could have a tie-in with a discounted membership or a free bonus ticket for one of the two teams of the state that the match is being played in, and the broadcast of the match in the Northern states could feature advertisements for these four team’s memberships or upcoming matches.  In other words, a State of Origin game is a way to sell the four Northern clubs to hundreds of thousands of non-, or very-casual-AFL fans in these areas that would otherwise not watch a game.

Furthermore, the quality of such a game, especially with a continued turnover of such a game through the academies, would be a fantastic manifestation of the academy talent that the AFL and the clubs have investigated in, and finally, there would be countless benefits in the “code wars”, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If the non-Northern clubs are worried about losing one of their Queensland or New South Wales/ACT origin players to injury, these worries can be somewhat reasonably mitigated by rules such as a maximum of two players from these 14 clubs being allowed to be selected in the match, or special list dispensation allowing a call-up from a reserves-listed player to be eligible to play senior games for the length of the injury.

Many of us would love a return of State of Origin footy – however, there’s not enough examination as to how to increase the incentives for the AFL and the clubs to counteract the current disincentives.  A NSW/ACT vs Queensland game that is used as a very heavy marketing tool in the northern states could be one solution that addresses this.