THE 2014 AFL season will start in the middle of March with an opening round that will be spread over a fortnight.
The AFL Commission ticked off the new season structure at its meeting earlier this week and confirmed that the opening round will commence on March 14.
The early start will be particularly welcomed by the four northern AFL clubs, who have traditionally struggled for exposure in March because of the clash with the start of the NRL and the Super Rugby seasons.
The AFL season will remain at 22 rounds with a second bye introduced for every club.
The first of these will take place between rounds eight and 10, while the second bye will be scheduled in rounds 18 and 19.
The structure of the finals will remain unchanged, with the top eight sides qualifying for the finals.
The NAB Cup will take place over a fortnight in February, with an emphasis on regional matches throughout Australia, while instead of a pre-season Grand Final, the AFL has flagged the possibility of a representative game, which the AFL Players Association has been relentlessly pushing and will no doubt welcome.
AFL general manager of broadcasting Simon Lethlean said the Commission had signed off on a new weighting system that would determine the five double match-ups for each club as part of the premiership season.
Before the fixture is constructed, the final ladder will be grouped into the top six teams, middle six teams and bottom six teams to better managing the equality of double match-ups for all clubs the following season.
Teams will play a maximum of three double-up fixtures against the other sides in their group, which would eliminate what happened to Hawthorn this year, when it had to play twice against each of the sides that finished in last year's top eight except for Fremantle.
“The weighting of second-time match ups for clubs enables the AFL to better deal with the key requirement of equality, as well as continuing to ensure that our venue obligations and our broadcast obligations can be met," said Lethlean.
“Retaining a pre-set fixture for each season ahead, rather than re-fixturing the final rounds of the season after all clubs have played each other once across 17 rounds, better enables the AFL to manage travel-loads of the non-Victorian clubs in particular, and ensure that key games such as Derbies, Showdowns, Q Clashes and major blockbusters can be accommodated twice in a season,” he said.
Lethlean added that the requirements of the existing TV deal made it too difficult to make radical changes to the structure of the fixture, but there was a strong push by the Commission for fixture optimization and equalisation, as well as to start the season earlier and to add a second bye.