What will Round 18 - and 2021 - fixture look like?
Collingwood vs Port Adelaide shapes as a marquee contest in the AFL's floating Round 18 fixture as the league closes in on an official Grand Final starting time and Brownlow Medal date.
The league had been for as much time as possible to maximise the ratings potential of a Round 18 that is likely to go from Thursday September 18 to a possible season finish on Monday September 21.
Now as the finals hopes begin to take shape they will lock those games into position in coming days to give teams time to plan.
The league will want to ensure the highest possible drama with multiple clubs still fighting for home finals, double chances and finals qualification.
The Collingwood-Port Adelaide clash is a likely Thursday or Friday night contest because both teams will be finals bound and pushing up the ladder.
But a Melbourne-Essendon clash that could be mouth-watering if both are pushing for a finals spot is losing its lustre as the Dons drop from finals contention.
St Kilda-GWS should have plenty hanging on as a potential Thursday or Friday clash with both clubs potentially playing off for a spot in the lower reaches of the finals.
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If Carlton can closes the season with late-season wins all nine of the Round 18 contests will involve at least one team pushing for finals or a higher ladder position for October clashes.
The league will likely finish its home-and-away season on a Monday before a MVP-Rising Star-All Australian night in the week before the bye, with finals on the Wednesday-Saturday nights of the first week of finals.
Meanwhile, the Herald Sun understands club lists will only be reduced by a small number of players for 2021 as coaches including Hawthorn's Alastair Clarkson push the league for clarity.
AFL football boss Steve Hocking said on Saturday any cut would likely be a staged approach in discussions with the AFLPA.
Clubs will likely only have to move on a handful of rookies and older players to get under a list size of around 40, which would likely again be reduced for 2022.
The league has indicated the Grand Final will be after 6.30pm Melbourne time, following the Cox Plate which will be run on the afternoon of October 24 and broadcast on footy's host broadcaster Seven.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan floated a potential 6.10pm game at the Gabba on radio this week, which would be a 7.10pm start in Melbourne given daylight savings.
But Seven is likely to want to maximise its ratings out of a 6pm news bulletin so could push the starting game back later to between 7.30pm and 8pm to ensure it has a full pre-match.
The league is adamant the game will be a true night contest with Queensland bid boss Tony Cochrane speculating the Grand Final could draw a ratings figure of as many as six million viewers.
WHAT WILL 2021 FIXTURE LOOK LIKE?
- Sam Landsberger
The AFL will resist taking shortcuts when it pulls together next year's fixture with bottom-four clubs Hawthorn and North Melbourne set to be rewarded with two of the easiest draws in 2021.
It was reported earlier this year that the AFL could simply use the fixture originally planned for 2020 next year instead of drawing up a new one from scratch.
The 2020 fixture was torn up after Round 1 and replaced on the run after the season was reduced by 45 games due to COVID-19.
The AFL is usually deep in the process of producing the upcoming fixture by early September, however has understandably given it little thought this year.
The AFL only locked in the Gabba as the Grand Final venue last week and is still planning for this year's finals series.
But league executives remain confident they can produce a complete 198-game home-and-away fixture for 2021 by early November, which is only slightly behind the usual timeline.
Port Adelaide would have been the big winner if the league chose to adopt the wasted 2020 fixture next season.
The ladder-leader would've received six games against Adelaide, Hawthorn and Gold Coast as well as a double-up against Western Bulldogs, another team outside the top eight.
The weighted rule is set to return, where clubs are grouped in brackets of six based on their final ladder position this year to help work out which teams they face twice.
That rule will see the Hawks and Roos receive either two or three double-ups against fellow bottom-six clubs next year.
A strong dose of normality is set to return with clubs expecting to play 22 games in the traditional format with 20-minute quarters.
But the overwhelming success of the "Footy Frenzy" - where games have been played every night - has given the league food for thought.
There is a chance that concept could be retained in some form for next year's school holidays, so long as crowd sizes aren't impacted too heavily.
The AFL wants to get the 2020 season done before assessing which experiments worked so well this year they should be looked at going forward.
Originally published as What will Round 18 - and 2021 - fixture look like?