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by Johnson Leung reporting for AFANA from Melbourne

Next year's AFL schedule, released in Melbourne on October 27, will set many firsts: first ever Good Friday game, first ever regular season game to be held in China, first ever Friday night game in Canberra (and for GWS), and first ever regular season game to be played in Ballarat in western Victoria. North Melbourne has been campaigning for Good Friday Football for nearly 30 years, before the club's wish is finally granted with a game against defending Premiers Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium in Round 4 next year. AFL General Manager of Clubs and Operations Travis Auld says the game would start at 4.20 PM AEST (2.20 AM US EDT) to ensure it does not conflict with major religious services on the day. The League is already in talks with the Royal Children's Hospital and broadcasters Channel Seven and Fox Footy about how the game could help promote the Good Friday Appeal, which is the annual fundraiser for the hospital and broadcast all day on Seven in Melbourne. The AFL Commission actually gave the green light to Good Friday Football in 2014, but it took the executive until now to schedule the game. North Melbourne CEO Carl Dilena said the club was absolutely thrilled by the announcement, adding "It's a tribute to this club's track record of innovation and a credit to all the great North people like Bob Ansett, Ron Casey and Greg Miller, who initially proposed this game in the late 80s and early 90s."

China will join New Zealand as the only overseas countries to host regular season AFL games when Gold Coast takes on Port Adelaide at Jiangwan Stadium in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon, May 14. The venue, which last hosted an AFL clash in October 2010 when Melbourne took on Brisbane Lions in an exhibition game, will be reconfigured for the game with crowd capacity reduced from 25,000 to 15,000d. The Shanghai game, which was first revealed during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's visit to China in April this year, has been the product of more than two years' work by Port Adelaide in conjunction with the AFL and the State Government of South Australia, however it will be a Suns' nominal home game. At the game's launch at Melbourne's Chinese Museum on October 25, Gold Coast Chairman Tony Cochrane said he was excited about the prospect of strengthening the links between Gold Coast and China, as China is the number one international tourism market for Gold Coast, and one of the club's major sponsors is Chinese telco equipment maker Huawei. Port Adelaide Chairman David Koch said the game was part of the club's long-term strategy to establish a footprint in China and open new commercial opportunities, and he was not concerned with player fatigue. Both the Power and the Suns will have a bye in the following round so players will have sufficient time to recover. The other 16 teams will have their byes from Round 11 to Round 13.

Canberra's Manuka Oval will host its first ever Friday night game in Round 6 when GWS host the Western Bulldogs in a re-match of this year's preliminary final. It will also be the Giants' first ever Friday game as their reward for their stunning rise up the ladder this year. The Giants will play three Friday night games, against the Bulldogs (Round 6 and 21) and St Kilda (Round 7). Apart from the Bulldogs clash, the Australian capital will host Giants' games against Port Adelaide in Round 4 and Melbourne in Round 20. Almost 40,000 fans watched the Giants' three regular season games in Canberra this year, with their Round 19 clash against Richmond selling out. The Western Bulldogs will host Port Adelaide at Ballarat's Eureka Stadium in Round 21, as part of its partnership with the State Government of Victoria and City of Ballarat to bring AFL football to the region, by offering a suite of community programs, to enhance community well-being and engagement, and by playing matches for premiership points. It is the first game played for premiership points at a Victorian regional venue other than Geelong in 65 years. Bulldogs CEO Gary Kent said the game was a great boost for the game and footy fans in the region, adding "We are planning to create a great festival atmosphere in Ballarat, that offers more than just a football match, but also an opportunity for our club to engage with the people of Ballarat through a number of key activities."

The season will again kick off with Carlton and Richmond on a Thursday night blockbuster, at the MCG on March 23. Western Bulldogs begin its Premiership defense at the same venue the following night, with its new recruit Travis Cloke playing against his former team Collingwood for the first time. On Saturday March 25, Chris Fagan will start his AFL coaching career with Brisbane with a clash against Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium, while Essendon plays Hawthorn at the MCG where the Bombers will welcome back 10 players including Jobe Watson and Dyson Heppell, who served bans imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency for their involvement in the club's supplements scandal. The game will attract overseas visitors who are in town for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, which is held at nearby Albert Park on the same weekend to start the 2017 F1 season.

Other features of the schedule include: Western Bulldogs will unfurl their Premiership flag in the Round 2 home game against Sydney, the first clash since the Dogs' historic victory over the Swans in this year's Grand Final. They will play a home game against Gold Coast in Cairns in Round 18. There will be more Thursday night games next year with eight games (up from five this year). Grand Finalists the Western Bulldogs and Sydney will have the most Friday night games with eight and seven respectively. Richmond, Gold Coast, Brisbane Lions and Fremantle miss out on Friday nights altogether due to their poor form this year, although the Tigers will play on Thursday nights in the first two rounds of next season. North Melbourne and Collingwood only play twice on Friday nights while Essendon, Melbourne and Carlton each has only one Friday night game.

Melbourne, Hawthorn, Geelong and the Western Bulldogs have eight six-day breaks, the most of any club. In contrast, Fremantle has only four six-day breaks. Essendon, Collingwood and West Coast are the only teams to have a five-day break in 2017. After their annual Anzac Day game, the Bombers and the Pies will have to back up on the following Sunday, against Melbourne and Geelong respectively. The Eagles face Richmond at the MCG on the afternoon of Saturday April 8 for their Round 3 clash, before having to return home to host Sydney the following Thursday night. Monday Night Football returns next year when Richmond host Melbourne at the MCG in Round 5, the night before Anzac Day. The previous Monday night game was held in Round 8, 2014 when Carlton defeated St Kilda by 32 points at Etihad Stadium. Melbourne, under the helm of new coach Simon Goodwin, will again play two home games in the Northern Territory in 2017. The Demons would host Gold Coast as a Saturday twilight game at TIO Traeger Park in Alice Springs as part of the Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round in Round 10. They will then head to Darwin for a Round 17 clash with Adelaide at TIO Stadium. The Demons will play their first seven games and last three games in Victoria.

Hawthorn's reunion with former premiership captain, five-time best and fairest winner and now West Coast midfielder Sam Mitchell will take place at the MCG in Round 5, while the first clash between the Hawks and their former vice-captain Jordan Lewis, who now plays for Melbourne, has been scheduled for the MCG in Round 7. Both games will be held on late Sunday afternoon. The Hawks will host the Western Bulldogs in the final round of the season, their first home game at the venue since 2014. They will only play three times on Friday nights, down from six this year. Geelong will host three night games in a row from Rounds 9 to 11 to launch its redeveloped home ground Simonds Stadium. Before that the Cats will play home games at Etihad Stadium (Round 2 and 3) and the MCG (Round 6). They will also play the Country Game against Essendon at the MCG in Round 8. Fremantle will play five of their first seven games at Domain Stadium, however it will start outsiders in three of their first five games there against Geelong, Western Bulldogs and West Coast (in an away derby). The Dockers will not have to travel to Tasmania, Darwin or Gold Coast after making all three trips this year.

The Brisbane Lions, which had a miserable 2016 season, will be hoping for improvement next year. They play Gold Coast, Essendon, St Kilda and Richmond in the first four rounds of 2017 - all teams that failed to make the final eight last year. In 2016, Brisbane's first four games were against West Coast, North Melbourne, Geelong and the Suns. They also played six games in Melbourne. West Coast will have the honor of hosting the last regular season game at Subiaco Oval, against Adelaide in Round 23, before moving to the new Perth Stadium in 2018. The Eagles defeated Richmond by 14 points in the first regular season game at the venue in late March 1987. The Eagles will also play one Friday night and two Thursday night games. St Kilda has a mixed schedule next year. It gets major boost in prime time exposure with four Friday night games, after having none this year. It will play eight games at Etihad Stadium in the first ten rounds of the season. Conversely the Saints have to travel to Adelaide and Perth twice each and do not play twice against any of the bottom five sides from 2016. Tasmanian football fans will get three consecutive weeks of AFL action in 2017.

Hawthorn will host St Kilda in Round 6 at UTAS Stadium (formerly Aurora Stadium) in Launceston, before returning a fortnight later to clash with Brisbane in Round 8. That game will be the first time new Lions coach Chris Fagan has coached in his home state since he had reins of the Mariners. In between North Melbourne will meet Adelaide at Hobart's Blundstone Arena in Round 7. GWS will make two trips to Tasmania, kicking off in Hobart in Round 3 against the Kangaroos before returning to clash with the Hawks in Launceston in Round 16. The Hawks and the Roos will then play a "local derby" in Launceston in Round 22. Sydney will play eight home-and-away games in Victoria, including four games at the MCG. The Swans only played five games in the state this year. There are no Saturday afternoon games in the first round of the season, to accommodate the Grand Final of AFL Women's competition.

Also, the controversial bye round between Round 23 and the finals will be retained for next year. At the schedule announcement, AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan says the AFL is considering a twilight grand final next year starting at 3.30 PM Melbourne time (1.30 AM US EDT) and will make a decision over the northern winter. He said the AFL had not yet made a decision on the matter, so a change remained possible. He also reconfirmed his support for a new 17-5 scheduling model for 2018, in which all clubs will play each other once in the first 17 rounds of regular season before dividing into three groups of six according to ladder position. The top six will then play each other again and fight for the double chance, while the middle six will compete for the last two places in the finals.

McLachlan confirmed that Channel Ten, which previously broadcast AFL games from 2002 to 2011, would not be taking up an offer to broadcast 11 games on late Saturday afternoons next year, as stipulated in the new six-year domestic broadcast deal with Seven and Fox Footy. However, the offer would be available to Ten next year for another eleven games in 2018.

Sources:, The Age, Herald Sun, AAP, club websites

Article last changed on Tuesday, November 08, 2016 - 4:56 PM EST

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