Running the (Bird) Gauntlet

Can a team go undefeated against all five bird-themed teams in the AFL?

What is the bird gauntlet?

The bird gauntlet is a concept born from the National Football League (American football) and involves a single team beating all five teams with a bird as their mascot – the Atlanta Falcons, the Arizona Cardinals, the Baltimore Ravens, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Seattle Seahawks – in the same season.

Only certain teams get to attempt the bird gauntlet in any given season, due to the complex formula the league uses to determine who plays who over the course of a 17-game season.

Consequently, completing the bird gauntlet is as rare as hen’s teeth. In 2020, the NFL Media Research Department noted:

  • No team had defeated all five bird teams in a single season since the Ravens joined the league in 1996, and
  • Washington and Dallas were the last teams to complete a four-team bird gauntlet back in 1992.

Bringing the bird gauntlet to the AFL

We can also apply the bird gauntlet concept to the AFL. Like the NFL, there are five teams with birds as their mascot: the Adelaide Crows, the Collingwood Magpies, the Hawthorn Hawks, the Sydney Swans, and the West Coast Eagles.

The rules are simple:

  • Only seasons where all five bird teams played are considered (i.e., from 1991 onwards, the first year Adelaide played in the competition)
  • Bird teams are not eligible to complete the bird gauntlet
  • You must win all matches against every team in the gauntlet during the home and away season and in finals to complete the “perfect” gauntlet
  • Draws disqualify a team from completing the gauntlet.

Other people have taken different approaches to the bird gauntlet (e.g., allowing “imperfect” gauntlets if a team loses a return match), but I feel this complicates things somewhat – even if it makes things more interesting.

Six teams have completed the AFL bird gauntlet since 1991:

  • Essendon (2000, 2001)
  • Geelong (2009)
  • Richmond (1995)
  • Port Adelaide (2020)
  • St Kilda (2009)

Who has the best chance of completing the bird gauntlet in 2024?

Every non-bird team will have the opportunity to complete the bird gauntlet this year, but some teams will have it easier than others. For example, St Kilda only plays one bird team twice (West Coast) while Essendon plays four bird teams twice (Adelaide, Collingwood, Sydney, and West Coast). This excludes potential finals match-ups, but we won’t be able to consider these until later in the year.

Bird gauntlet

What about the other, non-bird teams?

The remaining AFL teams can be grouped into three different categories we can use for gauntlet-related purposes:

Table: Other possible “gauntlets” in the AFL

Animals Objects People
Brisbane Carlton Fremantle
Geelong Essendon GWS
North Melbourne Gold Coast Melbourne
Richmond Port Adelaide St Kilda
Western Bulldogs

Note: The Brisbane Bears and Fitzroy Lions would also fall into the ‘animal’ category, depending on what era of the V/AFL you are looking at.

These groupings are a bit more subjective than the cohort of bird teams, but I think they’re all pretty reasonable.

Animal gauntlet

Four teams have completed the animal gauntlet since 1997:

  • Essendon (1999)
  • Fremantle (2012)
  • St Kilda (2010)
  • Sydney (2021)

St Kilda will have one of the tougher runs to tame the animal gauntlet in 2024, with their eight games featuring two games each against Brisbane, Geelong, and Richmond.

On the other end of the spectrum, Essendon gets a reprieve after their horror run in the bird gauntlet, playing each animal team just once. However, their sole game against the Lions will be played at the Gabba, which is no walk in the park.

Animal gauntlet

Object gauntlet

Thirty-two teams have completed the object gauntlet since 2011:

  • Adelaide (2012, 2016, 2017)
  • Brisbane Lions (2020, 2021)
  • Collingwood (2011, 2018, 2019, 2022)
  • Geelong (2012, 2013, 2015, 2022)
  • Greater Western Sydney (2016)
  • Hawthorn (2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2018)
  • Melbourne (2017, 2021, 2022)
  • Richmond (2015, 2017, 2019)
  • St Kilda (2020)
  • Sydney (2012, 2014, 2015, 2016)
  • West Coast (2016)
  • Western Bulldogs (2016)

Hawthorn and the Bulldogs could repeat their feat of clearing the object gauntlet in 2016 this year, while Richmond faces an uphill battle to claim their fourth object gauntlet.

Object gauntlet

Person gauntlet

Fourteen teams have completed the person gauntlet since 2012:

  • Adelaide (2012, 2016, 2019)
  • Brisbane Lions (2020)
  • Collingwood (2012, 2022)
  • Essendon (2013)
  • Hawthorn (2012, 2013)
  • North Melbourne (2014)
  • Sydney (2022)
  • West Coast (2016, 2019, 2020)

Adelaide and North Melbourne have the best chance at clearing the person gauntlet this year, with one game against each of the four teams in this category.

In contrast, Brisbane may have a tougher time beating the person gauntlet for the second time, playing GWS, Melbourne, and St Kilda twice each.

Person gauntlet

A bonus note

And as much as it pains me to admit, Carlton is the only team yet to complete a gauntlet. Will 2024 finally be their year?

The timeframe of this stat is limited based on what data are freely/easily available and/or accessible. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you spot any errors in what I have presented.