Bold expansion plans as AFL flexes muscle
Tuesday, February 19 2008 @ 07:02 pm ACDT
Contributed by: Brett Northey
The AFL revealed both its power and its insecurity on the weekend, with AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick revealing in an interview with the The Age's Caroline Wilson that the Executive want not only to have the 17th club, on the Gold Coast, by 2011, but to also bring forward the later plans for a second Sydney side to as early as 2012. The report has sent the Australian media into a frenzy and sparked talk of football wars between the codes. And it raises the question of whether it will help or hinder international development. Will we see the first AFL draftees from Papua New Guinea be picked up by a new Queensland club, and will we see even more pressure on Ireland?
The AFL's expansion is driven by several factors including the desire to grow the game in general and to grow the revenue base for the clubs. The huge investment in Queensland and New South Wales over the last decade is slowly bearing fruit, but the seemingly sudden haste to launch 17th and 18th licenses appears to have several related causes. North Melbourne had long been heading towards a Gold Coast relocation which would have kept the league at an even number of clubs which is important for fixturing. The Roos' decision not to continue down that path means that rather than a future western Sydney team making an odd number, it is now much more palatable as happening around the same time as a second Queensland club.
Furthermore, Rugby League (Sydney's dominant football code) has strongly recovered from the Super League split of the 1990s and now has the Gold Coast Titans (as well as existing saturation of the NSW market). Rugby Union's Super 14s (featuring clubs from Australia, New zealand and South Africa) is eyeing off a second Sydney license, and the A League has finally led soccer to a growing national competition. Add in the success of Australia's Socceroos and the increasingly likely bid for the 2018 soccer World Cup, with Federal and State governments to throw money at the round ball game, and it's clear that the country's four major football codes are on a collision course.
Thus far all four have survived and indeed thrived. Some believe all can continue to do so, but surely in 30 years at least one will have suffered a major downgrade in status. It almost certainly will not be soccer, with a growing domestic market and the smart move to claim the summer season as its own (it was decades away from challenging the AFL or National Rugby League for winter support, but now will be a threat that cricket will attempt to meet with the new 20/20 version of the game). Union is well placed with strong international competition, but a relatively weak domestic base, and League still has a powerful hold on NSW and much of Queensland. Aussie Rules' great asset is its popularity across all states and its position as number one in Australia for audience - both attendances and television ratings. It will not "defeat" either Rugby code in Sydney in the next two decades, but it must take a substantial slice of that market to ensure that it wins the battle for relevance over the next 30 years. The war will be at its most desperate in 10 to 20 years, but the fight will truly be won or lost now.
Key reasons for forming Gold Coast and western Sydney AFL clubs include:
- gaining an increase in AFL TV rights for the next agreement from 2012
- creating a home state rivalry for Brisbane and Sydney
- accelerating the adoption of Australian Football by people in Qld and NSW
It should be noted that the plan is not set in concete and by no means popular. Hawthorn's outspoken President (and former Victorian Premier) Jeff Kennett was furious that the plans were released via a media interview. Others have suggested that the west Sydney idea was news to them - strange given the AFL has discussed 2015 as a possible date, openly spent millions on development in the region in recent years, and has touted the building of a 10,000 seat stadium in Blacktown, in the heart of the area. And perhaps 2015 is still more likely, given comments by AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou since Fitzpatrick's interview, which indicate that 2012 may be the year a second license is issued, not the commencement of a new club on the field.
Many Victorian football fans are against any further expansion, as evidenced by numerous posts on online football forums. Some still hanker for the days of the old VFL, despite the reality that if Australian Football hadn't gone to a national competition the various state leagues (even the VFL) would have been well on the way to being crushed by the other national codes by now. Some arguments for a hold on the number of clubs are well intended based on questions of finances and players, but with growing markets in NSW and Queensland and the prospect of increased TV rights, money should not be a problem (particularly if the AFL ever moves to cap football department spending which is spiralling).
Collingwood President Eddie McGuire has questioned player depth, saying "Eighty players and 20 coaches and $80 million annually to establish two new clubs are significant numbers". But with around 17 players already on AFL lists from the Gold Coast area, with that number growing each year, and more talent to follow from NSW as junior development continues there, the dilution of talent should be minimal.
The international game stands to benefit too, in the longer term. Although it's true that more money may be invested internationally if there wasn't such a heavy focus on Queensland and NSW, the spirit of expansion is one that needs to be nurtured and nourished by the success of 17th and 18th teams. Something that has held back the spread of Aussie Rules is the divide between the Rugby League and Aussie Rules states - winning a bigger slice of NSW and Queensland will only add more impetus to spreading the game to other shores.
And if there is any short term dilution of talent, that could easily see clubs more likely to invest further afield. With many young PNG men already playing in Queensland, and the possibility that a new AFL club might first start with an AFLQ team as early as 2009 or 2010, perhaps the AFL will give exclusive access to these players to the new licensee. With current trends, by 2015 we might see 20 Irishmen in the AFL, and hopefully around 5 Papuans and 5 South Africans. Who knows, maybe even a few Chinese players, or a few young athletes from any of the other footy playing nations.
However at least one journalist sees the bid for 17th and 18th clubs as requiring a major decrease in the AFL's international commitment. Michael Gleeson, writing for The Age, pushed for the pre-season competition to focus on NSW and Queensland, describing the Dubai trip as a junket and "South Africa made for lovely pictures, but it was impossible to take seriously talk of establishing a team there one day. If there is ever to be an offshore team in the AFL, it can only be from Tasmania". There's no doubt Dubai was a corporate exercise (though balancing the budget is still important), but let's hope not too many others share the attitude regarding genuine mass grass roots development in South Africa.
Perhaps the most reassuring aspect of the plan are the cries of concern from the AFL's rivals. NRL boss David Gallop called western Sydney a football battleground and Australian Rugby Union's John O'Neill said it was a wake-up call for Union. "For NRL and rugby union, in particular, we are being attacked in the heartland by the AFL and we have to fight very hard to protect that heartland," O'Neill said. "The competitive pressures in this country surpass anything that happens anywhere else in the world. We're the only country with four football codes - AFL, NRL, rugby union and football" (interesting to note that O'Neill, like so many referred to Australian Football and Rugby League by their national league acronyms, and betrayed his recent time with soccer by exclusively calling it football).
Another aspect of Fitzpatrick's confidence was his reference to the AFL getting governments on-side. NSW Premier Morris Iemma jumped on the AFL bandwagon, reportedly welcoming a second team in Sydney, with a spokesman saying the "expanding population and the new multi-use facility we have helped fund at Blacktown should give the AFL confidence in the growing opportunities that the sport has in Sydney". With four Sydney Swans games played at the Olympic Stadium (Telstra Stadium) in western Sydney last year, the average crowd of 63,000 was double that needed to sustain a club. So although the Swans want Sydney to themselves as long as possible, their own success will have shortened the timetable.
As we keep saying to those that claim Aussie Rules will never be a success in Queensland or NSW, that it will never have a foothold outside of Australia, that it will never be a major international sport - never is a very long time, and after rapid growth in its first 20 years, followed by a century of consolidation, Australian Football is now confident, strong and a game in a hurry.