Melbourne's troubles disturbs China relationship

Monday, April 21 2008 @ 08:35 pm ACST

Contributed by: Brett Northey

The Melbourne Football Club, trying to celebrate its 150th year, is suffering from a major downturn in its fortunes at a time when it was already at a low ebb. On the field the Demons have had moderate success in recent years, following a curious phase of making the finals every second season like clockwork (1997 - 2004). That sequence then broke with three years in a row of finals action (2004 - 2006), but they crashed in 2007 (14th), are winless in 2008 (0 wins, 5 losses), struggling financially and the fact remains they have not won the VFL/AFL premiership for 44 years. The club is now very much "under the pump". This is apparently also having ramifications for their links with China.

A disastrous start to 2008 has them bottom without a win, new coach Dean Bailey under pressure to produce results more quickly than can be expected, small crowds and membership down by 6000 (from 30000 to 24000). All this when the club was supposed to be turning things around rather than continue to rely on an AFL lifeline of $1 million per year. With that intended to drop to $250,000 in 2009 and other off-field issues such as key staff changes and continued difficulty converting the large number of MCG members who support the Dees into members of the football club, the next few years are looking quite grim.

After 150 years of history and bearing the city's name it's often claimed that the club could not be allowed to fold. Whether that sentiment is deemed enough to justify propping Melbourne up long term remains to be seen. Tasmania is pushing for admission into the elite competition and the AFL is hell-bent on expansion in Queensland and New South Wales (something this author has been keen to see for many years). If Tassie is to get a Guernsey, and that is a big "if", it would surely only occur if one of the nine Melbourne-based clubs relocated or merged. That was a bullet the Dees barely dodged in 1996. Only the Melbourne inner sanctum, and perhaps the AFL, know how bad things would have to become before that issue rises again.

Round 19 has been dubbed the Tom Wills Round (in honour of one of the men involved in the early development of the game). The showcase match is supposed to be the game between the two oldest clubs in the AFL, Melbourne and Geelong. One wonders whether, on the field at least, the Demons will have turned the corner and be improving, or whether embarassment awaits.

Where the Melbourne Football Club has led the way has been football evangelism in China. With the support of the AFL, the Melbourne City Council, AusAID, Brian Dixon (a former Melbourne player) and expat-based clubs in China, the Demons have taken steps to grow the sport and build business links in the world's most populous nation. For example our story Dees see China investment already bearing fruit.

However, under increasing financial and administrative strain, Melbourne has apparently temporarily ceased its China push. Happily, this is not the end of the experiment. Writing on the overall plight of the club (see Dees told 'face up to the crisis'), Caroline Wilson reported that "Not only has the AFL offered to supply its staff and expertise to the club, it has also said it would temporarily take over the China partnership while allowing the club to remain in the running for a pre-season international clash in that country in 2010".

It's pleasing that the Sino-Australian football experiment is not being abandoned due to the Demons' current problems. The Melbourne Football Club relationship with China is both good for football and longer term should be very good for the club. Whether the benefits can flow quickly enough for the Demons is the question.

Editor: Two very similar stories produced simultaneously - an unfortunate coincidence so the decision was made to run with both.

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