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Sunday, April 05 2020 @ 09:49 pm ACST

AFL assumes China partnership as Melbourne FC hits crisis point

AsiaOne of the world's oldest football clubs, the oldest remaining Australian Rules clubs and the only club to bear the name of the game's spiritual home is currently in crisis. In terms of world footy, the Demons were pioneers in China, setting up a China partnership which has seen the game exposed to thousands of visiting exchange students, businessmen and a team represented at the International Cup.

The Demons celebrate their 150th year this year, having formed in 1858 and are virtually as old as the game itself, its founding members having written the rules which evolved into what we know today as Australian football. The Demons have also competed at the game's highest level for its entire existence, being a founding member of both the Victorian Football Association (arguably the game's first major league, being formed shortly after the South Australian Football Association) and then the VFL, which ultimately gave rise to the modern AFL.

In recent times the focus has been on the Kangaroos, who faced a crisis which saw the AFL offer them incentives to head to the Gold Coast. Since their rejection of that offer, the club changed their name back to North Melbourne and has enjoyed a surge in membership. Melbourne is now the AFL club staring down the barrel, and face a situation very similar to the one it faced when the club very nearly merged with the Hawthorn Hawks back at the end of the 1996 season.

A new CEO, former tennis great Paul McNamee, aims to turn things around, as does the new senior coach Dean Bailey but the situation looks bleak. The club, which this year temporarily dropped its popular Demons moniker to focus on celebrating its history, has had a disastrous start to the season with 5 straight losses. After making a modest profit last year of half a million which does not account for AFL special payments of over 1 million, this year it is projected to make real losses after steeply falling memberships and attendances on top of a debt of over $3 million. Due to the club's special arrangement with the Melbourne Cricket Club and Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Demons lack a proper training and administration base and financial supporters who are already members of the cricket club. In a bid to convert cricket club members, the club last season offered special discount membership packages for MCC member Demon fans.

The China Strategy was a risky but highly innovative move aimed at creating a market outside of the Demons' crowded Melbourne marketplace. "Having the first Chinese players here for more exposure to our game will further elevate the profile and prospects for our club and for the game, as relations with China become more embedded in our daily lives", former CEO Steve Harris commented to the Australian. "As the founding club of the sport, which is uniquely Australian and such a dominant part of our cultural inclusiveness, Melbourne will be the club of choice for international students during their time in Melbourne, Chinese companies wanting to build their brands and networks in Australia, and Australian companies looking to do the same in China." As part of the strategy, Melbourne FC was offering discount memberships to international students.

The AFL is temporarily managing the China arrangement while the club, no longer able to afford the international initiative, focuses on its on-field and off-field crisis.

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

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