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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?


I am very lucky that I can travel the stretch of road between Cairns and Townsville many times a year. The drive takes in some of the finest scenery in Australia. Along the way there are the imposing twin mountains, Bartle Frere and Bellenden Ker, with their luxuriant rainforest canopies.

There is the beach at Cardwell with its views across to majestic Hinchinbrook Island. Mile upon mile of sugar cane farms surrounding the towns of Gordonvale, Innisfail, Tully and Ingham in the valleys of the Mulgrave, Johnston, Tully and Herbert Rivers.

Then there are the detours to Mission Beach, Wallaman Falls, Paluma and more. It truly is an amazing part of the world.

At either and of the drive are two growing cities. They are rivals in many ways - complementary in others. Some believe that Cairns is the “tourist capital” of the north and others see Townsville as the “administrative capital”. These descriptions are too simplistic, and are an argument for another day. What is becoming clear, however, is that these two northern cities in tropical Australia are about to become locked in a battle to see an AFL team franchise based there by 2030.

As reported in the Brisbane Courier mail, the wheels are turning, and it seems that the honour will go to the best prepared city. Former Fitzroy star of the 1980’s Mick Conlan is now the CEO of AFL Queensland. He has stated that the regional cities of Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton are a “strategic focus” for the AFL.

Evidence of this is the two AFL matches coming this year. On March 2nd, the North Melbourne Kangaroos will play the Gold Coast Suns at Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville as part of the pre-season NAB Cup. Later in the year the Gold Coast Suns again head north to play Richmond in a home and away match at Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns. This is the third match between the two sides at this venue with the Gold Coast undefeated so far. This will mark the first time that two cities in North Queensland will host AFL matches in the same season.

Cairns has already hosted a number of pre-season cup matches, featuring visits from the Brisbane Lions, Geelong, Port Adelaide, Western Bulldogs, Melbourne, North Melbourne and more. Cazaly’s Stadium has also hosted test cricket. The venue is no stranger to elite sport. Some would argue it is a certainty to be the host of an AFL team at some point. Conlan admits he would like to see more home and away games played in Cairns, as well as pre-season games and the development of an NEAFL (North East Australia Football League) team to be based in Cairns.

With a population in North Queensland of 4.5 million now, and predicted to almost double by 2030, it is clear why the AFL wants to foot in the door now. AFL Cairns CEO, Gary Young, stated before the Gold Coast-Richmond game last year that “The establishment of an NEAFL team is another dimension of that [growth] and eventually our ultimate goal is to have a NQ-based AFL team.”

But Townsville is still firmly on the radar for a number of good reasons. With the location of the military bases, the James Cook University, a variety of industry and being the centre of commerce for many companies, Townsville has a financial stability that Cairns is still working towards. Townsville has a population of around 178,000 compared to Cairns a little over 150,000.

Sheer figures might look impressive, but can often give a false story. One story, however, that is hard to argue is that Townsville has already been playing in the big league with the North Queensland Cowboys rugby league team. The Cowboys have been playing with varying levels of success in the NRL since 1995, reaching the Grand Final in 2005. Townsville has already proved it can play competitively on a national stage. With the Townsville Crocs and the Cairns Taipans, both cities are home to teams in the NBL (National Basketball League).

Tony Ireland Stadium is the showpiece of Australian Rules football in Townsville. Conlan admits that “Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville is a very good facility but we would need to work closely with the Queensland Government to build on what is already there to bring it up to what is required for AFL games.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t long ago that Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns had to undergo a massive facelift to reach AFL standard. The same is possible with Townsville’s own Australian Rules football centrepiece.

Next month’s “Festival of Football” in Townsville is the cities’ big chance to shine on a national stage. The hosting of the Suns/Kangaroos match is at the centre of events, but they are also hosting junior international competitions featuring teams from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Oceania as well as local indigenous talent.

If Townsville can pull of a successful series of Australian Rules events they would certainly attract the attention of a wider population, sponsors, supporters and also the power brokers within the AFL.

For many, the next forays into new AFL territories have revolved around the development of teams, either through relocation or starting from scratch, in existing AFL venues such as Tasmania, Canberra or Darwin. By 2030, the AFL will look different to what it does now anyway. Just 27 years ago the VFL was a Victorian only competition (Sydney was still South Melbourne to many). Now it boasts multiple teams in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

It is not a big leap in logic to foresee the “Darwin Bulldogs” or “Tassie Hawks” or “Canberra Kangaroos” in the not-too-distant future. But hard on their heels might be the “Cairns Crocodiles” or the “Townsville Taipans”.

I would dearly love an AFL team in my home town of Cairns. But I would not be averse to a beautiful, scenic drive down to Townsville each fortnight to watch the best AFL clubs in the land.

May the best city win.

Cazaly's Stadium (Cairns) (courtesy of austadiums.com)

Tony Ireland Stadium (Townsville) (courtesy of sportingpulse.com)

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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030? | 7 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?
Authored by: Harley Vague on Tuesday, February 19 2013 @ 07:23 pm ACDT

The AFL seems to be heading towards smaller boutique situations. A few people have mentioned a regional NQ side. Do you see that as an acceptable possibilty with Cairns and Townsnville splitting games?

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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?
Authored by: Wesley Hull on Tuesday, February 19 2013 @ 07:53 pm ACDT

That's a good question, Harley. I'm not entirely sure they are looking at "boutique", but are looking at major population centres. Much of Sydney's 4.5 million population is in the western direction towards the Blue Mountains, with hubs around Blacktown, Parramatta and Penrith as well as larger centres like Liverpool and Campbelltown in the south-west and Richmond/Winsdor in the north-west. The ground might be boutique, but the aim isn't in my view. Similarly, the Gold Coast with it's population closing in on half a million has attracted many sporting franchises because it is a large population centre. Brisbane and Sydney moved teams to large population centres and both Perth and Adelaide have split million plus populations. I think any decision on new clubs is based on that, and is the main reason why Tasmania and Darwin are not in yet...not enough people. Canberra is an anomoly here, but the argument is probably that of the 350,000 plus people living in the ACT, too big a majority are pro-league. This is why I see the logic in the AFL looking to the north in the future. Townsville and Cairns are growing rapidly and have strong ex-pat factors and strong leagues already in place. It is logical to head there if the population doubles, and if the Tony Abbott plan of populating the north does go ahead that growth may happen even more quickly.

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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?
Authored by: Brett Northey on Tuesday, February 19 2013 @ 09:51 pm ACDT

The article mentions a North Queensland population of 4.5 million, but I think that's meant to be Queensland as a whole, of which over 3 million is in the Brisbane-Gold Coast etc south east Queensland corner.

But still, yes I see the northern area as a candidate probably ahead of Darwin because they already far outstrip Darwin for population and are growing much faster in gross numbers.

My preference would probably be Tassie and NZ (incorporating South Pacific) come in around 2024, then regional QLD possibly incorporating PNG when the previous two are bedded down.

But there's got to be a limit to what broadcasters etc will pay for games when there's so many (unless international viewing is well up).  So these other areas may be dependent on relocations or mergers or folding.  Currently I feel the number in Melbourne and all the "disequal" distribution of the game's money and the money North Melbourne and Hawthorn get out of Tasmania is what is keeping Tassie out of the AFL.

Even today we see Melbourne fined $500,000 for what was an investigation into tanking, which in my mind is effectively the most serious threat to the sport ever - match fixing - determining the outcome of games not based on the teams' ability.  So a largish fine, but there seems little doubt the AFL will effectively pay for it out of the disequalisation scheme which pays more to clubs the worse off they are.  (I heard one radio caller suggest that in effect Melbourne are getting the AFL to pay $500,000 for Melbourne to get the number one draft pick bonus - that's one way of looking at it.  Contrast with Adelaide losing the equivalent of 5 to 6 draft picks for fiddling at the edges with one player's contract - two very different standards applied here, but I digress....).

Anyway, all rampant speculation.  But I would be concerned if I were a Tassie football official - they need to keep pushing hard because in 20 years they could well be swamped by exploding population centres putting forward lucrative cases.

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN
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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?
Authored by: Harley Vague on Wednesday, February 20 2013 @ 11:43 am ACDT

I mention "boutique" because it's all about the stadium contracts and club viability relative to the obtainable crowd. Geelong is at the top end of boutique grounds(if it can still be called boutique). Canberra, GC and GWS have their immediate populations if they can gain market share. Cairns together with Townsville would place them along side Tasmania as a regional team with boutique grounds possibily playing out of dual locations ,

As for expansion, that is a very unpredictable path. I'm sure there will be further expansion but the exact timeframe and path is up for grabs. IMO the likely scenario is a mixture of re-location and creation. The irony of the situation is that Hawthorn is too successful now to be considered a candigate for the two markets they help develop Tasmania and NZ.An AFL team might relocate to Tasmania or Canberra because they are sufficiently close for supporters to feel they are in contact. NQ and NZ are probably considered too distant for relocation. Good points about NZ including the SP and NQ including the PNG. Darwin is always going to struggle with it's low population so a NQ team could play the odd game (literally) at Darwin.

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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?
Authored by: Tobietta Rhyman on Friday, February 22 2013 @ 09:32 am ACDT

Everyone's talking as if it's only the population of those towns which support the club. There's probably more Geelong supporters outside of Victoria than people living in Geelong. The same goes for the teams outside of Melbourne. If the only supporters were the ones living in those cities the teams would surely faily, simply because of the majority of matches being in Melbourne and the huge travelling distances involved for fans. It's not a stretch of the imagination to say that most Lions or Swans fans attending "away" games in Melbourne probably live there.

AFL England Women's Football Co-ordinator; WFN Female Football Writer
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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?
Authored by: Wesley Hull on Friday, February 22 2013 @ 11:43 am ACDT

Tobietta, you are quite right. The support of clubs is way byond the boundaries of that city, suburd or locality and I know for a fact that there are Essendon supporter in all corners of the globe. But the thinking of the AFL will still be governed by a population base which will fill the seats in stadium. As soon as Sydney's figures dropped in the mid 90's and they couldn't beat an egg, all sorts of deals were done to get people to ste SCG...special offers, promotions and so on. The AFL still places a heavy emphasis on the tribalism that goes with a club. The best evidence of this is probably the argument about Essendon v Collingwood on Anzac Day. They believe that those two clubs will pack the MCG (so would others, but it's a perception that the Bomber and Magpie tribes will be a guarantee). This thinking will be part of the North Quensland decision. As long as seats and memberships and local sponsorships can be guaranteed from the local population, the AFL would be happy. If not they will look elsewhere. Clubs like Essendon, Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond have always had a very strong heartland...the fouundation on which all other support and sponsorship is built. Any new club will need that, but if a club gets relocted there it helps that process. It was Mick Conlan the CEO of AFL Queensland who stated the 4.5 million figure for the north. It is actually well below that...lucky to be half a million...and most support rugby league...so it will be a tough gig to get a solid heartland following.

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Cairns v Townsville – Which will be the home of an AFL team by 2030?
Authored by: Harley Vague on Friday, February 22 2013 @ 01:12 pm ACDT

Tobietta whilst you are right about the spread of supporters it's the home crowd drawing power that determines a club's viability. It's about a centres's population, it's hinterland, it's market share, it's facilities and overall attractiveness. The good news is that the more regional a centre, the more per head of population a regional centre tends to attract. This probably due to the lack alternative entertainments. A place like Darwin produces crowds that are sometimes a huge percentage of it's city. It'd be a big ask to do that on a regular basis. Townsville I believe draws on it's hinterland a lot. People can easily drive in and watch a game. A few more people will attend if the ground and facilities are up to scratch and located conveniently. .A good number will attend  if the team is attractive because they are successful, or play attractively or are engaged in some "tribal" battle. Some people do travel distances to attend games like Swans in Canberra. The GWS concept is interesting. The Giants share two cities. I'd say not too many of their fans travel atm. There'd be a much greater connection with Cairns/Townsville or Hobart/Launceston. Even the NZ game is expected to draw some Aussie tourists but that would be hard to duplicate on a regular basis.

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