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AFL must be biggest sport to survive

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AFL must be biggest sport to survive

Post by Admin on Sun Apr 05, 2009 5:01 pm

IN A city where a throw-away comment on the radio sends football columnists into a frenzy, this week's announcement of a 17th team for the AFL in 2011 remarkably made it through with little fanfare.

It is, however, one of the most significant moves since the first match in Yarra Park between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College 151 years ago. This is one of the few times the game has been able to make a major strategic decision based on expansion and planning rather than survival. In 1981, the move of South Melbourne to Sydney, while part of the plan to broaden the game into the biggest television and advertising market in the country, was also a way of keeping alive a broke Melbourne team.

The many incarnations of the Swans' owners and the introduction of the Brisbane Bears and their many calamities -- even the stuff-up of the West Coast Eagles in the early days -- were as much about the Victorian Football League looking to scrounge licence fees paid into the competition to save the Victorian teams as it was about expanding the game. While arguing publicly "that it was good for the game", behind closed doors it was more "we can get a big injection of money to stay alive for a few more years". Eventually, the hard work of so many saw the competition become one with a truly national focus. In fact, the pendulum swung back so far for a few years that it became totally unfair for the Victorian clubs. But in the past few years the AFL has been able to finally get its competition right. As long as no one is cheating, the salary cap allows great pay for the players without sending clubs to the wall. The draft allows clubs to rebuild their lists and for smart clubs to engage in list management strategies without having to bottom out, because there are no anomalies such as in the early part of this century when draft and salary cap concessions made for an uneven competition. As a result, we have one of the most exciting competitions in professional sport.

Unlike most of the soccer leagues, where the same big clubs play for all the spoils, the AFL has given clubs a genuine chance and their fans the belief that the ultimate prize is within reach. So why, after battling through nearly 30 years of expansion, would we want to expose ourselves to the potential heartache of the Gold Coast Football Club? Again the answer is survival, but not as the primary component. This time the move is for genuine growth. The AFL must be the biggest code in the country for it to survive and prosper. Soccer is the biggest code in the world, rugby league the biggest in the northern states, so AFL must be the code of Australia. As the late great Jack Dyer used to say, "There's no use being where the ball ain't". In this case, the Gold Coast and northern New South Wales are where the ball is -- and the AFL is going to be right in the middle of it and not a day too late. Granted, they were there with the Bears under Christopher Skase and later Reuben Pelerman, but that was more by fluke than design and you have to be very lucky to get a fluke to work long term. It didn't.

In the meantime, the National Rugby League, with the backing of News Limited, put the Titans in place and created one of the most successful expansion clubs in Australian sporting history. If the AFL hadn't moved now, the Gold Coast and any chance of being a big-time player in the biggest growth corridor in Australia, including northern NSW, would have been gone forever. Of the Australian population, 54 per cent are in NSW and Queensland, yet at the moment it is serviced by only two AFL teams -- Brisbane Lions and the Sydney Swans.

In these markets the NRL has 14 teams, rugby union three and soccer six by the end of this year.

It was those statistics that shook the present AFL presidents into backing the Gold Coast move. That's a lot of heavy lifting for the Lions and the Swans in promotion and game development -- a huge amount of competition for media, sponsorship and the hearts and minds of the locals. When the Lions established themselves in 1999 in Brisbane, they were one of four professional "football" teams in that state. Today they are one of nine. The Gold Coast will give AFL two of 10. The Gold Coast is the sixth-biggest region in the country and growing. By 2020 it will have grown again by 50 per cent to an estimated 750,000 people. It is also one of Australia's places to be, a tourist and sporting mecca. Why wouldn't we want our game right there in the action? The region is strong in AFL tradition and surveys show half the population follow our game; it is also a growing talent procurement area. More teams, more opportunity, a better overall product. I had early concerns that maybe the increase in the number of players required might have a detrimental impact on the standard of play in the competition. I believe now that we will never have an impact unless the big time is right in front of kids in their backyard and if the game makes that impact, then the growth in the talent pool will be exponential. Children grow up wanting to emulate their heroes in their backyard. It is why basketball and even soccer will always struggle in Australia. The big time is too far away.

By 2011, the AFL will give the opportunity for more than 700 men to play big-time sport in Australia in packed A-grade stadiums, on national television and making an average wage of nearly $300,000 each, with the top players on more than $1 million a year. That will get them off surfboards! And they get to live in Australia. And it's not all one-way traffic. The Queensland Government has worked out the significant contribution our game will make to tourism, infrastructure, employment and the community -- something that we Victorian clubs believe is taken for granted in the heartland.

Because the AFL was in a strategic position to expand, it has been able to line up $60 million from the Queensland Government, $20 million from Gold Coast City Council and an expected $40 million from the Federal Government, while kicking in $10 million of the competition's hard-earned to rebuild Carrara Stadium.

The result is that the Gold Coast Football Club will be able to make more money from a game with 18,000 people attending than for a game in Melbourne with about 40,000 turning up. After 151 years, we still don't have our ground in Melbourne yet everyone has kicked in on the Gold Coast for a team that doesn't yet exist! The player concessions are also substantial. The trick for the AFL is when to turn off the generosity so as not to wreck the competition -- as it was heading towards only a few years ago. The temptation to run a marketing exercise and show the world how good it is at building a start-up will be the biggest issue for the existing clubs. For all that, it makes it so much harder to win the big cup in September. It is why those associated with a football club sweat blood for the four points each week. It is why the game continues to explode. For their hard work and sacrifice the current clubs must be guaranteed their futures.

The battle for better stadium deals is now not an option. It is a necessity. The legitimate call by Tasmania for a team means the relocation card is still very much in play. But for now, let's reflect on where our game has gone. From Richmond, the first expansion side in 1908, to the Gold Coast in 2009, a world of tradition and rivalry awaits. Is our game better for the derby matches between West Coast and Fremantle? You bet. Won't it be great when the Lions hate the Coasters more than Collingwood? Well, maybe that's hoping too much. Western Sydney still worries so many people in football, but looking at the aforementioned logic, maybe we have to -- rather than want to -- go down that track as well. When I was a boy, going to Moorabbin was an extravagant travel plan to see a game of footy. Waverley was like going on holidays. Now for my boys, a trip to the Gold Coast for an away game to see the Pies is just two years away.

http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,25289243-5000117,00.html
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