Welcome to World Footy News Monday, August 02 2021 @ 12:26 am ACST

Territorians looking to step up

  • Tuesday, August 14 2007 @ 06:57 am ACST
  • Contributed by:
  • Views: 2,535
General News

The Northern Territory has long had a strong Australian Football culture, although Rugby League has also had solid support there too. Many great stars of Aussie Rules have hailed from Australia's north, in particular many of the top indigenous players. They've often made their way into the state leagues of South Australia (SANFL) and Western Australia (WAFL), before being drafted into the AFL. Prior to the AFL, some did become stars in the VFL, but many didn't make that journey, content to stay in the SANFL or WAFL, which partly explains why indigenous player numbers have increased so dramatically as a percentage of the AFL when compared with the old VFL days. Since Territorians make such a strong contribution to the game there are often calls for an NT team in the AFL one day. This seems a distant dream given economic and population realities, but the logical first step would be to show that a representative club playing in either the SANFL or WAFL is viable. Plans for that have been in the works for several years but the big leap appears to be drawing nearer. There is also talk of Queensland, Tasmanian and NSW moves.

The two main population centres of Australia's "Top End" are Darwin (106,000) and Alice Springs (27,000). A rough rule of thumb for the number of people needed to support an AFL club, given that the population follows Aussie Rules strongly, is around 500,000 people. Perth has two clubs and a population of 1.5 million, Melbourne has 9 with 3.7 million, Geelong one with 160,000 but further support in the regional areas around it and Melbourne itself. Obviously Brisbane and Sydney are different, not having the traditional supporter base for footy (one club each with city populations of around 1.8 and 4.3 million respectively). The argument against Tasmania has always been that with a total population of 490,000, but spread between Hobart (200,000), Launceston (90,000) and a wide scattering outside those cities, there isn't the critical mass to sustain a club. It's clearly a borderline case and one hopes that circumstances will change in Tassie's favour one day.

So the NT's total population of 200,000 would seem to be vastly insufficient, and even an extraordinary (and highly unlikely) growth rate of around 2% per annum would still take until 2050 to reach 500,000 across the region. So the economics aren't likely to stack up any time soon. However in terms of player contribution, there are 24 Territorians on AFL lists (see The Breeding Grounds of AFL Footballers). That's 3 to 4% of the league, compared with NT's population at 1% of Australia's. Crunch the numbers and you find that a citizen of the Top End is more likely to be an AFL player than even a Vic, Croweater (SA) or Sandgroper (WA). There are also plenty of players still following the path down to Adelaide and Perth, as many champions have done before.

When the Adelaide Crows were formed in 1991 to represent South Australian interest in the AFL (minus of course most of SA's stars who were already in the AFL), two SANFL clubs chose to merge. Their journey to oblivion had long been in process as the national footy focus had fallen on the growing VFL and then AFL. With dwindling crowds and cash, the writing was already on the wall, and with the advent of the Crows, the Woodville Warriors (green and gold, and best known for producing champion player and coach Malcolm Blight) and West Torrens Eagles (blue and gold) knew they had to act to survive. Amongst much controversy the two clubs merged to form the Woodville-West Torrens Eagles, sporting blue, green and gold. The new entity remains one of the stronger ones in the SANFL, but their creation has led to a weekly bye, with 9 teams in the league. There has been a strong desire by some to eliminate the bye by bringing in a tenth team once more, and the NTAFL has long been seen as the likely contender.

Talks between the SANFL and NTAFL have come and gone in recent years without any definite way forward. North Adelaide has travelled up to take on the combined NTAFL side, with the Roosters getting home by 27 points over the Territorians in 2006. At that stage the push to get a side into the SANFL seemed to be gaining momentum, but has since cooled.

With no SANFL entry as yet, WA has entered the fray. They too have an odd number of teams (nine), and negotiations are underway to have an NT team as early as 2008. With two states interested in their services, the NTAFL appears to be in a much better position to make the move happen. We could've sworn the SANFL had actually been running a poll on their website asking fans whether they'd prefer to see a side from the NT, Sydney or Tasmania, but a check of their archives suggest the poll was simply yes or no to a Tassie team - with 77% in favour. With the SANFL, WAFL and VFL (which currently features a Tasmanian representative side) all keen to show that they are the strongest league below the AFL, it seems a bidding war could break out for the representative sides of the next best states (or territories).

Of course all the parties need to determine what is best for footy in their region. The SANFL has had concerns about the cost and efforts to travel up to the NT. A side from up north would add to the game in SA and increase its attraction to spectators and sponsors alike, but would the benefits outweigh the costs? The WAFL will be asking the same questions. In the case of Tasmania, they may well be using the more distant states as a way to increase their bargaining power with the VFL, to which they've expressed some dissatisfaction about financial allocations. And what does the NT have to gain? It has been suggested the plan would see a representative squad based out of Alice Springs, thus being located much closer to the WAFL or SANFL. The players would get exposure to a higher level competition, thus giving a pathway to the AFL for players not drafted at junior level. It would increase the exposure of the region, and the plan would probably see the players, who would be semi-pro at best, required to study or work as well as play footy.

Whether any of these ideas are economically viable remain to be seen, but reports from WA suggest that Carlton's white knight, billionaire Dick Pratt, is interested in supporting the Territory's cause. When his name is mentioned people take notice. So the odds of something concrete eventuating for 2008 are improving. Famous Territorian and Essendon legend Michael Long is also on board with the push, sitting on the NTAFL steering committee devising the licence submission. AUD$1.3 million is the initial target to get the plan up next year, and The West Australian suggests that the NTAFL favour joining the the WAFL over the SANFL, because of "its younger playing base, traditional ties and lower salary cap". It also appears the SANFL have been less keen than their western counterparts, but if both knock back the submission, then Queensland is also reportedly an option for the Territorians.

So are we seeing the start of what could be a second tier national league? Can the game support that across Australia's vast distances and relatively low population? We may find out in the next decade if the gamble is a success, or perhaps the NT test case will show that it's best to stick to business as usual.

More information can be found in:

Timing tight for Top End licence bid

Thunder boss warns against new NT team

Territory to weigh up options

NT team will be right on the pace, says Long