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AFL Gold Coast bound as evolution continues

  • Friday, November 09 2007 @ 07:05 am ACDT
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Through the start of this century Australian Football supporters keen to see the game developed more beyond Australia's borders were quite accustomed to hearing the mantra that the Aussie states of Queensland and New South Wales were the Australian Football League's number one development priority. With an obviously greater commitment to international footy in recent years the mantra is less often repeated, but the AFL's determination to see the game achieve full penetration into two of Australia's biggest states has not lessened. The obvious next step in the sport's evolution is the move to place an AFL club on the Gold Coast, and one way or another, 2010 appears to be the target.

You can still read websites that seem to suggest that the national competition emerged in the 1980s and 1990s because the sport was by then popular in more states. Of course that is perhaps a misunderstanding by people new to the game. Aussie Rules has been the top sport in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia for a century or more, it just so happened that a national league did not emerge until quite late, for various football political reasons, and when it did emerge, it was built around the existing VFL, then re-branded the AFL.

Where new ground has been broken is in Queensland and NSW, which although having an Australian Football presence for many decades, certainly were not "heartland" states for the game, with both forms of Rugby much more entrenched. With the Gold Coast in southeast Queensland experiencing sustained high population growth, including a lot of immigration from elsewhere in Australia, it is seen as ripe for its own AFL side. In fact with the region developing in decades from a population of tens of thousands to predictions of a million in just another decade or so, any national sporting code without a presence there will be missing out on a growing television audience.

The VFL/AFL's first disastrous foray into the area was with the creation of the Brisbane Bears. Made largely from cast-offs from other clubs, located on the Gold Coast yet named Brisbane, and created before the AFL had embarked on its massive promotion and development program in the region, the Bears were doomed to failure. Ultimately they were shifted to Brisbane itself, local development ramped up, and the club merged with (or some would argue absorbed) the Fitzroy Lions, gaining players, debt relief, an additional following for away games in Melbourne, and a major stadium upgrade at the Gabba. The rest is history, with the club winning three flags in succession from 2001 to 2003.

The AFL has two ways forward on a second Queensland team. With several Victorian clubs still requiring annual additional handouts to stay afloat, it has long been assumed that pressure will rise on them to move north. The other option is to create a new license for a new club. Some have portrayed the AFL as bullying North Melbourne to move to the Gold Coast, and certainly pressure is there. However the club is free to decline the offer and stay in Melbourne - the pressure comes because they do not appear to be financially viable there. No club can expect the annual handouts to continue forever, so North will have been well aware that they need to turn around their finances or face bankruptcy. In fact despite the extra cash and large payments to play several games each year on the Gold Coast, there are reports that the club has still failed to pay its players the minimum required under AFL rules. What the AFL are now offering is a remarkable lifeline to move to the Gold Coast, have their debt wiped, be guaranteed financially for a number of years, have a new stadium built (with $300 million being mentioned in media reports), and possibly a local draft zone to ensure medium term on field success.

Of course this comes at the cost of moving from their traditional home, so it is an agonising decision made all the more difficult by an unusual power structure that sees the club membership hold a minority of control, with more votes resting with shareholders. But this situation has not emerged overnight. The Kangaroos have been unable to convert on-field success into membership numbers or corporate support in a very crowded Melbourne market. Meanwhile the AFL have been growing the Australian Football brand in SE Queensland. With other sporting codes now creating national league sides in the area, the indigenous Aussie game is in danger of being left behind and the investment squandered. The AFL has perhaps delayed a decision two or three years too long already. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou, himself a former North Melbourne player, has now advised the club that the AFL can wait no longer and will begin planning for a club at the Gold Coast in 2010. It will have massive AFL backing, and the Roos are welcome to be that team. If not, a new license will be offered. There are already reports of a consortium being prepared with $60 million backing should the Roos decline the offer. The question then, given the club is in part propped up by the AFL paying them to play some games in Queensland, is how can the Roos survive if a Gold Coast team quite rightly fills that void?

Former and current North Melbourne people are split. Demetriou obviously thinks the Roos would be better accepting the offer. So too does former North Melbourne leader (and former AFL boss) Allan Aylett, as well as several board members. Aylett was reported as saying "North Melbourne Football Club has had a magnificent history and has been a most successful club on the field over the past 35 years. A move to the Gold Coast will allow us to ensure that the future is just as exciting and just as successful as the past, and to guarantee that the Kangaroos become a greater force than ever before".

Other members oppose the move, and just-retired great Glenn Archer, while conceding the Roos must consider a move if they cannot turn things around quickly, has called for the club to be given a further two years to do so. But the clock has already ticking for years. Unless there is a sudden change of tact by the AFL, North Melbourne has until the end of November to decide. It seems likely the board will agree to the move, but the decision could go either way. It is a terrible decision for the club to have to make, but the game cannot be allowed to suffer any more and the AFL will almost certainly stick to the 2010 launch date, with or without the Roos.

In suggesting a 17th AFL license, Demetriou is also reported to have not ruled out an 18th license for a second club in Sydney. The desire to have a club in Sydney's west is no secret, and should create greater interest and a local rivalry for the Swans. But such a move is probably a decade away, with Australian Football much slower to be embraced in the country's largest city and most competitive football market. An interesting side note is that the Swans' home ground, the historic Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), is undergoing an upgrade that will include a modest lengthening of the playing area by 3 metres, to 152 metres. This still leaves it as the shortest oval in the AFL, but any increase is worthwhile. See Goalposts shifted for Swans. Of course the western suburbs have Telstra Stadium, the former Olympic venue and the Swans' second home, which regularly draws crowds of 50,000 plus. So although a second Sydney team is unlikely within a decade, do not expect it to be much further away than that. And if the AFL completes its conquest of Australia's biggest state, at the top level the sport should be in very good financial health indeed.