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Aussie Rules backer turns to the other side?

  • Monday, March 14 2011 @ 09:53 am ACDT
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One of the important assets a sport can have is wealthy patrons willing to invest in the game, be it team ownership, generous sponsorship or assistance with additional programs such as philanthropic work. Rob Gerard has been one such important person in Australian football in South Australia for many years, but recently he has also embraced the round ball code, and in doing so brought about a very curious merger of interests, with local Australian football state league side North Adelaide in some sense taking over the running of Adelaide United, the state's soccer side in the national A-League. Is this a dangerous precedent or just good business?

Before the days of the all devouring VFL and then AFL, the top clubs in state leagues such as WA and SA could claim to be amongst the best football teams in Australia, if not consistently at the top but competitively up there with Victoria's top clubs. North Adelaide won the Champions of Australia title in 1972, defeating Carlton by a point. But in more recent times all the state league clubs clearly play second fiddle to the AFL, with home crowds in the SANFL of the order of 3000 per game and the national profile of teams near non-existent. On the other hand A-League soccer clubs naturally have a higher profile as it is a national competition, although generally inferior to their direct equivalents in the AFL. So it came as something of a surprise in November 2010 when it was announced that the management of North Adelaide (SANFL Aussie Rules) would effectively be taking over the running of Adelaide United (A-League soccer).

Adelaide United were one of Australia's commercially most successful soccer clubs at the end of the old national league era, but have faired less well in the A-League, with the sport's national body taking control as its most recent owner, before the North Adelaide takeover.

As of a few months ago, the new owners of Adelaide United are Rob Gerard, high-profile lawyer Greg Griffin, Richard Noble (President of the SA Harness Racing Club and a director and board member of North Adelaide) and businessman Bruno Marveggio (a director and board member of North Adelaide).  United's new chief executive is former VFL player Glenn Elliott, who is also general manager of North Adelaide and will remain in that position.  The headquarters for both teams will be soccer's Hindmarsh Stadium (notably not in North Adelaide or its traditional base of Prospect) and Griffin is reported as saying that "Adelaide United will be the focus".

One estimate puts Gerard's wealth at $335 million, and the Adelaide born and raised businessman is executive chairman of Gerard Industries (Clipsal), a director of the Australia Made campaign, a director of the Order of Australia Association Foundation, and Honorary Consul in Adelaide for Austria and South Africa, amongst many other roles.

Gerard is reported in Super clubs to cross codes as saying, "We have a fair bit of North Adelaide with us," Gerard said in reference to his consortium. "I've got this bit of a dream of code sharing in years to come."

"I don't believe in any towns having just one code. We have a summer and winter game and I think we can put lot of backroom and administration together.  I think super clubs are the future."  Not music to the ears of cricket.

This situation appears to be unique, although there are reports of a similar idea for the Newcastle-based national Rugby League and soccer sides, and Carlton and Collingwood AFL clubs dabbled with NSL soccer teams in the late 1990s.

Why did North Adelaide agree to it?  Well with such powerful supporters and board members in favour, there was probably little choice.  But the club also sees benefits.  President Bohdan Jaworskyj told the City North Messenger that the club was trying to establish non-poker machine-related revenue streams as per an SANFL directive, although interestingly his club had not spoken to the SANFL before the deal was announced.  Jaworskyj said North Adelaide could expect to see savings in day-to-day administration, benefit from increased corporate sponsorship through national branding and attract new supporters through cross-code memberships.

North's and now Adelaide United's Greg Griffin sees the soccer club embracing the local soccer clubs and community in a way that United was perceived to have failed to do, and the plan is to make it a powerhouse of Asia.  The consortium is committed to ownership until at least 2020.

The great fear for Australian football in South Australia would be if Rob Gerard abandoned, or even if he only reduced, his support for the game in favour of soccer.  This is why the so-called "code wars" are real.  So why the change of heart from Gerard?  In
SA consortium buys Adelaide United he says "I went to South Africa and watched the greatest sporting event I think that ever happened in a nation that people said was third world... The way that happened in South Africa and united that country was superb and coming back from that, we really thought we ought to do something."

Worryingly for Australian football fans, Gerard was reportedly one of those that believed the AFL was undermining Australia's ultimately unsuccessful 2022 World Cup soccer bid. He was even quoted as saying securing 2022 was a key motivation in his rescue of Adelaide United.  It seems that on several key fronts he has sided with soccer over Australian football.  If ever a group of people could finally realise soccer's massive junior potential it is this group, and they have plans to set up academies across the state.

This author's verdict - a step towards guaranteeing North Adelaide's future, but probably as a small player in the larger Adelaide United, a big step towards super-charging soccer in SA (and we all know that the codes are at war for juniors and sponsors and their seasons partly overlap), and a very worrying sign for Aussie Rules in general.

With such an important and influential football patron seemingly so enamoured with a competitor code, it seems to emphasise more than ever the need to continue the internationalisation of Aussie Rules, and for people such as Gerard to be exposed to the great multi-cultural festivals of Australian football such as the International Cup, the Youth Oceania Cup and the major European tournaments of the European Championships and Euro Cup.  worldfootynews.com will certainly be seeking to plant a seed directly with Rob Gerard himself - his first sporting love still needs him and still has much that is new and exciting to offer.