Grow or Die – The Future AFL Landscape

Fifteen months ago, Australian Rules Football was a seasonal men’s competition  only played for premiership points in Australia. How things have changed.

In this unbelievably short period of time, the game now has a professional women’s competition broadcast on national television. Australia’s game has also been taken to the most populous city in the most populous country on Earth, with a game in Shanghai locked in for the next five years. The AFLW has also provided the sport was a summer alternative complemented, or even hampered at times by the new incarnation of our game in the form of AFLX. There has been unprecedented growth in such a short period of time, which has brought its own set of problems. The AFL are committed to expand their brand, and those who do not come along for the ride are doomed to shrink, and possibly disappear. It is a lesson one of the AFL’s most vulnerable clubs is learning.

“It’s incumbent on [St Kilda] now to get their [profit] and [loss] working” AFL CEO and St Kilda supporter Gillion McLachlan announced prior to the season. He put the Saints in the gun over their $10 million debt; a financial position envied by none, and only comparable to the financially struggling Gold Coast Suns.

The message would have somewhat startled those in the new front office at Moorabbin. It was the AFL’s way of saying that the excuses have run out for the Saints. When questioned about that very statement,  McLachlan’s response was clear, “they have to get their business to work now”.

So, why wasn’t this message directed to those at the helm at Alberton? After all, the books at Port Adelaide are far from perfect.

It may be because it’s the AFL’s view that Port Adelaide are being more daring, adventurous and determined to fix their financial woes. Where Port Adelaide have gone to China, St Kilda have retraced their footprints back to Moorabbin. Port are making strides into new markets – St Kilda are retreating to the venue that was their home, but was also home to some of their darkest days. While a better Docklands Stadium deal is sure to help the Saints’ financial position – marginally – the Saints, and all clubs for that matter, must do more than maintain the status quo. Several already have.

As mentioned, Port Adelaide went to Shanghai, Hawthorn and North Melbourne have a strong presence in Tasmania, the Bulldogs are in Ballarat and Cairns, whereas, Richmond and Greater Western Sydney and Essendon and Adelaide are mulling over the possibility of playing in India.

Admittedly, St Kilda was a Tassie trailblazer, but they soon returned. The Saints also made the leap to New Zealand and hosted the first overseas premiership game ever, with visions of grand Kiwi membership figures. However, three years later it was all too hard and they were back playing Anzac weekend in Australia – this year turning in an abysmal performance on the stand-alone Good Friday game.

The AFL want clubs with grand visions and a roadmap to realise them. If the last few years are anything to judge by the AFL are now more than ever understanding the importance of growing the game. Football clubs can’t just play on a Saturday afternoon and make their dough through the pokies and meat raffles anymore. Those days are over. Teams need to get creative.

Clubs looking to tap into the potential of foreign AFL markets have been all the rave of late. Whilst the possibility of a big following in China and India is remote, it is a new angle some clubs are exploring, and the AFL love it.

Another angle sees clubs tapping into different sports. The most obvious of these projects being Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney’s newly acquired netball teams. Then there is Essendon’s new e-sports team, made famous by an appearance on the “Roaming Brian” segment on Channel 7.

But it doesn’t end there. The most daring attempt to penetrate the sporting divide has been made by the team in the most perilous financial position of all. The future of the Gold Coast Suns is on a knife’s edge due to the fees imposed on the club by Stadiums Queensland. That organisation is bleeding the club dry with their current stadium deal at Carrara, and is sending the club down the road to bankruptcy. They will arrive there soon enough unless the state government intervenes. The situation is so dire that club officials fear their AFL license may be offloaded to a new Tasmanian-based team. However, Gold Coast are not going to sail off into the still, dark waters of AFL oblivion without a fight.

They are lacing up their gloves to fight this fight with a game-changing plan.

The Gold Coast Football Club want their own cricket franchise in the Big Bash League. It’s a move that could flip the Australian sporting landscape on its head. Gold Coast hope this extraordinary and unprecedented move will offset the millions the club is losing annually through managing their home ground of Carrara, as reported in The Courier Mail. If the Suns’ bid is successful, it opens up the possibility of changing sport in Australia. Not just football, but all sport. It also raises many questions.

What ramifications will this have for sport in this country when a club has a professional team in the two most prominent sports in the country?

Are the days of football clubs as we currently known them numbered?

Will football clubs simply become sporting clubs, with fingers in many sporting pies?

Will this move change the fortunes of the Suns and see them become a powerhouse in Australian sport?

Could the Suns eventually abandon the AFL entirely in favour of cricket?

Will any other AFL clubs follow suit and try to purchase teams in other sports?

Could a BBL franchise eventually infiltrate the AFL?

Will clubs become more powerful than the competitions and their governing bodies?
The answers to these questions are as yet unknown, and may remain well and truly hypothetical if Gold Coast are unsuccessful in obtaining a ticket to the BBL when the competition expands.

Irrespective, it does prove well and truly that football, and sport in general, is changing and that means clubs must change as well.

So as St Kilda sits back at Moorabbin, huddled inside its precarious financial bubble, kudos must go to those clubs brave enough to think beyond the game for the betterment of it.

There’s world of possibility available to AFL club’s, but it resides outside their comfort zones. Those who grab it first may reap maximum rewards. Those who sit in their hands may be selling their future down the river. The game is changing. You either change with it, or it passes you by.

You grow, or you die.

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