Ten years ago, the AFL announced its daring plans to invade enemy territory by establishing two new expansion teams in the Gold Coast Suns and the Greater Western Sydney Giants. The AFL’s seventeenth club, Gold Coast, to date has been an unmitigated disaster for the league, but news of a new stadium deal late last year would have allayed some fears at Carrara and league headquarters.
Much has been written about the Gold Coast crisis but how is the AFL’s eighteenth club faring as it approaches its eighth season in the big league? It must be said that the AFL’s expansion plans were and are not a short-term game but instead one that will more accurately be assessed decades into the venture.
While we may only be mid-way through the opening quarter on that timeline, we could do with a score update.
GWS’ entire list management strategy since they joined the AFL in 2012 was to challenge – and win – a premiership by 2017-2018. That was how they built their inaugural list which consisted of the best young players in the country mixed in with some crucial experienced players such as Chad Cornes, Luke Power, James MacDonald and Dean Brogan. Clearly the team once touted to be the most talented ever assembled, expected to have a premiership already in the bank. This is evident by how GWS structured their playing contracts and salary cap which led to the recent off-field exodus, headlined by the departures of Dylan Shiel, Tom Scully and Rory Lobb.
The years of pain that saw consecutive wooden spoons was supposed to be offset by a flag. However, despite coming close in the back-to-back preliminary final defeats of 2016 and 2017, GWS have failed to qualify for a Grand Final. Thus, their on-field performances must be marked as a failure to date.
Selection of Captains (PASS)
This week Giants co-captains Callan Ward and Phil Davis were renewed as joint skippers for 2019, highlighting the remarkable success of their tenure. Ward and Davis will lead the squad for their eighth consecutive year, not only solidifying their standing as the AFL’s longest standing club captains, but as two of the most respected figures in the game. Originally alongside triple premiership Lion Luke Power, the captaincy decision of 2012 was a masterstroke that has stood the test of time.
Selection of Coaches (PASS)
GWS elected their coaches just as wisely as their captains from day one. Not only did the club have co-captains in their early years but the inaugural squad effectively had co-coaches in the official coach Kevin Sheedy and the unofficial coach Mark “Choco” Williams. Coaching legend, Kevin Sheedy, who notched up his 1,000th VFL/AFL sanctioned game in his time at the Giants, now has the club’s best and fairest named in his honour, such is the impact the man dubbed “the father of the Giants,” had on the formative years of the football club. Sheedy, an inspirational motivator, instilled the young Giants with a sense of identity and passion, as well as doubling up as the game’s greatest promoter making a remarkable contribution to the game’s growth in New South Wales.
In between spruiking the good word of the game and his stirring pre-game speeches, former Port Adelaide premiership coach Mark Williams did most of the “hands on” coaching and was a brilliant addition. Finally, the Kevin Sheedy-Leon Cameron coaching succession plan has been a smooth and successful transition. Despite the fact there has been no flags to show for it, the club has qualified for finals three times in his five-year reign.
Contrary to common belief, GWS has actually been reasonably successful in building a membership base in it’s first seven seasons, especially due to the fact they inhabit AFL enemy territory. Despite giving up a one-year head start, GWS’ 2018 membership base of 25,243 has already doubled that of the Gold Coast Suns, which recorded a pitiful 12,108. The Giants even have a larger supporter base than the Brisbane Lions of 24,867. This is a remarkable achievement for GWS considering Brisbane have been in the competition since 1987 with their Fitzroy Lions link dating back to 1883. However, this is also equally concerning for the troubled Lions.
Moreover, their membership base is also expanding at a significant rate of 21% from 2017 to 2018, unlike Gold Coast’s which is declining at an alarming rate. Meaning, GWS has the greatest member growth rate, in that time, in the AFL besides the two most recent premiers in Richmond and West Coast. The critical and growing Western Sydney market also ensures that the Giants have the potential to become the biggest sporting club in the country – perhaps in a few decades time.
GWS’ membership base may be strong but their attendances remain incredibly fragile. Even though Gold Coast were forced to play games in Cairns (3,722), Brisbane (6,060) and of course Shanghai (10,689) last year, the Suns still maintained a higher home crowd average attendance than the Giants. But what is worrying about GWS’ crowd numbers are that unlike the Suns they do not have the excuse of diabolical on-field performances. The Suns have been practically uncompetitive for just about the entirety of their AFL lives, whereas, the Giants have made finals for the past three years, yet are still unable to convert their membership numbers to tickets at the gate.
Their members even struggled to flock to their high-performing team in September when only 14,865 turned to their most recent home final in 2017. This was the lowest crowd for a VFL/AFL final since 1916, when the world was fractured by war.
The Greater Western Sydney Giants (deep breath) have struggled marketing their extensive name in their seven-year existence. So much so that they have moved to unofficially reposition themselves as simply “the Giants” with the club believing their nickname alone has a greater ability to cut through to fans, old and new. The “GWS” in “GWS Giants” is also complicated by the club’s presence outside of Western Sydney, in Canberra where it plays three home and away games per year, plus an annual pre-season game.
Other Growth Areas (PASS)
GWS’ Canberra venture has been triumphant on-field with the club transporting the nation’s capital into a fortress claiming victories in eleven of its past twelve encounters. However, off field it has been less prosperous as the Giants have failed to attract its aim of 10,000 ACT based members by 2018. Although, the club is currently in negotiations with the ACT Government about increasing the amount of home games played in Canberra from three to four per year.
The Giants also successfully secured an inaugural license to the AFL Women’s Competition. While, this has seen another wooden spoon arrive at the club, it also means that they have had a significant head start on cross town rivals the Swans in the New South Wales market for women’s football. GWS’ growth has also extended across sports with the club now also boasting a team known as “Giants Netball” that plays in the National Netball League. The team plays home games in both Sydney and Canberra.
Alongside Richmond, GWS is also investigating the prospect of playing the first ever game for premiership points in India, the country that is set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country.
Independence from the AFL (FAIL)
GWS is still very much a Sydney based AFL headquarters, such is the control the league has over its dependent eighteenth club. In fact, Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett claimed in the Herald Sun recently that a Giants board member told him, “we don’t make a decision, the AFL make all the decisions for us.”
Greater Western Sydney estimates that it will take until around 2032 for the club to become fully viable and not reliant on AFL handouts. Thus, it will be a long time before GWS is able to stand on its own two feet.
But be warned; once the club has a new generation of Western Sydney kids watch the current group and feel a connection to the team as a whole, as a club, they will be Giant.
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