Could a Northern Territory AFL bid help the Tassie cause?

When the AFL announced its conditional expansion (restricted only to the country’s primary area of growth in Western Sydney and Queensland) of the national competition in 2008, there was a genuine belief that Tasmania was the next team off the rack. There still is. It was seemingly more a question, albeit an angonising one, of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ Tasmania will achieve its long-awaited entrance into the big league.

The issue of a Tassie team has been a hot one this season, with the AFL’s ‘Plan A’ of a North Melbourne relocation as the ‘Tassie Kangaroos’ being implemented only in the AFL Women’s Competition next season. However, its only progress for the North Melbourne men’s side is an increase of one home game per season from 2019 (as announced last week). With North investing more coin into Arden Street, the likelihood of any move to the Apple Isle has all but evaporated.

This year, in conjunction with the state government of Tasmania, an AFL taskforce has commenced advising the state on what it needs to achieve in order to obtain the 19th AFL License. However, the opportunity has been saddled with that crushing rider of ‘at the next available opportunity’. It is the same rider that is now facing the Northern Territory who have recently officially commenced its push for an AFL License, providing Tasmania with a very real opponent in the fight to live out the state’s football destiny.

The proposed Northern Territory team - surely nicknamed the Crocodiles - is set to based in Darwin, with the Northern Territory government launching a $100,000 scoping study to ensure the territory is in the box seat when the AFL next expands. In order for the NT to become the first territory to claim a license it will need to be able to guarantee a membership base of 20,000 and upgrade Marrara Oval (the ground utilised by Melbourne for Darwin home games) in order to cater for this figure which currently greatly supersedes its 12,500 crowd capacity.

While the hearts of Tasmanians may be skipping a beat at the thought of missing out of an AFL license when the league eventually does decide to go beyond eighteen teams, the news of the Northern Territory’s bid could in fact be good news for the Apple Isle. A 20-team competition is more desirable to AFL House than an awkward 19 that sees a team having to have a bye each week and does not reap the broadcast rights rewards of an extra game per week. The Northern Territory could become an ally rather than a competitor to Tasmania, as the two could enter the competition as the 19th and 20th teams respectively in the same vein as Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.

Prior to Northern Territory throwing its hat in the ring, there was really no other option for a new license than Tasmania. But surely, if the option of a joint entrance is off the table, Tasmania should be comfortable backing themselves in against the Territorians as short priced favourites for the 19th license. Tasmania boasts more than double the population of Northern Territory, and is one of the original four football states. They have laid much of the groundwork for obtaining the 19th AFL license, and does not have the challenges in regards to the heat, humidity, often cited by players who have played AFL games in Darwin over the past decade and a half.

Conversely, the Northern Territory does boast the best Australian Football participation rates per capita of any state or territory in the country. Whilst Tasmania boasts footballing royalty, such as Peter Hudson, Darrel Baldock, Ian Stewart and Royce Hart, the Territory has plenty of legends to boast including Andrew McLeod, Cyril Rioli and Peter and Shaun Burgoyne.

But the elephant in the room, is as it has always been, that question of “when?!” When will the AFL grow its number of teams to accommodate smaller markets because that has not really happened before. The AFL landscape has never seen a battle for a position in the competition when a spot is not already available. When Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney were awarded the 17th and 18th licenses, the AFL hardly fielded offers. The AFL were only prepared to extend to eighteen teams and suffer the talent pool stretch and diminished quality of football that comes with that (as brought to ahead through this season’s commentary surrounding rule changes), as it needed. It was a strategic move but the league who, in their eyes wanted to conquer the country’s most critical markets of New South Wales and Queensland, which now account for more than half of the Australian population.

Prior to Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney, Port Adelaide is the competition’s newest team when it became the first established club to enter the AFL. However, this is under completely different circumstances as it was awarded the license in 1994 and had to wait until 1997 to enter the league as the AFL forced an opening in the 16-team competition through aggressively seeking the merger of the Brisbane Bears and Fitzroy. It is unlikely that the AFL will pursue this route for Tasmania or the Northern Territory in modern times. You would have to suggest that if the Devils and the Crocodiles were to enter the AFL it will not be at the expense of another club.

Another factor for the Northern Territory bid would be player retention. With Gold Coast already struggling to keep high quality players, how would an NT team manage to convince young stars to hang around when the bright lights of the southern states beckon? If the Gold Coast is undesirable as a footy destination, and Tassie is viewed as a less-than-ideal location for stars to ply their trade, how would the NT be viewed as a football destination?

With a combined population of approximately 700,000, Tasmania and the Northern Territory will never compel the AFL to award the state and territory a pair of licenses out of necessity. The only option of this is the public pressure (particularly from Tasmania) being far too great that the AFL can no longer resist. This is not a new thing for the AFL – the pressure has been present for some time and the league is yet to really bat an eyelid.  But it is growing, year by year. As it stands, the only hope for Tassie and the NT is for the AFL to discover a new-found need to become a twenty team competition. And that need it spelt with dollar signs.

Until that day arrives the phrase ‘at the next available opportunity’ will loom over both proposed AFL bids.

For both Tassie and the Northern Territory, there are significant lessons to be learned from watching what is happening with the Gold Coast Suns since their inception seven years ago. When your turn comes, you’d want to be ready.

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