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Aussie Rules and Tasmania - Are the AFL Asleep at the Wheel?

The AFL has always liked to position Australian Rules as ‘the people’s game,’ implying that it’s unlike Rugby with its class-split and soccer with its sometime anti-social tendencies The AFL likes to project an image of itself as the all-seeing, wise guardians of the code. Unfortunately, the current state of AFL in Tasmania has made Gillon McLachlan’s reassurances, and ‘father knows best’ Public Relations rhetoric look trite and out-of-touch.

Australian Rules in Tasmania is in crisis. The evidence is compelling. The Tasmanian State League (TSL) - the premier domestic local league started with 10 sides in 2010. It’s now down to seven clubs with both North-Western sides having withdrawn in recent times.

Only one local player has been drafted into the AFL in the last two years. The Tassie Mariners, who exposed promising Taswegian players to AFL scouts whilst still enabling them to live locally unless drafted, is now gone. There is still no truly state-based AFL national competition club-side for quality footballers to aspire to play for. This in turn puts great pressure on them to leave for the mainland to develop their skills & footy careers.

Attendances at, and interest in TSL games is currently mediocre at the very best. Likewise, both TSL clubs and regional league clubs’ finances are in an average state at best. In a time of crisis, AFL Tasmania has just lost its capable CEO to a new role at AFL headquarters; our loss is their gain...
By contrast with the current malaise, historically Tasmania was an Aussie Rules heartland. Any barracker with even a cursory knowledge of the game can easily reel off a few great Apple Isle players’ names; Royce Hart, Matthew Richardson, Nick and Jack Riewoldt, ‘Tiger’ Croswell, Alastair Lynch, Ian Stewart, Peter Hudson, Michael Roach… I could go on. Then you have jet coaches and officials like Rodney Eade, Brendon Bolton and Brendan Gale.

It’s a business verity that it’s easier to look after and keep good customers than ignore them in favour of trying to get new ones. However it seems the AFL hasn’t factored this maxim into their business plans. Rather, much of its recent focus has been trying to gain (buy?) support in the heartlands of Rugby League; Sydney, Gold Coast, and Brisbane. This strategy has seen untold millions sunk into these clubs and areas with very mixed results & potentially a negative return on investment.

As reported in The Mercury (12/02/2018), the AFL has recently sunk  over $25 million into the Suns’ finances to keep them afloat. I’m no business guru but if Gold Coast was a conventional business, given its poor financial and playing results I’d suggest it’d be under administration, if not receivership by now.  Perhaps they’d also have ASIC sniffing round. The Brisbane Lions, who were truly all conquering at one stage, now look like the thinking person’s Gold Coast...

Currently, local support for the two Fly in-Fly out (FIFO) sides, Hawthorn and North Melbourne, who are heavily sponsored to play games in Tasmania, is reasonably strong. However, the question is how deeply rooted is that support? Is it passionate support, or more a slight affection borne of familiarity?

There is a strong, sustained desire by Tasmanians to have their own elite AFL side, playing against the nation’s best. Barracking for the two FIFO teams is a short-term expedient but doesn’t satisfy the deep wish for our own side. Currently the Tasmanian government, both directly and through government business entities, sponsors the two FIFO sides to the tune of ~ $6 million. This money could go a long way towards funding a local AFL side...

Put it this way - for Tasmanians craving their own side, backing a FIFO club is a bit like drinking Nescafe when what you really crave is a true espresso. Thoughtful Tasmanian observers of the game fear that locals may lose patience with the AFL’s refusal to even consider a local expansion side. A real risk of the AFL’ complacency is that a well-marketed, new Tasmanian national-competition soccer or basketball side etc. could capture significant local support. In turn, this could potentially see elite AFL support down here dwindle whilst giving a fillip to a competitor sport jousting with AFL for audiences, market-share and publicity.

As the competition’s custodian, the AFL has two figurative balance sheets which it needs to ensure are both sound and mutually aligned. The competition’s finances need to be strong and this includes expenditure being demonstrably justifiable and defensible; especially as much of its funding comes from supporters’ pockets.

The AFL also has a moral balance sheet, which also requires diligent monitoring to help ensure the game is always healthy and accessible; especially at the grass-roots level. At present it seems the AFL is prioritising glitzy AFLX launches and issuing memos to AFLW coaches about how best to stage-manage their tactics, and entirely ignoring the 2nd balance sheet, much to the detriment of Apple Isle footy.

The (ostentatiously entitled) AFL Commission’s role in all this bears examination. It boasts an array of formidable high-flyers with a record of high achievement. However, with a few exceptions, occupationally it ranges all the way from business to law. Also it’s mostly composed of middle-aged plus men with just the one female member out of nine; Major-General Simone Wilkie.

The risks of having an AFL board drawn from such narrow backgrounds are that it can lead to a lack of rigorous, broad debate as to how best to support and develop the game; sometimes known as group-think. Given most Commission members’ big-business background, it’s not surprising that their paradigm is one of seeking the corporate and personal rewards of constant growth e.g. TV rights, geographic reach, attendances, publicity etc.

The down side of this growth obsession is that it feels, at least from a Tassie perspective, that the Commission is blissfully ignorant to the real crisis in footy down here. Rather, they seemingly have their eyes fixed on the wants of corporate box occupants and TV networks heads, to the detriment of the foundations of ‘the people’s game’ whilst also deaf to articulate, recent public warnings on this very point from the likes of Eade, Richo and Mitch Robinson to name just a few.

Notably, Richard Gowder, ex Wesfarmers CEO, in his media interviews upon becoming AFL Commission Chairman heavily emphasised talk of developing and growing the game. This is standard corporate-speak. Nonetheless it jarred a bit when compared to the passion that supporters, players etc. bring to all levels of football, as well as the much greater range of issues to ponder than just solely growth alone.

The two arguments usually cited against an AFL Tassie side are that
(i) it wouldn’t be competitive and/or
(ii) it wouldn’t stack up financially.

Similar arguments were made over the years when Tasmania sought to have a Sheffield Shield cricket team. It was finally established in 1977, and yes, the first years were tough ones, but we’ve won the Shield three times in the 2010s; not bad for a state with ~550,000 inhabitants.

The AFL seems to assume that the above two arguments are insoluble so it won’t refocus on examining the merits of a prospective AFL Tasmanian side. Given the Gold Cost Suns record, you could fairly question both the AFL’s analytical and investment capabilities.

Notably, in the hyper-capitalist code that is US NFL, the Green Bay Packers stand-out as a small but successful and popular, membership-owned and proudly regionally-based club. This type of model could potentially work in Tasmania i.e. locals fiercely committing to both attendance and club membership.

In Victoria, Geelong’s an example of a successful regionally-based club. It’s experienced both relatively recent hard times followed by a well-led recovery and then later flag success. If an AFL club can prosper in a proud but part rust-belt town like Geelong, this suggests it could do well in Tasmania as well.

Also, what’s often lost on the mainland is the beneficial, unifying effect that the inception of a Tassie side could have on local morale and pride. This is especially valid given that currently many Tasmanians identify more with their region than their state. If former also-rans Footscray and Richmond can taste recent premiership success (and incidentally, electrify the comp in the process), why couldn’t a Tassie side do likewise?

So, where to from here?

For mine, the AFL should put less emphasis on cheesy, parachute-and-pyrotechnic laden AFLX launches, staging Shanghai games, and giving AFLW a tokenistic mini-season. Rather, its focus should widen, as per the two balance sheet model, on the addressing fundamentals like the code’s heartland welfare (perhaps splashing less $$$ against the wall in die-hard Rugby League territory would a good start).

In terms of a possible AFL Tasmanian side, the AFL are entitled to ask local proponents to put forward a well-reasoned, evidenced, comprehensive model. In turn they need to evaluate it with an open mind, as well as showgenuine good will and openness towards the idea of a local side.

Also, the AFL needs to get real and acknowledge the code locally is in a tough position. A well-run enquiry, staffed by capable personnel charged at finding root causes and appropriate responses, including resourcing needs, would be a great start.

To quote the late Gough Whitlam, former Prime Minister, “It’s Time.” It’s time for the AFL to open both its eyes and hearts to the current crisis in Australian Rules in Tasmania, and look to actively live out its role as the custodian of the people’s game. This requires the AFL to actively help discern the various problems Australian Rules has in Tasmania and use that to help devise a sound strategy to address them.

A key part of any strategy would be AFL commitment to a fair-dinkum consideration of the merits of a Tasmanian AFL side. Equally importantly, Tasmanians at all levels also have a concomitant responsibility to engage in this process. We can’t expect the AFL to simply blast $$ at the problems; after all that luxury is reserved for Rugby League states.

Sarcasm aside, Tasmania also has to show it is serious about wanting an AFL side, including committing to support it. This may well require local opinion leaders to form an association to

1. Develop a business plan etc.
2. Mobilise popular opinion and,
3. Lobby for this cause

In short, proponents for an AFL side in Tasmania need to make their case so strongly and articulate that the AFL simply cannot ignore it. Don’t forget, one of Australia’s premier yacht races occurs here every year, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. This suggests we know a bit about successfully staging high profile sports events and we have two existing AFL-standard venues readily available.

Equally, our performance in T20 and Sheffield Shield, despite initial administrator resistance to us joining to these respective competitions, shows we can match it at the elite level. My earnest hope is that Gillon McLachlan & co. discard the tired, all-too convenient ‘nothing to see’ rhetoric. Rather it’d be great to see them truly live out their role as people’s game guardians by engaging with local AFL issues so benefiting both Tasmanians and footy lovers everywhere.