The AFL have two battles on its hands. On the left, the restless and neglected state of Tasmania. On the right, the dire state of its seventeenth club, the Gold Coast Suns.
They are two battles that the AFL are losing – heavily – for markedly different reasons, but for the future of a prosperous national competition, it must find a way to get back in front. And not just in front – it must find a way to win. What has history taught us about wars waged on two fronts?
In 2011, the Gold Coast Suns, the club created to gain a foothold in the enemy territory of the NRL, ran onto an AFL oval for the very first time. Seven years later, the club’s very existence is at best, fragile, facing very real and immediate threats of bankruptcy and extinction from the AFL landscape. For the first time - publicly – the outspoken chairman of Gold Coast, Tony Cochrane has admitted that the club faces bankruptcy with the costs of playing at its home ground of Carrara, the former home of the now defunct Brisbane Bears, being unsustainable.
As reported in the Herald Sun, Gold Coast have admitted that their club will not survive unless the Queensland Government drastically reduces the fees placed upon them by the government body - Stadiums Queensland. The Suns’ administration claim these fees are up to five times greater than those in other states. The financial situation at the Suns is the worst faced by an AFL club since that of Fitzroy throughout the 1990s. That dire financial position saw them with the options of merging with the Bears and relocating to Brisbane, or perishing completely. Depending on where you sit, it is one of the most emotional and political issues in the game’s history.
Gold Coast’s current and potential plight is so dire that club officials have conceded privately that Tasmania is a genuine threat to their AFL license. This makes the public comments from the Tasmanian Government and its Premier, Will Hodgman last year that the state would happily accept the Suns if they collapsed in Queensland all the more significant.
“Tasmanians already watch AFL” – Andrew Demetriou.
That was the justification provided by the former CEO of the AFL as to why Tasmania lost out to the Gold Coast and Western Sydney for the right to provide the AFL’s seventeenth and eighteen clubs respectively. The reason Tassie has failed in obtaining a team that it so desperately deserves is also the sole reason as to why it would be an immediate success.
Tasmanians love football and are passionate about it, however they’re also somewhat disenfranchised by its current state. If a Tasmanian side was introduced next season, there would be a genuine sense of excitement on the Apple Isle. It would be embraced, welcomed and made to feel at home. It would be a stark contrast to the rather plastic sense there was on the Gold Coast, where the welcome was more akin to the one you give your Great Aunt with whiskers.
The greatest game on the world is only seen in this light by four places in the world; Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. It is astonishing that one of its four heartlands has been completely neglected by the game’s most important competition.
However, for those barracking for a Gold Coast collapse and a Tasmanian takeover probably should reassess. The AFL cannot blatantly kill one of its clubs in the same way it should not neglect one its states. Gold Coast (as well as Greater Western Sydney) were not born out of desire, but out of need. Like a child conceived simply to marry off and gain more land, the Suns were a necessary commodity in a region where gaining ground was important. They were a political offspring in a game built on love. The AFL needs the Suns not be successful. They need them to succeed on the Gold Coast.
The majority of the Australian population lives in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. To safe guard its future as a successful sporting competition, the AFL must focus on the biggest areas of growth in the only country the sport is played in. The AFL must keep the Suns afloat or lose a foothold in a huge growth corridor.
Whilst the population in Queensland grew by 7.16% from 2011 to 2017. In that same period, Tasmania’s population grew by only 1.94%. Queensland has a population of almost 5 million. Tassie houses one tenth of that number.
The strength of the Gold Coast is Tasmania’s crippling weakness. However, the AFL needs to step carefully here. They must ensure they do not alienate passionate supporters irrespective of the state they live in. They must learn that a small group of loyal followers can be far more valuable than a larger group of non-dedicated supporters. This lesson was surely learned throughout the Port Adelaide crisis of 2009-2012, the last AFL club to have its license at risk.
The Port Adelaide Football Club, South Australia’s oldest and Australia’s most successful football club, was and remains hated by the majority of football supporters in its home state. This hate, coupled with its immense premiership success in the SANFL, was a key reason as to why it became the only pre-existing club outside of Victoria to join the AFL. Whilst many love their club, people forget that hate is also a passion; a powerful one. Football clubs need passion to survive as Gold Coast are finding out.
In Port Adelaide’s darkest hours of 2009 to 2012, the club’s core demographic of supporters felt increasing alienated. So how did it survive? It was not through renaming itself the “Southern Power” per AFL contingency plans, nor through former South Australian Treasurer and would-be Port Adelaide President, Kevin Foley’s plans to make the club “less about Port Adelaide and more about the Power”. Instead, Port Adelaide survived because it became more Port Adelaide through reconnecting with its heritage, tradition and core group of fans. The club refused to water-down its identity to appeal to a broader audience. It became more about Port Adelaide than Power.
The AFL cannot ignore those who love the game already at the expense of those they want to make love it. You can lead the Gold Coast Suns supporter to the football, but you cannot make them care. Having said that, Gold Coast is too valuable to the game’s future so the Tassie Suns is not the answer.
The competition is not ready for a nineteen-team competition, at least not any time soon.
The relocation of a Victorian side is the most appropriate alternative, delivering a lone team to represent Tassie. North Melbourne appears the most obvious candidate. Their women’s’ team, debuting in the next AFLW season has ditched the name “North Melbourne” and will instead be called the “Tassie Kangaroos”. They will play the majority of their games in Tasmania. So perhaps this is a viable solution for Tasmania? I’m sure it has crossed the minds of the passionate North Melbourne supporters already in Tasmania, and those who are hoping against it in Victoria.
In the words of the Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, “the AFL won’t be a truly national competition until it has a Tasmanian side.”
While the AFL desperately needs a successful Gold Coast Suns team, it also needs clubs with a passionate and willing supporter base and that is what Tassie will deliver.
The sooner, the better.