The state of football in Tasmania warrants exploration, particularly in light of the crisis facing the local competition. Gillon McLachlan has repeatedly stated that he believes that Tasmania should have their own team. In the past fortnight, three-time premiership coach Mick Malthouse has also thrown his support behind a Tasmanian team, as has Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The Premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgeman, confirmed that Tasmania is persisting with its push for an AFL team, revealing that an AFL taskforce is currently advising the state on what it needs to achieve in order to obtain an AFL license. But if Tasmania is successful in meeting these requirements, how far away is a Tassie side from becoming a reality and will this flip the national competition on its head?
A Tasmanian AFL side is far from a simple matter. Tasmania has long desired a place in the AFL but the league has been resistant, citing “economic reasons” and a more significant appetite to expand the game in the non-football states of New South Wales and Queensland, where a combined 51% of Australians reside. The AFL has previously noted that they would prefer to have “a single team representing Tasmania”, which doesn’t necessarily mean a Tasmanian team. The real question is if the AFL feel they deserve their own team or if they will end up with a transplant.
In 2021, both Hawthorn’s and North Melbourne’s contracts to play home games in Tasmania will expire. McLachlan has stated “we think there should be one team representing all Tasmanians but acknowledging the challenges in that with the Kangaroos in the south and Hawthorn in the north”. The emergence of the Tassie Kangaroos Women’s side appears to tip the balance in favour of moving the Roos south, but it doesn’t look like Hawthorn is willing to give up their space. We’ve previously written about the Kangaroos and Tasmania, but what about the other options?
In 2011, Jeff Kennett was in his first stint as President of the Hawthorn Football Club and entertained the possibility of the football club permanently moving to Tasmania. The proposal included relocating the club’s headquarters and training facility to Launceston around York Park, playing five home games in Tasmania (two in Hobart and three in Launceston) while still maintaining nine games at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Three years later, when Kennett was no longer club President, he urged the club again to pursue this relocation. Kennett publicly stated, “It is true to say that had I stayed as president I saw a great opportunity with the City of Launceston to build a modern facility behind Aurora Stadium for the Hawthorn Football Club. Had (the AFL) guaranteed those nine games at the MCG, a team based in Tasmania (could have played) without disadvantaging our members.” Well, now Jeff is back as club president and it is fair to suggest that he may still be advocating for a relocation.
There is ample time for political maneuvering, but it appears that major players are happy to begin the jostling. Earlier this year, Kennett has made direct comparisons between the Hawks and the Roos, and their respective relationships with Tasmania, stating "Tasmania is big enough for two clubs playing down there. We play four games (each year), North Melbourne three.”
The AFL want Hawthorn out of Tasmania. That has been abundantly clear as the AFL have been quietly supporting North Melbourne’s foothold. The AFL has previously offered Hawthorn $8 million to abandon Tasmania, while North Melbourne were allocated an AFLW side, on the proviso it played out of Tasmania. The Hawks were unsuccessful in their bid.
However, Hawthorn – led by Kennett – have been steadfast in their commitment to Tasmania and have not been intimidated by the AFL’s desire for them to retreat to the mainland. Instead, of succumbing to these orders of retreat, the Hawks have doubled down and marked Tassie as their own. In fact, they have even begun firing bullets of their own towards league headquarters per the words of Kennett, “I will start to lobby the AFL Commission to put an end to this stupid debate ... that they want us out of [Tasmania] to give full reign to North Melbourne… I will be arguing very strongly with the AFL that all this other discussion has got to stop… I want them to put an end to any policy to get us out of there.”
Hawthorn remain “110 committed to Tasmania” and have signaled their strong intention to extend their relationship with the state beyond 2021 when their current contract comes to a close. Hawthorn in conjunction with the City of Launceston and Events Tasmania recently commissioned a report concluding that the club’s economic impact on the state in 2017 totaled $28.5 million which over the life of the Hawks’ current five year deal this figure equates to $142.5 million. Hawthorn’s association with Tasmania dates back further than any other club. It was the Hawks becoming the first team to play home games in Tasmania in 2001 along with St Kilda. In 2001, Hawthorn was facing significant financial hardship but in large part due to its association and sponsorship with Tasmania described by President Jeff Kennett as “the best in the AFL”, the Hawks have become a powerhouse off the field.
Is there another option? Could Tasmania have a team of their own? Could they even afford it? In 2015 McLachlan claimed that Tassie didn’t have the ability to financially support a team, a cost that he placed at $45 million.
Assuming the Gold Coast Suns survive, and Tasmania prove their ability to finance a team, the AFL would have to deliver Tasmania a 19th license. This will have to be some time down the road with the AFL locking in an eighteen-team competition for at least the next five seasons. But come 2024, there is an opportunity for a 19th side to enter the league. How would Tasmanian football survive in the interim? The Tasmanian State League is already suffering, and facing the prospect of folding. Alongside this is the issue of talent. Presumably players would be tied to the new club via a recruitment zone arrangement. But will this expected increase in talent be able to deepen the pool enough to cater for nineteen teams? It is a big ask.
A 19-team competition will also be problematic as the cost of establishing a new club will not be counteracted by an increase in any new broadcast deal. The number of games per round will not increase as it did in with the inclusion of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney. Such an increase is estimated to have already deemed the Suns and Giant as a financial success despite their obvious challenges according to former AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick.
A 19-team competition would also force a team to have a bye each weekend, which brings with it a raft of problems of its own. It would make more sense for the AFL to expand to a 20-team competition rather than pursue a 19-team competition if and when it expands. So, if Tasmania is successful in attaining a 19th AFL license who wins the 20th?
The AFL has often been accused of being too reactive. They change rules on a whim and re-interpret others in response to stand-alone incidents. They want to fix football in Tasmania, but the fix isn’t a quick one. It will take work, and it will take time. The State is asking questions the AFL can’t immediately answer. It’s not a predicament the "custodians of the game" enjoy being in, but it’s one they must resolve.
North Melbourne, Hawthorn or Tasmania. All possible, none easy.