In the context of a critical Tasmanian bi-election, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced what some have called a “game-changer” in Tasmania’s decades long quest for an AFL team - a $25 million kickstart for the possibility if he is elected Prime Minister.
This means that an AFL side based in the long-standing Australian Football state of Tasmania now has bi-partisan support. Despite Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull deciding not to match Shorten’s $25 million pledge (yet), he has publicly supported a Tassie team and even campaigned AFL CEO Gillion McLachlan on the issue personally, while attending an AFL game earlier this season.
To match this new unprecedented political support in an AFL affair and the fascinating intertwinement of sport and politics on the all-too-important issue of an AFL team for Tasmanians, Western Bulldogs President, Peter Gordon recently confirmed that there is no longer an economic reason against a Tasmanian team. The dominos continue to line up, as Gillion McLachlan has also previously stated that the forgotten football state also deserves a spot in the big league.
With government backing, opposition backing, economic backing, CEO backing (in principle, at least) and a $25 million kickstart, it seems the AFL has now run out of excuses as to why one of the four traditional football states continue to be ignored. Yet, when McLachlan and other AFL head honchos strolled into the Apple Isle last week, it’s atlas of promises was incomparable to the local’s world of dreams.
As reported by this writer in The Mongrel Punt in early June, the AFL’s proclamation of a ‘blueprint’ to fix Tasmanian football did not feature any announcement of an AFL team, nor did it involve a VFL team for at least the next two years. The disenchanted football state did receive a ‘provisional’ VFL license for season 2021, however, with the AFL’s desire for a league wide reserves competition being well known, it is uncertain what lies ahead for the future of the VFL and its relevance in the changing Australian Football landscape. So, as the AFL’s excuses for Tasmania’s omission evaporate before its eyes, the focus shines even brighter on the AFL’s elephant in the room.
Tasmania does not have a team in the AFL, not because of economic issues, not because of some conveniently changing grassroots ‘criteria’ irrelevant for cities that would be assist in growing the game. It does not have a team in the AFL because the AFL simply has too many Victorian teams and the fact is that this is hurting both the league and the game.
A 19-team competition is not realistic for the AFL both in the short and medium term – not if it genuinely wants to grow. This is a major hurdle preventing a team known as ‘Tasmania’ entering the league unless the Gold Coast Suns collapse – a situation The Mongrel Punt has been analysing comprehensively over the last few months. Thus, it appeared relocation was the only other alternative for Tassie for the time being, with the “Tassie Kangaroos” on the AFL’s whiteboard marked ‘Plan A’ – not so at Arden Street – and the “Tassie Hawks” alive in the mind only of Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett. Simply put, these options will not work.
The only team that will be embraced by Tasmania is a true Tasmanian side. Tasmania, wearing that iconic and proud gold and green jumper, with the map of the proud state in the forefront is what will bring Tasmanian’s out in support. It is a jumper that has been in mothballs for far too long.
Tasmania’s AFL entry has been denied for generations. When, or if, they are finally granted their deserving licence it must be done correctly. Anything short of Tasmania as a new, untarnished licence, cannot be successful in capturing the imagination of those on the Apple Isle. They will not unite to follow a supplanted team. They’ll not unite to support a fly in fly out team, much to Jeff Kennett’s disappointment. Any attempts other than a fresh start for a true Tasmanian team will fail.
Sadly, this dream outcome of ‘Tasmania’ for Tasmania will remain just that; a dream. Bill Shorten’s politically adept campaign promise will never be called upon to be delivered, and it is not only Tasmania but the game that will suffer. Many have blamed the AFL, under Fitzpatrick and Demetriou’s watch, for establishing franchises on the Gold Coast and in Greater Western Sydney before establishing a club in Tasmania, for killing Tassie footy. Some have even gone as far as to say these clubs – especially the waning Suns – should be wound up to make way for a Tassie club to become a reality.
However, these expansion teams are instrumental to the future of Australian Football. More than half of the Australian population lives in New South Wales and Queensland. If Australian Football wants to continue to thrive in the only country in the world where it’s successfully played, it needs to woo the Sydney and Gold Coast markets.
The Gold Coast Suns are dealing with their own crises, however, if the AFL can manage to save them in the short term they could secure the Queensland market for the AFL in the long term and become a contributing part of the competition. Whereas, Greater Western Sydney could become an AFL superpower on and off the field, and quite possibly the most powerful sporting club in the nation over time. This would see Fitzpatrick and Demetriou’s ambitious expansion ploy be dubbed a masterstroke.
Quite simply, the critics’ targets are misguided. They should not be calling for a banishment of Gold Coast or Greater Western Sydney as a second team in Queensland and New South Wales are far more important than a ridiculous ten teams in Victoria. It is something that is often danced around or completely ignored by the Victorians running the league (which now means the game) at AFL House.
Having ten Victorians teams in the Australian Football League serves no purpose but to hinder the game from further meaningful expansion. A Tasmanian team would see a more rounded national competition (or in the opinions of many Tasmanians – a national competition) than having more than half the teams originate from the same suburban football league.
Throughout the 1990s when the Victorian Football League transitioned into the Australian Football League propelling the game into newfound heights, it actively sought to reduce the number of Victorian-based teams (much to the chagrin of supporters of the clubs in the gun) as it knew having an inflated number of teams from the one state was unsustainable in the long haul. It aimed to cut at least two Victorian teams via mergers. It managed just one, with Fitzroy merging with the embattled Brisbane Bears. If it had managed a second, the competition, and by extension the game, would be in a better position than it is now.
Thus, if the league wants to welcome in a neglected football state properly, it must stop pandering to another.
However, that would make a few clubs a little too nervous.