Tough times ahead for AFL’s expansion clubs
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As the dust settles following the introduction of the AFL’s newest franchises – the Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney Giants – it is becoming increasingly clear that both clubs will need a long time to mature on and off the field.
Both young teams have been placed under the microscope in their first years in the league, particularly in the off-season, where they have dominated the first round of the past two drafts.
The Gold Coast Suns are yet to win a game in 2012, as the season draws to its halfway point.
Greater Western Sydney recently won their first game for the season against fellow AFL infants Gold Coast, but have found life in the AFL just as tough as the Suns.
The two clubs’ progress off the field has been harder to gauge. The Gold Coast Suns signed up 14,000 members in their inaugural season of 2011, but have struggled to match that so far in 2012 after finishing last in 2011.
The Suns still have over 2,000 members yet to re-sign as the deadline draws closer.
Greater Western Sydney has signed up 9,000 members so far in 2012 and will struggle to reach Gold Coast’s first-year numbers.
Both clubs have unveiled 25,000 seat stadiums.
While the Giants are only just beginning to host home games at Skoda Stadium (Sydney Showgrounds), the Suns recently celebrated their first anniversary at their home ground Metricon Stadium.
Crowds at Gold Coast home games have declined in 2012, as some of the gloss has worn off the new franchise.
Gold Coast’s opening home game of the year attracted only 12,000 fans, a disappointing result considering the club averaged over 18,000 fans at home games in its opening season.
AFL boss Andrew Demetriou has received criticism for choosing to introduce another team in the rugby heartland of Sydney instead of Tasmania, a state which has a football history almost as long as Victoria.
He has repeatedly said the league is thinking long-term with its expansion and is aware of the early bumps along the road for any new team.
The AFL made the mistake of setting up a poorly resourced club in 1987, when the Brisbane Bears were unveiled.
The process of establishing the Brisbane Bears was rushed, resulting in the team playing their home games an hour away from Brisbane, on the Gold Coast, with sub-standard facilities.
The league has done its due diligence with the introduction of the Suns and Giants, ensuring they had enough time to set up their home grounds and grow a playing list properly. A repeat of the Bears fiasco would have been disastrous.
Just like the Bears, the Suns and Giants have struggled mightily on the field. Although the off-field future of both clubs is looking brighter, the on-field future is just as painful.
The Giants have the youngest playing list in the competition, with an average age of 21. The Suns have the third youngest, with an average age of 22.
The worrying sign is that, aside from drafting, both clubs mainly recruited recycled players who are over 28.
Until the teenagers mature another three or four years, there is a lack of players in the 23-27 year old range generally seen as the prime of an athlete.
Unless both clubs address this at the trade table or national draft in the near future, there is a high likelihood that they will continue to struggle until the boys truly become men in three or four years time.
The draft concessions, which saw them collect a raft of talented younger players in recent years, are now over.
The Suns and Giants would be wise to now look at recruiting more players in that 23-27 year old range who may have been overlooked in previous drafts.
Other clubs languishing down the bottom of the ladder in recent years, such as Melbourne and Port Adelaide, have suffered from the same problem of not having enough players in their primes.
The Gold Coast got the best of them in Gary Ablett, but they have quickly found out he cannot do it on his own.
Those pundits expecting a seamless rise to the top just because of the depth of young talent on both the AFL newbies teams may be in for a surprise.