Revisiting the Tasmanian AFL bids
Australian football was first documented in Tasmania in 1866. We know that some form of football was played in Tasmania in the 1850s, however, some people believe that this was actually a form of rugby rather than Australian football.
This is due to mentions of cross bards and offside rules.
The Tasmanian Football league, centred on Hobart, began in 1879 and the Northern Tasmanian Football Association began in 1886.
A third league, the North West Football Union would not begin until 1910.
The first statewide premiership was awarded in 1909, the Tasmanian State Premiership. These matches were discontinued in 1978.
The state premiership would next be contested under a different format in 1980 – the Winfield State Cup. However, Northern Leagues refused to participate again after perceived favouritism towards the Hobart league.
In 1986 and 1987, a statewide league was proposed when five northern league clubs left to join the TFL Statewide League. The NTFA and NWFU merged to form the NTFL.
The formation of the state league seems to have been the catalyst for teams to begin to lose money with increased travel costs being a large factor. Teams relegated themselves back to local competitions and other clubs folded entirely. The league collapsed after the 2000 grand final.
With the TFL disbanded, the Tasmanian Devils were formed in 2001 and began playing in the VFL the next year. They were aligned with North Melbourne.The Devils played in both ends of the Apple Isle and had a reasonable following before they were disbanded in 2008 to make way for the re introduction of the TFL.
The game presently has the second highest participation rate of any Australian Football state in the country, behind only the Northern Territory.
The VFL/AFL in Tasmania
Many exhibition matches were played in Tasmania over the years, and it became something of a panacea for the problems of several Victorian clubs including Fitzroy (91-92, four games) and St Kilda (03-06, three games).
Hawthorn have had the longest presence in Tasmania, beginning in 2003 and now not expected to end before 2017, in a deal worth $17 million over 5 years. North Melbourne began playing at Bellerive in 2012.
For many years Tasmanian football talent left the Apple Isle for the brighter lights of Melbourne. More than 300 Tasmanians have played VFL/AFL over the years including Darrel Baldock, Royce Hart, Laurie Nash, Peter Hudson and Ian Stewart.
Players of a more recent vintage include Garry Lyon, Brendon Gale, Alistair Lynch, Matthew Richardson, Grant Birchall, Brad Green, Jack Riewoldt and David Neitz.
The 1994-1997 Bid
Between 1996 and 1998 a bid was prepared that involved the construction of a 30,000-capacity stadium in the Hobart showgrounds in Glenorchy, at the cost of $34 million. The stadium would have been the team’s only home ground, but the appeal was unsuccessful and the stadium was not built. The bid ultimately failed when Port Adelaide and Fremantle were granted entry instead.
The 2008 Bid
With the announcement of teams for Gold Coast and Western Sydney, Tasmania again launched a bid for the AFL with the full backing of the Tasmanian Government. The Tasmanian Bid had reportedly secured 20,000 potential members and a $4 million major sponsorship from Mars before Gold Coast and Western Sydney had even got off the ground.
Andrew Demetriou, AFL CEO, is reported to have told the Tasmanian premier “not now, not ever”. He recently told Foxfooty that it will not happen while he is CEO, but may happen while he is alive.
The bid had the support of then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Rudd said: “In terms of how we make all that possible, I’ve been talking to various folk in the AFL about that for some time.”
The Arguments against a Tasmanian Team
Opponents of the Tasmanian Bid have assumed several things, including a lack of corporate support, a divide between the north and south of Tasmanian football and a lack of people in Australia’s smallest state. There is also a belief that the AFL are reluctant to expand into Tasmania as it is already an AFL state, so there would be few new fans by expanding there.
Also, the case has been made that Tasmania would be perfectly suited for the relocation of a Victorian club.
The Corporate Argument
Saul Eslake, a Tasmanian-born economist says the lack of corporate support argument is a just plain wrong:
“First … the stadium deal that a Tasmanian club would have at Aurora Stadium would be about the fourth best in the league. The second thing is we had sponsors. Mars said they would be our major sponsor, and the Tasmanian government would only need to pay $1 million less than they’re contributing to the Hawthorn deal.”
Eslake went on to query the isolation of the state in regard to its sponsors.
“People say, ‘where are the major corporations in Tasmania?,’ but look at Collingwood, whose major sponsor Emirates is based in Dubai.
“I think the exercise proved beyond any doubt that the commercial arguments used as to why Tasmania couldn’t have a team – that there weren’t the big companies there to sponsor it, that there wouldn’t be the support or the ground couldn’t cope with it – all those arguments were demonstrated to be false.”
In addition Mars Snackfoods General Manager Peter West, who signed a deal to sponsor the proposed team worth $4 million, said:
“Not only is there a traditional affiliation with the sport among the Tasmanian people, but the state’s burgeoning economy makes us confident that the club would be financially viable and would attract strong corporate support, so we wanted to be the first business on board.”
The Tasmania Divided argument
Scott Wade, head of AFL Tasmania says the football divide was a big reason an AFL team didn’t go earlier:
“In the halcyon days of Tasmanian footy back in the ’60s and ’70s, if Tasmania could’ve found a way to work together, rather than be so parochial and so divided, we’d already have a team of our own by now”
Saul Eslake, discounts this argument, saying that he believes a Tasmanian AFL side would prove to be a great unifier.
The Popular Support Argument
A survey conducted in 2008 by the State Government found that 48% of Tasmanians support a Tasmanian bid, 23% of Tasmanians would consider becoming members and 41% of Tasmanians would consider attending games.
This would have given the club a theoretical support base of 100,000 members.
In 2012, Hawthorn had 8,500 Tasmanian Members, and in 2012 North Melbourne were reportedly at 2,000 in January. This could surely be enough of a support base for a Tasmanian team and dwarfs the support base of the most recent expansion clubs.
The Andrew Demetriou Roadblock Argument
Many believe that the AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou was/is the major stumbling block to a Tasmanian team. The Age quoted Paula Wriedt (former Tasmanian Minister for Economics and Tourism) as saying that ”The AFL were blocking it, and when I say the AFL I mean Andrew Demetriou”. It seems that while Demetriou is in charge, there will be no possibility of a Tasmanian team.
The Captive Market argument
Australian football has been a major part of the Tasmanian sporting landscape sine the late 19th century and it seems unlikely that this will be challenged soon. There is however a lack of a national league side in any competition for Tasmania in any Australian major sport at the moment.
Rugby league have recently played a trial at North Hobart Oval, paid for by the Australian Football Club there, and there is apparently an A-League bid called Tasmania United.
The Relocation Argument
Some believe Tasmania is being held to have somewhere for an established Victorian team to relocate. This was denied by Andrew Demetriou following the rejection of the Tasmanian bid who said that he planned on 10 clubs being in Victoria for the foreseeable future. That said, we know there are several Victorian clubs under significant financial pressure and the move may become tempting in the future.
The Senate Inquiry
Unsatisfied with the AFL’s response, Tasmanian senator Kerry O’Brien convinced the Senates Regional Affairs Committee to undertake an enquiry into the AFL, supported by Family First Senator Steven Fielding.
The inquiry’s draft terms of reference included an investigation into “whether the AFL commissioners’ obligations to current supporters of the game override their desire to promote larger television audiences for it”.
The inquiry was opposed by the Liberal Party, with Pat Farmer saying it was a waste of time since the Senate had no power to make the AFL do anything with its expansion policy.
AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou and Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick both declined to appear before the enquiry, but Chief Operations Manager Gillon Mclachlan did, confirming the league saw Sydney and Gold Coast as greater priorities for expansion. He said the AFL wasn’t sure a Tasmanian team could ever happen. He added information such as future population growth, size and scope of the local business community, current and future, community participation in the game and other codes and the significance of the regions as media markets, determined that priority.
It should be noted that the Tasmanian Government is directly sponsoring Hawthorn to the tune of $17.6 million over five years (following on from a $16 million deal in the previous five years) and the Government owned time TT Line is sponsoring North Melbourne for another 1.5 million over three years.
The AFL Bid team was able to secure another $4 million sponsorship from Mars pending AFL entry. That sponsorship later went to Carlton when the big wasn’t approved.
Ed Note: Factual references were provided and are available from the author.
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