Expansion to stay, despite tribalism
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Nothing is more over-hyped and misunderstood regarding Australia’s two leading footy codes than expansion.
And like the hyperbole surrounding off field incidents, the source of most of the blame is the Australian media, and not just a News Limited tabloid.
There is no better example of the realities facing expansion than what is found with the AFL in Brisbane.
After a false start with the ugly uniform and logo of the Bears, and the club influenced decision to plonk a Brisbane AFL team on the Gold Coast, the stars seemed to have had aligned for the AFL in Queensland.
The nineties brought a merger with a much improved uniform, logo, and 7,000 Melbourne based members, a $128 million redevelopment of the Gabba, and shrewdly granted salary cap concessions from a now truly independent AFL Commission.
The noughties found the Lions as the most successful team of the decade with four consecutive grand final appearances and three consecutive flags. An unparalleled broadcast deal gave the Lions weekly prime time FTA exposure in Brisbane.
In 2004 the Lions had record memberships of nearly 31,000 record crowds of over 33,000, and a lengthy waiting list for the privilege of a Gabba corporate box.
In 2011 memberships and crowds had fallen to around 20K, an alarming drop of around 9K from the previous year, corporate boxes are but a phone call away, and the Lions have recorded losses in the past five years accumulating in more than $10 million in debts.
In desperation to stop the rot the Lions opened the Lions @ Springwood Club, a 200 pokie machine cash cow in Brisbane’s poorest shire of Logan, yet they still recorded a $1.8 million loss for 2011.
Andew Demetriou, to his immense credit, wants the Lions to sell their pokies and look for other alternatives on the long road back to profitability.
We can only hope John Grant and the ARLC look for the same moral high ground after they sign their own billion dollar broadcast deal.
But the picture does not improve for other AFL expansion teams.
The AFL has already announced the debt to be incurred by the newest expansion teams, the Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants. Each club will bleed $20 million a year for five years, and it is difficult to see either club being profitable if left to their own devices by 2016.
The Sydney Swans recorded losses of $752K in 2009 and $549K in 2010, however white collar corporate sponsorship allowed them to record a modest profit of $114K in 2011, although we are yet to see what cannibalism will have incurred from the eastbound GWS Giants.
And for the NRL the expansion picture is even worse.
Their only expansion team in Australia, the Melbourne Storm, have spent most of their history playing in a 1950’s athletic track, have yet to crack 15K for a season crowd average, and the rare chance to generate some genuine curiosity from the locals was all but obliterated by the salary cap scandal and stripping of their two premierships.
Also, when News Ltd controlled the NRL, they were happy to see the Nine Network hoard Storm games in the southern states, and as the ARLC clearly know, if your local footy team are not shown on local FTA television, they don’t exist.
To rub salt into the wounds, the Storm are still perceived by many of the NRL faithful as a News Ltd installed abomination, with blood on their hands at the demise of other clubs during the Super League war ‘Peace’ deal.
Perhaps the soon to be affluent ARLC can take some solace in the fact that a Super League war and News Ltd management has simply delayed them discovering what the proactive AFL already knows, that expansion is a time consuming, terribly expensive, and mostly thankless task.
Bottom-line, the passionate, tribal support and loyalty of an Aussie footy fan, passed down through the generations, cannot be bought and sold. A fondness for a second team from another code is about all you can hope for.
And here lies the dilemma for both codes. Expansion teams are as much about a ninth game to sell to broadcasters as the challenge of selling the gospel to deaf ears.
A TV network insider stated that the networks are willing to pay more to a footy code if that code can sell the ‘illusion’ of being a national competition, hence the AFL going with GWS instead of Tasmania, and the NRL almost certainly going to Perth.
But, a great example of the potential flaw in this strategy is any seasons FTA ratings for the biggest regular season AFL game of the year, the ANZAC day clash between club heavyweights Collingwood and Essendon, currently played with no FTA NRL competition.
Melbourne will have more than 700K, and Sydney and Brisbane less than 100K, guaranteed.
Of course, except for State of Origin and Grand Finals, any game of League or AFL throughout the season suffers the same level of geographically lop-sided support.
Time will tell how much value the current ‘illusion’ will bring if potential buyers of broadcast advertising realise just how ‘national’ both codes really are.
Ultimately though, all the expansion teams – the Swans, Lions, Giants, Suns and Storm, are here to stay, as are the traditional strugglers – the Demons, Western Bulldogs, Kangaroos, Port, Roosters, Sea Eagles, and Cronulla. Forget pokies and their negative social impact. Tomorrow is about progressive and accountable club managements, aggressive membership drives, and ‘future funds.’
It is the ultimate sporting irony that over a century of local tribal rivalries are what will perpetually limit the expansion efforts of the NRL and AFL, and yet these same factors are the catalyst that fuel the NRL & AFL domination of the Australian sporting landscape, and therefore underwrite the future of both codes expansion teams.
Soon, sports fans in the four biggest mainland capitals will have a choice of all four footy codes live on their doorstep, and surely, that can only be a good thing.