What we now know about expansion
Mark Bridge celebrates scoring the Wanderers first ever A-League goal. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
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There has been a lot of expansion in Australian sport recently, with some great successes and some spectacular crash and burns. So what lessons have we learnt?
We have welcomed eight new clubs into the Australian football codes – Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney Giants went into the AFL, the Melbourne Rebels entered the Super Rugby, and The West Sydney Wanderers, Wellington Phoenix, Melbourne Heart, and ill-fated duo of North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United joined the A-League.
Throw in the arrival of the eight new Big Bash League franchises, a re-re-re-return of the Sydney Kings to the NBL and a rejigged trans-Tasman ANZ Championship in netball, and that’s a lot of new sport.
Now is the perfect time to look at what works and, perhaps more obviously, what doesn’t.
Beware strangers bearing gifts
Or, more specifically, beware Clive Palmer. A man who has no interest in football, the Gold Coast, or the A-League was allowed to control an A-League football team on the Gold Coast.
We all know the disaster that occurred next. Crowds locked out. Controversies and personal battles between Clive Palmer versus anyone who did him wrong, including the league itself. This is a lesson the AFL had already learnt when Christopher Skase bankrolled the Brisbane Bears and used it as his own plaything.
There is nothing wrong with private ownership – Harold Mitchell at the Rebels, for instance – but they should only be allowed to have control with the purest of intentions, and with a plan set in so the organisation could survive if (and when) the owner left.
Location, Location, Location
The first factor in regard to location is, obviously, where the team will represent. The AFL and A-League’s move into Western Sydney was a must – a large, diverse, expanding population with no other nearby sport besides rugby league.
The move to the Gold Coast by the A-League, AFL, and even rugby league before that has been a lot tougher. Perhaps because even though the population is growing, the clubs are competing with a beach, good weather and great nightlife.
The writer may be about to be mauled by an entire state, but it is hard to see Tasmania garnering any sports team, and would be a poor choice to expand to. Why? The huge costs to update the facilities, compared with the relatively small population, means there will be limited gains.
What about the AFL? Well, they already control the state, and wouldn’t gain any new supporters from putting a team there.
Home is where the Heart is (as well as the Victory, Storm and Rebels)
The old saying, “build it and they will come,” should add, “as long as the food is good, the seats are comfortable, there aren’t massive queues at the dunnies and the viewing is worth the price of admission.”
It needs to check ease of access and public transport facilities, quality seating and viewing (including big screens), good food, beverage and toilet facilities, and great atmosphere.
AAMI Park is home to two of the more recent clubs in the Melbourne Rebels and Melbourne Heart, as well as the already established Storm and Victory. It has excellent facilities, easy access and great viewing from all areas in the ground.
Conversely Dairy Farmers stadium, home to the NRL North Queensland Cowboys and formerly North Queensland Fury, has some serious issues with public transport and ageing facilities. It is being replaced by a new stadium, to be located in the middle of Townsville.
If you were a neutral going to watch a new team, it wouldn’t take much to put you off, so the stadium really needs to be up to scratch.
Brand new toys
The branding of a new team is everything. Branding encompasses the name, colours, designs, even the culture of a team – anything that defines the organisation. It has to really engage the community, relate to them, and make the masses want to be part of what is going on.
The Melbourne Rebels have done this really well. The Rebels really embraced and pushed the fact that they were doing something different in Melbourne. They also pushed strongly their relation to the Eureka rebellion, which includes the five stars on the tops, and nicknaming AAMI Park the “Stockade”, all making the club feel distinctively Victorian.
The Western Sydney Wanderers also did well, especially in a short amount of time, in quickly engaging the community by very shrewdly taking the name of the Australia’s first registered club, which came from the area, and using community forums to let supporters choose aspects like name and colours.
Even though I don’t like the name GWS Giants, the colours of black, white, and orange are obviously aimed at the west Sydney tradesmen, who wear those colours daily as their safety gear.
Wellington Phoenix? Rising from the ashes of New Zealand Knights – nice.
On the other hand, North Queensland Fury and all the Big Bash League franchises are (or were) named and coloured like something I would pull out for a university assignment where I was creating a dodgeball league.
Gold Coast Suns and United are a tad boring.
Melbourne Heart, well, it’s hard to know. They are Victory’s rivals, mostly because they are in the same town. Maybe when they define themselves a bit more, they might be more of a CBD team (the Heart of the city) as opposed to suburban Victory. They really need Kevin Muscat to sledge John Aloisi or some event like that to separate them a bit.
Put up the marquee
A marquee player is a good thing. They can get a new club a load of publicity for the signing, as well as bring supporters through the gates to watch them play.
I would argue the Biggest Bash League is solely running on big names. This writer tunes in to watch Shane Warne, not because he is devoted to his beloved Melbourne pop tarts or whatever it is.
Same with Gary Ablett at Gold Coast Suns, Stirling Mortlock when he went to the Rebels, Shinji Ono at WSW, Ronnie Fowler at Fury, even back to Dwight Yorke at Sydney FC, the list goes on.
Get down to the grassroots
I mentioned this in my first article on the Roar, but sport really does need to think wider than the playing field, to bring more importance and relevance to the club in regards to being an important part of the community.
As much as the AFL wanted media coverage from Israel Falou, visiting a school or charity low key and then letting word-of-mouth spread is a longer lasting and more penetrative piece of marketing than a 30 second news story that will be forgotten the next morning.
It makes people feel like they have a stake in the club, and the club is part of their lives.
Just keep rollin’
Firstly, I apologise for the Limp Bizkit quote, but it is a fact. A new club is under more pressure not only to gain fans but to keep them. GWS signed Tom Scully not on his current, but his future ability. It gives the fans a reason to stick around. North Queenland Fury definitely lacked a bit of that.
A better example is perhaps Western Force in Super Rugby – they have yet to make any sort of impact anywhere, and are starting to lose relevance.
So there you have it – the expansion present. I am looking forward to finding out what we learn in the future!