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AFL expansion: where to next?

Roar Guru
27th November, 2013
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7643 Reads

The year is 2023. The AFL is two years off being officially handed the keys to the Docklands Stadium in Melbourne and owning outright a $1 billion asset and money-making machine for the code.

The 18 teams have enjoyed varying levels of success over the past 11 years, none more so than the Suns and Giants who between them amassed four premierships from a total of six grand final appearances (combined).

Gary Ablett Jr was able to retire as a premiership winner and Brownlow Medal winner at two clubs, as well as add a Norm Smith Medal to his personal collection of accolades.

The Giants managed to keep intact their forward line from the drafts of 2011 and 2013, and the three-pronged attack of Boyd, Patton and Cameron has been one of the most damaging the league has ever seen.

Eddie McGuire is still whining that everything is set up to “not allow” Collingwood to win the premiership every year, even though Collingwood now manage to travel outside of Victoria just twice per season.

The plan from the AFL money men is to once again increase the size of the league now that the two new teams are well and truly settled into the AFL.

The above hypothetical scenario is what the AFL would want to happen. They want to see a return on the investment that they have made into the Gold Coast and West Sydney, though I don’t think they want Collingwood to travel only twice a year.

The AFL want everything that comes with success for those new teams: increased sponsorship, increased membership, increased crowds and increased awareness.

Where, then, are the areas that the AFL may consider for any new teams in the future?

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For that discussion we come back to the current day, to consider what locations the AFL may have already identified and the strengths and weaknesses of those respective options.

The following locations will be thoroughly scrutinised and investigated, with all due diligence completed before any official decision is made.

Perth (Population: 1.9 million approx)
A third team from the Western Australia capital and a footymad state would be a no-brainer.

Both the West Coast Eagles and Fremantle will be playing out of the Burswood Stadium with a capacity of 60-65,000. For the AFL, a third team in WA allowing two games a weekend in Perth would be enticing.

The WA government would also be thrilled at the prospect of an additional 11 games at the venue during the AFL season. Guaranteed support from the locals and the local media and a plethora of playing talent make this an attractive option.

North Queensland (Population: 400,000 approx)
The AFL has ensured that one game per season has been played in Cairns since the Suns debuted in 2011, and that continues again in 2014.

The team could be predominately based out of Cairns and play three or four home games in Townsville as it will be representative of the whole region.

The top end of Queensland and the south-east corner will be serviced by full-time team, ensuring an additional 11 games in the state.

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Canberra (Population: 412,000 approx)
The nation’s capital has been hosting three Giants games a year since their inception in 2012, with the deal expiring in 2022.

Would Canberra be ready to add an AFL team alongside the Brumbies and Raiders?

Population will be a key factor but so will proximity to key markets such as Sydney and Melbourne.

Northern Territory (Population: 235,200 approx)
The team could be based in Darwin and play out of a redeveloped TIO Stadium. There’s also the possibility of playing two games a year at Alice Springs as once again this team is representative of the entire Northern Territory, not just the Top End.

There are two games scheduled for NT in 2014, with Darwin and Alice Springs to host one each.

The population of Darwin will be one of the key factors that drive any decision on a team here, as will the incredibly hot weather. A positive on the weather front is that at least it is dry season throughout the AFL season.

Tasmania (Population: 512,200 approx)
A lot has been written about the great divide between the south and the north in the Apple Isle. Would the lure of a full-time AFL team representing the state be enough to bring the two areas together in compromise, playing half the home games in Hobart and half in Launceston?

If not, I guess that Hawthorn (Launceston) and North Melbourne (Hobart) will continue to play there and reap the rewards.

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A lot is also made of there not being a big enough economy or enough local corporate support for an AFL team. I don’t know if I fully subscribe to this theory only because any corporate backing would not need to necessarily come from Tasmania itself.

Corporate backers would also not necessarily be looking at only the team. Rather, they would be looking at getting exposure in the league.

I think that the above areas are the most likely for the next two new teams, which will be looked at in 10-15 years.

The outside possibilities for expansion after the above areas have either been included or dismissed could possibly include Newcastle, Wollongong/South Coast, the Sunshine Coast, and Wellington.

The biggest decision that the AFL will need to make is how many teams they see as the ideal number for the top tier of the game.

Do they consider relocation of a Melbourne team as an option? Possibly entice a team to base themselves in a new area (say Canberra or NT) while attempting to do what the Swans and to a degree the Lions have and maintain a fanbase in Melbourne?

I doubt whether many fans would accept their team being relocated and only playing away games in Melbourne, even if it ensured the long-term survival of their club.

You cannot add teams continuously and expect the quality of game to be upheld. Australia does not have an endless supply of athletes like the USA, but we do have just as many sports that are played at the professional level.

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The league is set up in a way where, over time, each team will have a legitimate chance of winning the premiership for a few years based on the draft, salary cap and reasonably strict player movement regulations.

In recent years we have seen teams buck the trend for the need to ‘bottom out’ in order to rebuild a competitive side, particularly Geelong, Hawthorn and Sydney.

It is those teams that are leading a new way of innovative thinking on how to remain competitive for an extended period of time, regularly playing finals and giving themselves a shot at multiple premiership glory without the low picks that accompany poor on-field results from the previous year.

To be kept in mind is that the more teams that get added to the competition, the less chance your team has of winning the Premiership.

So where will the next two teams be located? What is the ideal number of teams for the AFL? If there is a relocation to accommodate a specific number of teams, which Melbourne based side will be most closely looked at to move?

And will the current format of the league remain intact with a eight-team finals system, or will the league look to conferences?