There’s something rotten on the Apple Isle, namely the parlous situation of AFL football.
The state of the game in the traditional AFL heartland has been in steady decline for a number of a years, most evident in the fact that only one player – Fremantle’s Hugh Dixon – has been drafted from the state in the last two years.
However, the situation reached its most critical juncture on Tuesday when it was announced that the Burnie Dockers were withdrawing from the TSL – the Tasmanian State League competition – due to lack of numbers. Nearby Devonport also recently announced it was leaving the competition due to similar pressures.
Compounding this is the release of figures today which show that the AFL has increased its financial support for the struggling Gold Coast by $5.5 million to $25 million for the financial year. Of course, there isn’t a casual link between this and the state of Tassie football, but, indirectly, it speaks volumes.
For years, one of the AFL’s arguments against establishing a team in Tassie has been that the state is unable to financially support a team. There may be some truth to this argument, given the current state of Tasmania’s economy; but I’d pose the question of whether Gold Coast would be able to financially sustain a team if it was not supported by the AFL.
I’d wager that it could not. If the AFL was prepared to support a team in Tasmania to the same extent that it does the Gold Coast, then the financial issues become moot.
Fairfax journalist Michael Gleeson wrote a piece on this issue a few days ago, and raises the interesting and under-recognised point that the economic downturn in Tasmania has led to a large population decrease as people leave the state in search of job opportunities on the mainland.
By extension, this has left Tassie depleted in player numbers, which has in turn led to Burnie and Devonport folding, and the state unable to financially support its teams. The broader point that Gleeson makes, however, is that it will take time for the recent increase in the number of participants at grassroots level to filter through to the top echelons of the sport.
If afforded the time and financial support needed to grow, this argument makes a good case that football in Tasmania could be resurrected.
Financial assistance to football in Tasmania could also do wonders for its under 18 competition, providing solid development pathways for young players. With Burnie’s withdrawal from the competition, around 15 academy players have been left without a club.
The Tassie Mariners, the state’s under-18 team, competes only in the state competition, and is no longer part of the TAC Cup competition, which means that development pathways for aspiring AFL footballers are in short supply.
The main issue at play here is not one of finances, but of the AFL’s insatiable appetite for expansion. If the AFL wanted there to be a team in Tassie, it would have been done by now.
Instead, they are content to bail out Gold Coast, in a non-football market where it’s seeming unlikely that the game will become the dominant presence, at the expense of assisting one of the game’s football heartlands. The AFL’s public messaging on football in Tasmania has been conflicting – consider this from AFL CEO Gil McLachlan this week.
“We will continue to invest down there, we have a really clear plan for Tasmania. You can look at this through different lenses and that’s certainly how we see it.”
Reading that, I come away confused. The only ‘really clear plan’ I can see is to let Tasmanian football stagnate at the expense of other newer markets.
How does the AFL’s previous public statements that its preference is for a ‘two-team system’ in Tassie – like the current one with North Melbourne and Hawthorn sharing the rights to play games in the state each year – fit with Gil’s most recent comment?
Whatever the plan is, I’ve yet to see anything clear come to fruition. And the second part of that statement, about looking at this situation through ‘different lenses’ – how else can it be looked at? Is this a reference to the fact that the AFL clearly sees itself doing the right thing by football in Tassie, whereas there is public perception that whatever happens in Tassie is clearly motivated by business interests?
Personally, I’m yet to see a clear plan articulated for supporting and developing football in Tasmania, as whatever the AFL has in place currently seems not to be working. If nothing is done soon, we face the very real possibility that Tasmania will become merely a fading memory in the football landscape.