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Divide and diminish: The AFL’s failed decade in Queensland

The Lions have been terrible and the Suns have been worse. (AAP Image/David Crosling)
Roar Guru
12th May, 2018
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In January 2008, a report surfaced in the media that the AFL had quietly registered an organisation called Gold Coast Football Club Ltd with ASIC.

This was publicly acknowledged by the AFL in March 2008 when they won the support of the 16 club presidents to establish a 17th team on the Gold Coast, and an 18th team in Western Sydney.

One of those teams has been a relative success with several finals appearances, and appears to be well established at an excellent ground, with a strong family support base. The other, has been a bit of a disaster, with poor crowds, retention difficulties and have been beset by cultural issues.

Not only that though, but where NSW has seen the Swans continue undiminished and unaffected by the success of their cross-town rival, the Suns’ miserable start has coincided with an even worse slump in the form of the Lions, which has resulted in an entire decade of irrelevance for both AFL teams in Queensland.

No finals – but more than that, not even the prospect of them. A succession of seasons have been dead and buried by May for both teams. So why has this been the case in Queensland? What’s happening here?

In previous articles I’ve talked about free agency, ability to attract off-field staff, demographics and economics. I’ll return to some of those areas later with a few additional points, but right now I want to spend some time talking about the peculiar market that is Queensland, and how I feel the AFL (particularly at the board and executive level) has failed to gain an understanding of what they are grappling with here.

Dayne Zorko

Dayne Zorko of the Lions(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Let’s start with the AFL Commission itself. This is an organisation, that has spent the last few decades riding a dizzying upward roller coaster of crowds, dollars and excitement.

Some have commented in the past that their favourite post-meeting refreshment is a big gulp of their own bathwater. Remarks like this are based on the not unreasonable view the AFL holds, that a big part of the reason for the ongoing success and state of the game they administer, is that their product is incredibly exciting to watch – particularly compared to the alternatives.

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I would contend that in some respects there can be an attitude of smugness about how good the game is – never hubris, nothing like that – certainly a comfortable arrogance though, that at times, manifests itself in Field of Dreamesque delusions about “If you build it they will come”. Delusions like registering a team on the Gold Coast.

A lot of the damage was done based on the timing of the Suns entering the competition. The Lions had just completed a flaming turd of a season in 2010 – they won their first four, then won three games for the rest of the season as the Brendan Fevola experiment exploded in Michael Voss’ face.

With the Suns entering in 2011, there were a lot of Lions supporters who needed little encouragement to jump off what appeared an imminent trainwreck.

Contrast that to GWS. They entered in 2012, the same year the Swans reminded everyone why they’re such a great club by winning the premiership. Oh, and then at the end of next year the Swans signed the best player in the competition from under GWS and the AFL’s noses so he could light up their stadium and put bums on seats.

The contrast in circumstances couldn’t be starker.

On the Lions too, the AFL may not have done much demographic research as otherwise they would have realised a lot of the Lions supporters live quite a long way out of Brisbane. Plenty of them lived on the Gold Coast and used to drive up for games.

A good 10,000 fans disappeared from the Gabba each and every week in 2011 compared to 2010. So far they have not yet returned.

Tom Lynch

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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There’s a lot of myths about Queenslanders being incredibly passionate sports fans. As someone with a pretty good handle on the mood and psyche of your average Queenslander, I’m here to tell you that is absolute crap.

Queenslanders can be very noisy and boisterous, yes – but they are the supporter equivalent of cocaine – briefly elevated during the moment then subside and a headache the next day. The Broncos horde come together like a bunch of yellow and red rhinos every couple of Fridays for their fortnightly rut at Suncorp, they all make a lot of noise and swill a lot of booze and then they all return to their lives the length and breadth of the city.

That’s the limit of a lot of people’s engagement up here. The Lions fans are no different – there’s just fewer of us. People up here want to see a good game and they want to go along knowing there’s a chance their team could win.

Did you know that since start of season 2016, the Lions have only beaten Carlton, Fremantle and the Suns at home? If you want to go back to the last time we beat a side that played finals in September, home or away – North Melbourne, Round 15, 2014. (sorry Josh).

A hell of a lot of games for home supporters to sit through without an upset win. Part of the reason why the Collingwood game was so exhilarating on the weekend was because it was a red hot contest right up to the final minute.

So many games are over by quarter time when you’re a Lions fan, it was refreshing to not have to be in rationalisation mode after 20 minutes. The Suns have claimed a few more scalps – but it’s never led to a series of wins, beyond one of five in 2014.

The Lions haven’t won more than two games in a row since 2013. Years and years of seasons like this kills people interest in the game. It makes them walk away. Maybe they’ll come back when things improve.

So without wins, there’s not much else to fall back on. There’s no real history of sporting engagement at an elite club level up here – the diehards who want to support a club, support their local footy club instead, and play footy with their mates. The only real passion people have up here for a sporting contest, the only time they really get wound up, and know all the details and are prepared to put everything on the line, is when it’s Queensland versus some other bastard state.

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And that, that, is where the AFL killed their golden goose back in 2008. Before then, the Lions were Queensland’s team. Yes, they’d come up from Melbourne, where they were just absolutely shithouse, and there’s no such things as Lions here, but they came up here to Brisbane and we gave them a second home and then we went and won three flags and stuck it right up all those Victorian so-and-sos and wasn’t it great to see Eddie McGuire red and angry on grand final day.

But a few years later the AFL helicoptered in like Allen Stanford with a big bag of money and said no, that’s all changing now. You have to have this new team now. And you lot in Brisbane, you need to have a rivalry with Gold Coast. And vice versa. And everyone up here shrugged their shoulders and said “yeah nah”.

Dayne Beams Brisbane Lions AFL 2017 tall

Dayne Beams of the Lions (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Australians have always had a good nose for bullshit, but Queenslanders pride their snouts on being particularly sensitive, particularly where sport is concerned. They also resent – fiercely – being lectured or hectored or controlled by other states.

This was demonstrated as long ago as 1887 when rugby union won by a single vote, a poll to be the main sport to be taught in Queensland independent schools as voted by their headmasters.

It won, despite having no real presence in Queensland, and up against a well established amateur competition playing VFL rules, primarily because rugby union had formed a new body from Queenslanders to run the game (the Queensland Rugby Union), whereas Victorian Football had undertaken to do no such thing or bestow no such powers on Queenslanders to run the game for themselves.

The majority of headmasters objected on the basis that the reference of ‘Victorian’ in the name of the sport did not represent the interests of Queenslanders. This decision played a huge role in killing off the fledgling Victorian rules football competition that had sprung up in Queensland over the preceding 20 years, and by the time it was resurrected on a semi-pro basis in the 20th century, rugby league had been established for a few decades, and laid permanent claim to the state.

Brett Hodgson is tackled by Gorden Tallis

Brett Hodgson is tackled by Gorden Tallis. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

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Petty, I know. But that’s Queensland and Queenslanders for you. We can be blase about the most sweeping epic events, but work ourselves into an absolute lather or dig our heels in mightily over what, to an outsider, would seem insignificant or unimportant little details.

The AFL has never really understood this – their tin ear for Queensland in general has not been unnoticed up here, even by people with very little interest in the code. Even if they don’t follow the code, everyone up here knows the two AFL teams here are terrible, have been for years, and so they just ignore them.

It should be noted too, this is far from the first instance of high-handedness from the AFL over the years where Queensland is concerned. Look at the Bears’ initial introduction in 1987.

Only reason that happened because the VFL and its constituent clubs were flat broke, and Christopher Skase wasn’t. The merger in 1996? The Bears finished third that season and Voss won his Brownlow – they were going alright. Fitzroy were not.

A merger with North was kyboshed by the VFL interests as they feared a superclub rising from the merger, particularly considering the Roos won the premiership in 1996. So pack them off to Brisbane instead, they won’t go anywhere up there, surely. Plus it’ll give them some fans in Melbourne. Oh and we can get rid of that bad news bears moniker, and we’ll call them the Lions so Fitzroy don’t get upset.

Three flags followed – but the vengeance for that unscripted success has lasted 15 years and is still ongoing. And finally the Suns. Well, the main aim of that game was to get a team into Western Sydney, I think that’s fairly evident.

The Suns were a necessary addition, needed as a 17-team comp was unworkable, and a second Queensland team would facilitate a home game in the state each and every week of the season.

Just don’t ask how many people are watching (or not watching), small details like that will only detract from from the headlines. Crowd numbers are bad enough, but if you want to see something truly scary, you should check out the TV ratings for the Lions and Suns, whose games are broadcast live into Queensland each and every week.

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Routinely fewer than 30,000 people watch it on 7mate in a state of close to five million people.

Speaking of numbers – I hinted at this in an article a few weeks ago about the disparity in where the 180 odd 100+ game players in the AFL ply their trade – but I think it has been clear in the past few years that there isn’t quite enough elite talent in the AFL to guarantee 18 clubs can all be competitive at the same time.

Four clubs in Hawthorn, West Coast, Sydney and Geelong have managed to tread water close to or in the eight for a decade, that has coincided with Brisbane and Gold Coast occupying permanent slots in or around the bottom four.

Tom J Lynch

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Others have come and gone over the course of that decade but by and large they have been the main occupants of the cellar.

Plenty of bad decisions were made in terms of on and off-field personnel – but really, what were the alternatives? And were any of them actually available? Anyone who has had serious coaching nous or was highly rated over the past decade was snapped up by higher profile clubs?

I mean, who would choose to work at the Lions or Suns if you could work elsewhere for roughly the same money (or a bit less)?

When you say Justin Leppitsch or Rod Eade weren’t great options, it’s remiss to not reflect equally, that it was probably an equally low percentage choice of someone else, or nothing. It took AFL funding to get Chris Fagan, Dave Noble and Stuart Dew up here and there’s no guarantee any of them have a magic wand or are going to be able to turn things around.

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Everyone remembers Gary Ablett saying he wanted to win a premiership with the Suns – but I bet no-one remembers a certain infrastructure minister claiming back in 2012 how good it would be to see the Suns and Lions playing in a final against each other in a few years.

That turned out be rather optimistic. Right now I think a few years will be at least a few decades – the chances of one of these sides making the eight consistently is very remote, let alone both somehow making a push up the ladder at the same time.

There’s a giant enduring gulf between these two sides and the rest that routinely gets papered over by prognostications in the media of how it will all come good in a few years.

Originally when I was thinking about this article, I wanted to try and outline a plausible situation whereby the AFL might be able to amalgamate the two Queensland sides and get a team into Tasmania in the desire to do more than just symbolically claim to be Australia’s game.

But I dropped that idea early on – Springfield just got funding for the Lions facilities, and let’s be honest, the AFL isn’t going to retreat from the Gold Coast, not while the Titans are still there.

They’re going to stick with two teams up here, I realise that. And hypotheticals aren’t my favourite thing. Finally for them to go back to one team up here in the name of consolidation there’d need to have been a huge drop-off in interest and money in the game to necessitate it, which is not something I want to see just for the sake of a single Queensland side.

So, how can they make these two teams work?

One issue I see is with the names and choice of locations. By basing two teams in Brisbane and the Gold Coast they’ve immediately anaesthetised everyone west of Ipswich and north of Gympie from giving a stuff about the competition.

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Queensland is a huge sprawling decentralised state, far more so than any other in Australia, with large cities and vocal populations outside the SE corner. Brisbane is obviously Brisbane, nothing will change there. They’ll stay the Lions.

For me, it’s the Suns – they’re still a blank enough canvas they could reshape them a bit. If the Suns could perhaps be transformed into a sort of Greater Queensland side, rather than anchored solely on the Gold Coast, and actually played more than a token game in Cairns – say also one in Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton, perhaps that would go some way towards building some more interest and show the good people of Queensland the AFL is putting their money where their mouth is.

Regional airport construction is increasing in Queensland – perhaps the AFL could get on board with Virgin and a few accommodation providers and put together some well priced packages for North and Western Queenslanders to come to the Coast for games. If enough people in say Charters Towers wanna come down for the game and can fill a plane, the more who come, the cheaper it is for all.

By playing a few more games in North Queensland the AFL could also ask by default some questions of the North Queensland Cowboys, who don’t play much outside of Townsville.

If pre-season games could be staged in somewhere like Mount Isa, Longreach, Emerald – well, anyways, there’s a lot more they could be doing to actively encourage interest in the state in some of the more diverse markets, rather than just looking like they’re only after the easy money and flashing lights on the Coast.

The current strategy though, and one I suspect the Suns will persist with, is to keep squatting on the Gold Coast, keep battling on, and rather like the North Queensland Cowboys, hope that their early decade of losses and poor culture is rewarded with their Johnathan Thurston equivalent showing up alongside a couple of elite young Queensland players they can build their club around.

Sometime in the 2020s there might be a tram all the way to Metricon so if they’re still afloat by then that’s got to be worth an extra couple of thousand a game.

The Commonwealth games did two unwelcome things for them this year – it ruined their traditional July game in Cairns by it being played in March in a cyclone, and it meant they set a ‘home’ crowd in Perth against Fremantle they’re never going to break in the next 100 years.

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Like most sporting outfits on the Coast, they’re turning into a bit of a bad joke. Alright, I’m being a bit cynical but when the growth has got to come from within to get these clubs going, well – I’m damned if I’m seeing it.

Tom Lynch Gold Coast Suns AFL 2017

Tom Lynch of the Gold Coast Suns (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

Part of the issue is the players Queensland attracts via the trade table. Sure there’s the odd diamond in the rough – hello Charlie, hello Jarryd – but by and large, we get players who, if they do come here from other clubs, probably didn’t have an alternative (unless they’re from Queensland originally).

What you get with these players is someone who knows they’re close to the drop in terms of their AFL career, and naturally they want to stay in the game. So you wind up with a very professional AFL player, who does all the right things – but who also has a bit of a safety first mentality.

They don’t like to take big risks because they don’t want to be risk making huge blunders. A succession of blunders can lead to an axing. I’m not saying it’s a retirement home or a booze cruise, they don’t last long at all if they do that – more, that we get a few long term employee in the office types, who do everything right and do a pretty good job – but rarely show any initiative or desire for change in how they approach their own game.

That, I think is an understated issue as to why the Lions and Suns have shown no real desire to win at times, and why, when the teams have been doing badly within games, the midfields have turned a bit every man for themselves as players look to impress to avoid the coming chop next week.

The other part is that we lack teachers who know what it takes to make and play in finals to imprint the necessary standards on young players coming through. A whole generation of Lions and Suns knows nothing of what that is like.

Dayne Beams and Michael Barlow have both done yeoman service at the Lions and Suns in recent years to try and redress this, but the young players at both clubs are showing for me what is a disconcerting lack of development, relative to what other clubs are getting out of their young players.

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Footballing knowledge among the couple hundred or so players in AFL is an ongoing biological hive mind that is passed on down through generations of players orally, physically, mentally, demonstrably. There are some things that a player will only learn out in the middle of the field, far from any coaches or assistant about himself and his fellow men, some things that would relate to experiencing profound levels of physical and mental stress beyond the knowledge of relatively few humans.

And yet sometimes we simply trust that every young footballer is going to be able to handle, process and deal with these experiences in the long run and it will all work out.

I have little faith that the young players coming through the Lions and Suns are going to grow to higher standards of mental and physical discipline and determination than young players from interstate clubs with immeasurably more passion, support and knowledge to draw from in and around their clubs, and certainly far more chance of developing the ingrained hunger and desire to win that truly marks elite AFL players from the rest.

I don’t see the situation in Queensland changing any time soon.

The two sides will continue to be hamstrung by having to share local talent they both desperately need. They will continue to be unable to attract free agents that have the option of playing anywhere else, this has been amply demonstrated to be the case in the past and will undoubtedly continue.

A perfect example was Matthew Kennedy last year – I’ve had it confirmed from multiple sources that the Lions had a contract in front of him that was substantially more money than what Carlton was offering, and they were offering pick 18 which GWS wanted. But Kennedy point blank refused to be traded anywhere except Melbourne.

He took less money at Carlton and GWS got pick 28 instead of 18. I cast no judgment on this outcome and simply provide it as an illustration of the sort of obstacles we are up against.

But it’s not just players. Unless the AFL continues to take responsibility for helping fund quality off-field staff with the salaries needed to get them here, both clubs will struggle to keep up with best practices in bigger, higher profile clubs.

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They’re both going to have to cross their fingers and hope like hell a glut of excellent young players come through the academy system over coming years, and hope like hell some of these players they’ve picked up and already re-signed develop into everything they promised to be when they were drafted.

They’re also going to have do this while warding off attacks from interstate clubs at trade time. Plenty of high end talent was lured out of Queensland in recent years, and you can bet that will start up again if the Lions and Suns don’t progress like people are hoping.

Come 2020-2021 those contracts we convinced all our kids to extend early on through the Hodge factor will be coming up for renewal. I don’t think it’s a sure thing they’re all going to sign up again, not if the situation remains moribund and unpromising.

It’s a long uphill slog for these two clubs, and they’re going to have to not just get a lot better themselves – but a lot of other clubs are going to have to get a lot worse as well. And who from the 14 or so teams in finals consideration at the start of 2018 is going to regress to the point where the Lions or Suns could start beating them regularly, even with improvement? Maybe one or two? C

an anyone see these teams leapfrogging a good ten teams on the ladder in the next few years? And then finally – even if either club somehow makes the eight in the next few years, what chance do you give them of going through all that again, but hungrier, and wanting it more? I don’t see it. I will bet money the next time a Queensland side makes the eight they won’t make it next season.

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Quite simply, a lot of things are going to have to go right. Historically they haven’t. And I’ve seen little in recent years to convince me that state of affairs is going to change anytime soon.

These two clubs are the equivalent of the low income unskilled worker in any economic model, who is held in place by forces beyond their control, regardless of their individual effort or commitment. The interesting part now is how long the AFL waits before admitting that they’ve still got a problem up here and make another intervention.

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I rather suspect it’s going to take three to four years of Fagan and Dew not making finals or coming close before they get to that stage. Now that’s a depressing prospect. Seems as good a point as any to end on.