So, once again there’s no joy for Tasmania in its quest for AFL inclusion. Not that Tuesday’s anti-climactic announcement in Hobart came as a surprise.
The official release made reference to an AFL link only in a commitment to provide “opportunity for Tasmanian’s (sic) participating in the game to have the best possible chance to be drafted into the AFL and AFLW”.
Ignoring the errant apostrophe for a moment, this merely promises more of the state’s players to the AFL: the competition from which Tassie is excluded.
As for the apostrophe, it’s a Freudian slip which speaks eloquently of a parent body that never had enough time for the smallest member of its family. Seems picky? Well, if this was a release considered genuinely important, it would have been sub-edited to within an inch of its life.
In expanding to 18 teams almost a decade ago, the AFL painted itself into a corner and Tassie out of the script. And there’s no immediate way out, or in.
As a result, the league continues to obfuscate, hoping the Tasmanian problem will go away as it always has done in the past. This time, though, there’s no certainty it will. The anger of Tasmanians has been building, and now their hopes have been deflated.
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One notable change brought about by their long-time football isolation is that Tasmanians have begun asserting themselves. No longer are they accepting of their treatment, or of the sense that they don’t really belong, or that they aren’t good enough.
They’re finding voice, to the point where even the state’s two major ‘dailies’, Hobart’s Mercury and Launceston’s Examiner, are discovering common ground.
While the journal of the north will continue to champion Hawthorn’s involvement at their end of the state – a point of community pride given the Hawks’ achievements of recent years – there’s now recognition that Tasmanians are entitled to aspire to a higher form a football life.
The Mercury, meanwhile, has been campaigning hard on behalf of the state’s AFL aspiration. Despite these being tough times for newspapers, words on paper still pack punch in shaping public opinion. Particularly on emotive issues like football. And like a state feeling overlooked and rejected. And like the people being treated with disregard.
In offering a renewal of Tasmania’s involvement in the TAC Cup and the VFL, the AFL has merely thrown crumbs. It is selling its new blueprint on the basis that it invites unity from the state’s footy fans. Yet, clearly, it will have no such impact. There is nothing in this package for Tasmanian football fans.
It could even be argued that it reduces the game’s value for those in Tasmania who want to go to well-attended games or follow a local team’s fortunes each week.
With the very best of the state’s talent being drafted, the best juniors being placed in a re-born TAC Cup Mariners team, and the best seniors playing VFL, the state league will function without the top three layers of talent. The idea that this could make for a better local football environment, one sufficiently vibrant to carry the state into the AFL, defies logic.
So, if the state league doesn’t do it for fans, might possible inclusion of a state team in the VFL sprinkle the magic dust? Well, ask yourself this: is the chance of seeing your state demeaned to the point of playing in Victoria’s state league, effectively AFL seconds, likely to be a source of uplift and unity?
In a practical sense, only half the games would be played in Tasmania and to have any unifying effect these would need to be shared between north, south, and perhaps even north west. So, who would regularly drive 2-3 hours to watch second-tier games? The likelihood of this sparking the critical mass of interest to somehow re-invigorate Tasmanian football is perilously close to zero.
What the AFL turns a convenient blind eye to in delivering such a blueprint is that it’s the thrill of being part of big crowds, whether unified or divided in their loyalties, that makes spectator sport what it is. Only a Tasmanian AFL team can provide this for the state. The people instinctively know it. And they know when they’re being conned.
Tuesday’s package is quintessential AFL. It does nothing that challenges itself. It seeks to make itself appear as a benefactor. And it does it all under the cover of a committee composed of names designed to buffer its findings from criticism.
Nick Riewoldt, Chris Fagan, and Brendon Bolton have all spoken passionately of their belief that Tasmania should have a team in the AFL. Yet, now they’ve had their authority put to a plan which offers little or nothing. What’s more, it’s setting up their state to fail.
While wanting to resist the temptation to be instinctively negative, the only unity I see coming from this is that it will galvanise Tasmanians to even greater anger.