“Without Sydney (Swans) being successful, the whole national competition would’ve collapsed.”
That statement was hard to fathom. When I first heard it, I thought the former CEO of the Australian Football League, Ross Oakley, was talking bullshit.
In hindsight, that was an ignorant response, considering I wasn’t even born before South Melbourne’s 1982 reincarnation in Sydney.
Why did I struggle to comprehend these comments from ex-AFL boss?
When you look at the competition now, it’s commercially viable, extremely well publicised, and the fans remain tribal; now connected and plugged in digitally. Speculation, conjecture and general dialogue among supporters are at an all-time high, all thanks to that dreaded mini-computer most of us are now glued to. It’s an obsessive sporting code.
I didn’t grow up in a world of mergers or relocations. I wasn’t accustomed to constant speculation about clubs’ futures, like my father was in the 80s and 90s. I never had to experience that uncertainty of not knowing whether my beloved team would still be around the next year. For those in their mid-30s and younger reading this, it’s hard to fathom.
From the late 90s, when my liking for footy as a child started to become something of a religion, all the way through that millennium era as the competition’s TV deals and publicity began to increase rapidly, the game started to consume me and my school friends.
There was more money for the AFL to throw at beefing up media attention and bigger crowds going through the turnstiles, but for supporters it was about more fandom – our connection to a higher place increasing with every passing season.
Your club claiming a premiership gradually morphed into this utopian experience that every supporter desperately had to capture at some point in time (of course unless you’re a Saints or Demons fan).
I am a Melbourne supporter. But on the whole, as a neutral and lover of the game, I’ve been spoilt.
In a COVID-19 season, clubs have had revenue streams significantly reduced and crowds have been minimal.
On a more personal level, my customary 20-minute train trip to the MCG to yell, scream and revel in the highs, and despair in the lows, with fellow Demons supporters taken away.
However, my beloved club appears to be financially stable for now, as one of the few clubs who have chosen to be not ‘assisted’ by the AFL during this compromised year.
They are joined by Essendon, Collingwood, Adelaide, Hawthorn, West Coast, Richmond and the Western Bulldogs as a financially strong club, who have resisted the temptation to use the AFL as their pseudo bank to prop them up.
That leaves a whopping ten clubs on a drip line to the governing body. It’s a major concern.
At the end of March when the league was shut down indefinitely, CEO Gillon McLachlan voiced his strong commitment that all 18 clubs would emerge from the hiatus.
With significant cost-cutting at club level easing tension. It doesn’t safeguard cash-stricken from preserving their identity, rather it elevates the problem – borrowing more money and debts piling up further.
The AFL will have considerable debts and interest to pay the banks. Their ability to do that will be compounded by News Corp revealing the governing body is spending roughly ten per cent of this season’s revenue on interstate hubs, which equates to $40-50 million.
It’s been well documented McLachlan and co. expect a loss of $400 million this year. In the previous financial year, they registered a profit of $50 million. That’s a big hit.
With the unpredictability of this pandemic, there are no guarantees we will see a return to normality in March for the 2021 season. More financial losses are a distinct reality for the AFL.
That’ll open up the dreaded conversation of mergers or relocations to preserve clubs. Anyone who thinks otherwise, just remember how much the TV deal impacts on the clubs – they had to cut 80 per cent of their staff in March.
Banks are unrelenting and there’ll come a point in time where the AFL will have to be, too. They’ve already had to let go around a third of their own staff. That financial dripline could get thinner.
If we go through another COVID footy year, the struggling clubs will plummet further. That’s a fact.
It’s not me to speculate which clubs might be embroiled in fraught discussions about their future existence, but the Tasmanian opportunity could intensify. Most people pre-coronavirus saw them as the 19th team to enter the competition, however, it could end up being the new 18th team that dilutes or saves a club, depending on how you like to look at it.
“For our industry and game to emerge stronger from this ongoing COVID-19 challenge and the increased uncertainty we face over coming years, we need to significantly change our business model for not only the AFL but the wider football community,” McLachlan read in a statement.
As much as we love our clubs, footy is a business. Anything is possible. Just ask old South Melbourne and Fitzroy supporters.
Listen to No Merger, a four-part docuseries on the failed merger between Melbourne and Hawthorn in 1996.