With the inception of the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1990 as the Victorian Football League (VFL) officially embraced a national league, Victoria’s remaining ten teams have been joined by two teams each from Western Australia (WA), South Australia (SA), New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland.
While the northern states of NSW and Queensland have won AFL premierships through Brisbane (2001-2003) and Sydney (2005 and 2012), as have West Coast (1992, 1994, 2006 and 2018), Adelaide (1997-1998) and Port Adelaide (2004), this article will elaborate on why WA and SA are the only states with a strong passion for AFL that rivals the Victorian clubs.
By emphasising the importance of a longstanding and strong Australian rules football culture in WA and SA, this article will then argue why Tasmania should also have an AFL team.
Adelaide and Perth, as the sole major cities of SA and WA, have always loved Australian rules football, unlike the northern states of NSW and Queensland where rugby league still has the cultural heart and soul of the most football code fans.
Quite simply, good crowds for Brisbane Lions (on a par with Victoria, SA and WA) only have occurred when the team was going very well, as was the case when their average home crowd was over 33,000 in 2004 and 2005 before declining quickly within a few years as the team stopped making the finals.
Since 2011, and prior to COVID, Brisbane’s home crowds declined rapidly to achieve a home match average above 20,500 just once (2019), a figure below the least popular Victorian sides for that period.
Sydney, on the other hand, have attracted a home crowd average above 30,000 since 1996 in a period where they have made the finals 22 of the 26 years from 1996 to 2019, although Greater Western Sydney (GWS) have a best year crowd average of 13,000 (2017) despite making the finals regularly.
South Australian football, which began in the 1860’s, has a proud Australian rules history.
Prior to the two Adelaide clubs entering the AFL (Adelaide in 1991 and Port Adelaide in 1997), Victorians were made aware of their talents with many SA players becoming household names and VFL club favourites, including Malcolm Blight, Stephen Kernahan, Craig Bradley, John Platten and Mark Williams.
While its crowds never matched the VFL, they were arguably just as good on a per capita basis. In 1967, the SANFL’s ten teams had a record average crowd of around 10,500 (including finals) with a population of just 850,000.
The 12 Melbourne and Geelong teams in the same year averaged 25,000 with a combined population of around 2.7 million
A record grand final crowd of 66,987 also attended the 1976 grand final Sturt versus Port Adelaide played at Football Park with many turned away.
In WA, where Australian rules can be traced back to the 1880s at a time when the press reported growing dissatisfaction with rugby as a spectacle, the popularity of that sport at a club level also peaked around 1967 with an average crowd 10,900 for Perth’s eight teams at a time when it had a population of just 688,000 (1970 data), thus also indicating a high per capita turnout.
The 1981 WAFL grand final was also attended by a record 55,517.
Victorians have long been aware of the prowess of WA football given the talented players that played in the VFL long before West Coast (1987) and Fremantle (1995) joined the VFL/AFL, including Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, Barry Cable, Graham Moss, Ross Glendinning and Maurice Rioli (originally from the Northern Territory).
In 1977, in the first proper State of Origin match, WA inflicted their biggest defeat on a Victorian team (94 points).
In both Adelaide and Perth, the importance of a longstanding Australian rules culture helps to explain why the local derbies have quickly become the most important games for the year with crowds for such matches regularly amongst their highest for the season.
In 2022, with AFL crowds down when compared to 2019 prior to COVID, the biggest crowd at the Adelaide Oval after 12 rounds was 39,000 when Adelaide defeated Port Adelaide by four points.
In contrast, local derbies in Sydney (Sydney versus Greater Western Sydney) and South East Queensland (Brisbane versus the Gold Coast) have much less local interest with the bigger crowds evident against Victorian clubs.
So why not give Tasmania, with its strong Australian rules history since the 1860s when the first clubs were formed, the AFL’s 19th AFL license?
Victoria has long celebrated the many great VFL players that came from Tasmania, which include Darrel Baldock, Ian Stewart, Peter Hudson, Royce Hart, Michael Roach, Matthew Richardson and Jack Riewoldt.
On 24 June 1990, playing before a crowd of 18,651 spectators at the North Hobart Oval, a Tasmanian team showed their talent by defeating Victoria by 33 points.
While Tasmanian club football has certainly fallen away in recent decades, after the Tasmanian Football League (six teams) averaged a 5000 crowd in 1967 at a time when its state population was around 380,000, its history shows that it can support a local team with reasonable crowds.
Recent AFL crowds in Tasmania watching Victorian teams have been better than some existing AFL clubs at certain venues.
In 2019, Hawthorn and North Melbourne hosted four games each at Launceston (York Park) and Hobart (Bellerive Oval) averaging 14,000 and 9900, while Ballarat’s Eureka Stadium only averaged 9300 when hosting the Western Bulldogs twice, Carrara averaged 11,800 for the Gold Coast Suns, and the Sydney Showground averaged 12,400 for the GWS Giants.
In 2022, GWS have attracted very poor crowds below 6000 on two occasions, while Gold Coast have attracted less than 9000 three times.
There is no reason why a Tasmanian team cannot regularly attract 15,000 to watch a home team, having previously achieved an attendance record of 24,968 in the 1979 TFL grand final between Glenorchy and Clarence at North Hobart Oval, especially in line with past reports that AFL clubs also have 90,000 Tasmanian members who support various Victorian clubs.
This is regardless of whether Tasmanians agree to build a new stadium with a current estimate of a proposed $750 million roofed stadium.
Tasmania’s 2022 entry into the National Basketball League with the Tasmanian JackJumpers has seen regular home crowds of just below 5000, so I would be surprised if a Tasmanian AFL team cannot draw good crowds given it now has a statewide population of over 540,000 with all Tasmanian cities not that far from each other.
The AFL should change tack, having already ventured into NSW and Queensland (two of three most populated states) because of the financial incentives, which has delivered mixed success given the poor support levels of GWS and the Gold Coast Suns.
While there is no doubt that the Tasmanian Liberal government (backed by Labor and the Greens) will have to make the bid attractive to the AFL club, currently with an offer to spend $150 million over ten years, I hope that they recognise Tasmania’s historical contribution to Australian rules and ongoing love of the sport to grant Tasmania the 19th AFL club license when they decide in August 2022.