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Has COVID-19 killed off Tasmania’s chance of an AFL team?

Broadening Horizons

Since the VFL turned into the AFL in 1990 following the introductions of the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears to the former VFL in 1987, and the relocation of the Swans to Sydney in 1982, the league has always looked to expand and merge where necessary, in order to maximise profits and potential markets. Throughout the 90s, the AFL added the Adelaide Crows, Fremantle, Port Adelaide and merged Brisbane and Fitzroy into the Brisbane Lions. Not content, the AFL then in the 2010s added in the Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants, looking to tap into what have been conceived as NRL markets.

Expansion was vital to keep the league going in the 90s, in order to allow the league to grow and increase profits, turning it into the profitable machine that it is today, when concerning Australian sports. There was a concern that the former VFL would go defunct, due to a lack of revenue being made and a staleness beset upon the competition, particularly as the game and the competition were only really played in and cared for in Victoria. The VFL/AFL had to grow across the country in order to see it turn into a fully professional league, one with full-time players and sophisticated facilities, that we see now. Effectively, the AFL’s need to expand and grow its empire within Australia were vital to its success as a game and a league.

Though the AFL grew into easily the biggest footballing code in Australia, it still had its fair share of battles and struggles as it looks to continue its upward growth. No longer satisfied with growing just within Australia, the AFL looked overseas, specifically China and New Zealand. New Zealand were the first experiment for overseas interest as the first ever game of AFL played outside of Australia was played in Wellington in 2013, spearheaded by St Kilda whom were the league’s ambassadors to New Zealand. The New Zealand match only was played two more times, before being scrapped following low attendance and overall attention from the Kiwis. Alas, the New Zealand experiment failed.

The AFL then turned its attention to China, opting to play its first game in Shanghai in 2017, before continuing the project in 2018 and 2019. Gil McLachlan defended the decision in 2019, exhibiting confidence that it wasn’t a waste of money and that it’s a market worth exploring for the AFL, as Port Adelaide prepared for their third game in China in three consecutive years. The game was scrapped before the 2020 season began, following the COVID-19 pandemic and it seems unlikely.

A new team in Tassie?

What’s telling about these attempts to go overseas is that the AFL seems more concerned with expansion into overseas markets, instead of keeping it local. As it stands, neither the ACT, NT nor Tassie have a team, and aside from the latter,  they are generally ignored by the AFL except  for special circumstances. It is telling that the country’s biggest sporting league doesn’t have a team, nor a consistent presence, in one of Australia’s states and two of its mainland territories (one of them being the capital). It’s worth asking the question as to if the AFL should solidify its presence in Australia, before bothering with New Zealand or even China.

The 2020 season has also served as a big hindrance to the AFL and whatever plans it may have had for future expansion, due to the logistical and financial nightmare that the pandemic has brought upon the league. Reports have stated that maintaining the hub program for the teams is costing the AFL an estimated $3m per week, which would surely serve as a major roadblock for any plans of expansion for the foreseeable future, resulting from the projected financial losses suffered by the league and its clubs.

All of this does raise the question: will the Kangaroos ever stay in North Melbourne? Given that we know of the situation in Tasmania, it’s a worthy question to ask. After all, North Melbourne have built a strong base in Tasmania. Blundstone Arena has served as a home away from home, often proving a ground that even the best teams struggle to play North on. Their consistent presence in the southern state has also grown its fanbase there, with Ben Brown himself being a Tassie boy also aiding to North’s pulling power in Tassie.

Tasmania itself is due for a team in any new plans for relocation of expansion. Football has been played in Tassie for as long as it’s been around, with teams and clubs forming in Tasmania around the same time as the mainland states and colonies during the 1860s. As far as the battle for footballing code dominance, Tasmania is definitely a ‘footy state’ in the same vein as Victoria or Western Australia, unlike New South Wales and Queensland, whom are more focused on Rugby. The state has also given the game some of its greatest players, including Peter Hudson, Matthew Richardson, Roy Cazaly and Alastair Lynch, owing to its prestigious footy heritage.

As a state, Tasmania could be as viable as any for an AFL team. Population wise, it sits at half a million, which isn’t a lot in terms of numbers, but does show its high density given the small size of the state. For comparison, it’s a third of the population of South Australia, which is a significantly bigger state and is mostly a desert landscape. SA only does feature one major city, Adelaide, which itself already has two AFL teams that have gone on to achieve success. Tasmania’s landscape isn’t desert, and it does serve as a tourist hotspot for a weekend away, which would serve away matchups well for any travelling supporters of the AFL. There are also two major cities that can host teams and matches: Hobart and Launceston, which have already served as interstate bases for Hawthorn and the Kangaroos. Previous bids have been knocked back time and time again by the AFL, with former boss Andrew Demetriou famously stating that, “Tasmanians already watch AFL,” as his reason why their bids have been unsuccessful. Instead, Tasmania has just served as an interstate hub, while the AFL has explored expansion in locations not synonymous with footy.

There is a current bid and an established taskforce for a Tassie bid into the AFL, with the proposed team being the ‘Tasmania Devils’ that is targeted for inclusion in 2025. Tasmania are already being integrated into the Victorian set up, with a presence in the NAB League and NAB League Girls, since 2019 and 2020 respectively. They also hope to be included into the VFL in 2021 or 2022. The usage of Blundstone Arena and The University of Tasmania Stadium have proven successful already, and would continue to do so, however there is a proposed Macquarie Point Stadium in Hobart, which would seat 30,000 at capacity. This would already place it on par with the stadiums in Queensland, while being located in an already established footballing location.

In terms of the supporter numbers for Tasmania, a report from 2019 shows that the state of Tasmania has over 44,000 active participants regarding supporters, which would place Tasmania in a good position for if a team were to be introduced, given that’s a solid number for a new team to launch from. This is also only slightly less than the Northern Territory, another expansion contender. It’s hard to find numbers based on whom each Tasmanian supports, but the general consensus is that the support is predominantly split between Hawthorn and North Melbourne, depending on whether it’s concerning Launceston or Hobart. The question then arises: would these already established supporters stick with their allegiances, or swap over to a new Tasmanian side?

Another consideration is the decline of recent draftees from Tasmania. As aforementioned, Tasmania has often been a breeding ground for some of the AFL’s best players. However, over the past decade this plethora of talent has seen a decline, with only a handful of superstars in the AFL calling Tasmania home. Jeremy Howe, Hugh Greenwood, Jack Riewoldt and Ben Brown are stars in their own right, but given the top heaviness of the Tasmanian cohort in the AFL, it’s concerning how dry the drafting from there has been in the last decade. A new AFL team may improve this, given the money that it would inject into local footy programs and be able to unearth any prospects in the state.

Are North Melbourne Tasmania’s best chance for a team?

Where North Melbourne is concerned, is the question of relocating a club to Tasmania, rather than starting a new team there altogether. For the longest time, North Melbourne have been linked with a move to Tasmania, and things don’t particularly look any different for the foreseeable future. There are specific reasons as to why North Melbourne are always linked with a move to the southern state. As previously mentioned, they already have established a firm and solid base in Hobart, with Blundstone Arena proving a formidable ground for North to strut their stuff, leading to a decently sized fanbase in Tasmania who are proud supporters of the Kangaroos.

On the supporters’ front, North just don’t have the size, finances and membership numbers to compete with other clubs based in the heart of Melbourne. The membership numbers for the AFL in 2020 have recently released, and it makes damning viewing for North Melbourne. As in 2019, North sit at 15th on the membership ladder, ahead of only GWS, Brisbane and Gold Coast – hardly clubs that we expect would hold higher numbers. Though COVID-19 has impacted memberships across the AFL, North have seen a decrease of 8.8% from 2019, which is troubling given their already low numbers in normal circumstances.

North Melbourne have already been connected with a relocation in the past. In 2007, the club came agonisingly close to relocating to the Gold Coast, following some successful wins up at Carrara (now Metricon) Stadium. The AFL gained support in early December from a majority of the North Melbourne board, with a big push coming from the club’s unique shareholder structure to move the club interstate. It took a mammoth effort from diehard members of the club to backdown and remain in North Melbourne. The Kangaroos were scarily close to becoming the first club based in the Gold Coast.

It’s those reasons as to why North Melbourne are always linked to Tassie: their strong base there and the size of the club always rendering it fodder for potential relocation moves.

Expansion or Relocation?

Though, it does beg the question, what is the right option for Tasmania? A new team, or a relocated team? And on top of that, should the AFL expand to 20 teams, or stick with 18 for the time being?

Given that the AFL is going through the COVID crisis, and that GWS and Gold Coast are meant to be long-term projects that requiring more investing to tap into NRL markets, it would be worth perhaps canning any plans to relocate or expand anywhere else for the time being. Although Tasmania have proven worthy of their own AFL team, be it a new one or a relocated one, now is not the time. North Melbourne have fought off relocation before, and though they’ve endured a difficult 2020, it’s the start of a rebuild and something new at the club. As for expanding to a new team in Tasmania, the money just may not be there. COVID has already cost the AFL millions. At the time of the shutdown, Gil McLachlan said this was the biggest financial crisis in the AFL’s history, with the competition on the brink. The fact that they’ve survived and managed to pull of the 2020 season is remarkable, but it may have drained the AFL of any funds or plans to expand further across Australia. Coupled that with the continued planned growth of GWS and the Suns, and it just seems unlikely that the AFL will be able to funnel in more funds and resources into a new club in uncharted territory.

 

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