One Giant leap for the AFL

As the AFL launches its 2012 season with a not-so-blockbuster in Sydney, it's worth considering the increasingly complex and fine line the league draws between publicity and preservation.

The official AFL 2012 home and away season is with us but it’s hard to believe it is only the beginning. With the NAB Cup seemingly publicised more each year and with news having filtered through from the clubs since they began training about five months ago, you could be forgiven for thinking we were well into the season.

This year the AFL made the decision to split the opening round rather unevenly across two weeks, in a bid to kick-start interest in its latest creation, the Greater Western Sydney Giants. In stark contrast to last year, when Queensland newbies the Gold Coast Suns were given a bye in round one, the AFL is pitting the Sydney Swans against their new cross-town rivals in a standalone, prime-time Saturday night game, with the rest of the round to begin towards the end of next week.

The move ensures the nation’s entire cohort of primed footy followers only has one game to watch; a game which, because of its almost inevitable lopsidedness in the Swans favour, would not have gained much interest from the public, or single free to air broadcaster Channel Seven, had it been competing with other blockbuster games in the first round.

As the AFL has moved to open up new markets in the last few years by starting two new teams in Australia’s NRL heartland states, the league’s focus on marketing dollars and just dollars in general has grown ever stronger. The AFL has successfully converted two high-profile rugby league players, Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau, into the faces of its newest concoctions and topped up their player salaries to somewhere around the million-dollar mark in return for the promotion of the game in AFL wastelands.

Folau may have picked up a few Richmond players and dumped them unceremoniously into the turf last weekend, but after he took Hunt’s place in a Swisse commercial, running along the waterfront, bouncing a footy with the Sydney Opera House in the background, as well as being front and centre in Giants team photos, it's clear he would probably have to have killed somebody before being disallowed from running out onto ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.

This in some way highlights the increasingly polarised views on what methods of development are in the best interests of the game.

In its evolution from an amateur game where players still had day jobs to a highly professional sport, it has always been a balancing act between the traditions that make AFL great and the need to keep it abreast of the times. The relocation, folding, merging and creation of teams have often been at the centre of the sometimes-heated debate on how best to protect and grow the national game.

It is hard, for example, for avid footy followers to forget the images of Hawthorn great Don Scott in 1996, as he passionately tore strips off a mock Melbourne-Hawthorn jumper at an extraordinary meeting – a move which ultimately came to symbolise the end of a proposed merger.

In contrast, the same year, there was the image of a lone Fitzroy supporter slowly running a lap of Subiaco Oval, flying a ‘farewell Fitzroy’ flag after the financially struggling club with a 113-year history was belted by Fremantle; a team in only its second year and the second Western Australian club in a nationally expanding competition. Fitzroy went on to merge with the Brisbane Bears to create a side that in less than ten years’ time won three flags in a row to become one of the most successful of the modern era.

While many Fitzroy supporters would disagree, it appears that on balance the AFL, or at least those with political clout around the game, got it right on all counts. But the link between finance and football doesn’t only account for the on-field performance of a club.

Tracking the VFL’s transformation into a national competition, it was South Melbourne’s move to Sydney in the early 1980s that signalled the first shift outside Victoria, with the West Coast Eagles being the first club started from scratch. Of the six teams that were added after those two, one state was always left out, despite pushing very hard for its own team – Tasmania.

Last week The Age published a story that shed light on the apple isle's failed push in 2008 to win the rights to the 18th team licence. Leading economist Paul Eslake, who was part of the steering committee in the most recent campaign, said in the article that despite meeting all of the AFL’s criteria, no amount of economic rationale was going to change the course of events.

The AFL has clearly looked at the numbers and decided that, long-term, it is more economically viable to pioneer hostile, rugged rugby country, giving New South Wales its second team, than to reward a football friendly state that is crying out for its first.

One likely explanation for this relates to the tricky fact that while the AFL itself is a not-for-profit, other parties inextricably tied to the success of the game most certainly want to make whopping profits.

One only need look at the AFL’s most recent record $1 billion broadcast rights deal, which was split between Foxtel, Austar and Seven with Telstra getting the rights to the live streaming of games, to see just how much cash there is to be made from the game.

As the money gets bigger so do the demands for player pay and club subsidies. Some argue that, since struggling clubs are already being kept afloat by the AFL, it does not make sense to start new clubs in tough markets such as GWS which is being propped with $16 million.

Geelong Football Club chief executive officer Brian Cook was quoted on afl.com.au in the last couple of days saying the new clubs may never grow to be financially sustainable, and he expressed concerns that, once again, existing Victorian clubs could be in strife. But GWS chief executive Dave Matthews hit back saying the AFL targeted Greater Western Sydney because it was an up and coming area with a growing population and that its need for support would wind back over time.

GWS only has membership of a tick over 7,000 at this stage, so it will be a slow process for a team that is almost certain to struggle with its on-field performance during its first few years.

The formation of the Suns and Giants has earned the ire of many football purists, with the draft seriously compromised for a number of years as the start-ups are gifted the rights to the best young football talent in the country at the expense of other clubs who could desperately do with top ups to their player stocks. On top of that, Folau recently admitted that if it wasn’t for the big bucks, which help him support his family, he would still be playing NRL.

As the AFL does away with tradition this weekend, and Fox and Seven air a battle between Swans and Giants, it will be worth pondering the direction of the game as the AFL continues to walk the fine line between prudence, promotion and preservation.