Slice of Cheese

AFL’s Negligence Is FFA’s Opportunity

Once again the issue of A-League expansion has reared its head and once again the tantalizing prospect of a team in Tasmania has set tongues wagging.

Naturally the usual lines from the skeptics have been pushed, arguing that Tasmania is an AFL state and that there isn’t enough support for a team to work down here. Well I say those arguments belong firmly in the 1990’s as to quote the great Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’!”

Historically Tasmania has certainly always been an Australian Rules Football state. Whilst our code has come along in leaps and bounds over the years, it has always operated by the reality facing any other sporting code in Tasmania; ultimately you will play second fiddle to the AFL. A quick look at the sports section of your local paper would confirm as much. Even in the height of Summer, its footy yarns that reign supreme.

Yet the administrators of the game have not reciprocated that love and its now obvious that they have taken Tasmania for granted. A cornered market in the AFL’s eyes, their gaze has drifted to new frontiers at the expense of its former heartland. Yet Tasmanian’s are no fools and increasingly over the past few years they have woken up to this reality. The discontent is bubbling to the surface and punters are becoming fed up with the neglect.

Once upon a time when it came to the issue of a Tasmanian side in the AFL; the Tasmanian public was Charlie Brown and the AFL was Lucy with the football.

(Keep your head up Charlie. One day the AFL might give Tasmania a team) 

Now however they have done away with that pretense altogether. A standalone AFL club in Tasmania? Forget about it!

The AFL have clearly demonstrated where their priorities lie. Rather than investing money to support its loyal and long suffering base. They would rather light $25 million on fire each year by chasing the pipe dream of a basing a successful side where sporting franchises go to die; the Gold Coast.

In a week where one of the State’s most storied clubs withdrew from the State League, the AFL was busy showing where it had directed its attention and dollars instead. A Mickey Mouse competition in AFL X, that offers a solution nobody asked for to a problem that doesn’t exist. If there was any lingering uncertainty among the public that Tasmania was little more than an afterthought to the AFL, it was hammered home by the ludicrous image below doing the rounds on Social media at the same time news broke of Burnie stepping out of the State League, leaving no Coastal team in the competition.

Prediction: This Photo will not age well.

Yet the AFL’s negligence is FFA’s big chance! Not all football is dying on the coast and the Devonport Strikers are proof of this. The club is flourishing in the NPL Tasmania and they have developed into somewhat of a powerhouse in the region. Who could forget the 5000+ fans they drew in the torrential rain for their now famous FFA Cup games of 2016 against the Lambton Jaffas and Bentleigh Greens. If a City the size of Devonport can garner that kind of support for two semi professional sides meeting midweek in the middle of a monsoon, don’t tell me an A-League team couldn’t draw the necessary fans to be sustainable in Tasmania!

That magical evening was a neon lit sign of the beautiful game’s massive potential in this state, but in order to grow it further putting an A-League side in the state is a must. Providing a professional team for young fans to engage with and offering a pathway to the A-league that doesn’t involve youngsters having to leave the state in their formative years would do wonders for the game in Tasmania. It would also provide an entry point for casual fans that simply doesn’t exist in Tasmania at the moment.  At a time where we are starting to see Tasmanian’s like Josh Hope and Nathaniel Atkinson breaking into the league, providing an interest that might otherwise have not been there for more casual followers, the time is ripe to convert that interest into fandom.

Monsoonal conditions didn’t keep the fans away from Valley Road- Solstice Photography

The appetite for a professional sporting franchise down here remains as ravenous as ever. Tasmanian’s love their sport and they have been starved of representation in National competitions, looked over time after time. The AFL clearly won’t be the ones to sate that hunger, thus FFA finds itself with the chance to both fill that gap in the market and strike a blow against the AFL in one fell swoop. If living on this island for 26 years has taught me anything, it’s that we’re a rather parochial bunch and a truly Tasmanian side would galvanize that parochialism to produce a loyal following.

Previously there has been one major stumbling block to the prospect of expansion into Tasmania; money. Yet at this moment in time, that most obstructive of barriers is not an issue standing in our way. The consortium of Robert Belteky and Harry Stamoulis stand at the ready, their considerable financial clout is committed to supporting a side down here. The possibility is real, it just needs the green light.  Our code doesn’t have the luxury of a $2.5 Billion dollar TV Rights deal like the AFL does. Money is going to be a stumbling block when it comes to expansions so when you get a chance like this, to look the gift horse in the mouth would be utter madness.

That money isn’t going to be there forever and Tasmania will never be in a better position to have a team. Even if other expansion bids look more commercially appealing as larger potential growth markets, that appeal will still be there for a next wave of expansion. If Tasmania is passed over, we may look back ruefully knowing that we may never have an opportunity like this again.

The political support is also there according to Andrew Wilkie, which could well solve stumbling block number 2. That being the lack of a rectangular stadium. Productive talks have been held between the Consortium with the Hobart City Council and both major political parties but unless there is a team to play out of it, there can be no guarantees when it comes to a new stadium according to Premier Will Hodgman.

What is certain is that the A-League is stagnating. It needs new blood meaning that expansion is an absolute must. Western Sydney Wanderers were a breath of fresh air upon their arrival, but there is a sense of staleness to the competition in its current form. Watching the same match ups over and over is not a great way to sell the product. In 2015’s Whole of Football plan, FFA’s stated goal was for “Football to be the largest and most popular sport in Australia.” Well that is only going to happen if they show the boldness to take the game into new regional markets. FFA CEO David Gallop himself has admitted expansion is required, stating back in 2016.

“Nine teams in Australia is not enough, it’s not enough for us to penetrate the commercial opportunities, it’s not enough to have enough stakeholder penetration, it’s not enough to have market share, it’s not enough for us to properly compete against AFL, rugby league, rugby union and cricket.”

Nearly two years have passed since then and nothing seems to have changed. Certainly the internal problems with FFA have put expansion on the back burner, but the inertia at head office needs to be sorted asap, expansion is imperative for the lifeblood of the game and it is high time the A-League advanced beyond being a 10 team competition.

The time for lip service has passed and the time for action is now. The AFL’s negligence is FFA’s big chance to do what the AFL have not and give Tasmania a professional sporting side to rally around. The time to strike is now and Tasmania stands at the ready.

(Update)- Since the release of this article, FFA have stated they want expansion for the 2019-2020 season. A positive first step, but until they call for bids it remains lip service.

How many more Nathaniel Atkinson’s could be unearthed if Tasmania had its own side? -Solstice Photography