Saturday, September 06, 2008

AFL v A-League: Trade Practices Act anyone?

The AFL is Australia's most successful and commercial sport. It has been steadily grinding other sports into the dust over the last 30 years. The next 20 years will see whether rugby league and rugby union can survive the onslaught.

The battles have been played out in the union and league heartlands of Sydney and Brisbane. And in the school yards where AFL's Aus Kick program has used schools to seed primary school children and direct them away from the traditional soccer, union and, particularly, league interests.

League reacted first, synthesising and combining the Queensland and NSW competitions to produce NRL and cement Brisbane as a one team city. The Broncos have long since been the best supported NRL team, the team with the best winning record in the last decade and therefore able to compete head-to-head with the Brisbane Lions. The later introduction of the Lions, following on from the more checkered establishment of the Sydney Swans, was subsidised financially and with player talent by the Victorian club heartland of AFL. The result was three premierships in a row and around a decade without a Victorian club victory. No other sport would tolerate such a price for traditional clubs, but tight central control and the prize of dominating the Australian sporting dollar helped the Victorian clubs take the pain despite some erosion of local support.

Union also reacted, fighting like league against a number of enemies including commercial invaders, forming the international 'super' competition. This move killed off crowd interest in its local clubs. Recent expansion into Western Australia, following wealthy former private school boys and ex-pat South Africans, then over-stretched the Australian talent pool, which killed off Australian clubs as serious contenders. The reaction to this has been to target the rugby league talent pool with mixed results. The route cause is the drain of school boy interest over to AFL.

While school-boy soccer has long been Australia's largest participation sport alongside hockey, soccer's (now football) lack of attraction as a local entertainment sport had kept it off the AFL's radar. Until now.

Now the A-League and AFL have both marked out the Gold Coast as a strategic headland for their sport. Interestingly, both sports missed the first mover advantage as rugby league established the Gold Coast Titans to some considerable success. This time the traditional Victorian AFL clubs had resisted the call of one last sacrifice, as the Kangaroos knocked back offers of major subsidy to make the move and now face oblivion. The wasted time has allowed rugby league to consolidate and the A-League to attracted massive financial support from local billionaire Clive Palmer (how much and how long for will be interesting to see).

The original A-League proposal, to field a team in the current 2008-9 season, was to be known as the Gold Coast Galaxy FC. It was to have, unspecified, links to David Beckham's American MLS team LA Galaxy. I must say I liked this idea a lot. The machinations behind the veto of this franchise bid for the late proposal from Clive Palmer have not been disclosed.

The targeting of the 300,000 population of the Gold Coast by so many sports has been interesting to watch, especially considering the number of potential and unloved fans in Sydney's west. The area has bling. But the lack of crowd success of Sydney FC highlights the problems converting big ideas into full seats. The big plus for the A-League and rugby league is the optimum size of the stadium at 25,000, much more viable than the 50,000 seat Lang Park.

The delays to the AFL package and the opt-out of the Kangaroos, has allowed, or forced, the AFL to play a tactical rather than a strategic strike on the A-League. It has announced that its club will be called the 'Gold Coast Football Club'. The A-League will have 'Gold Coast United Football Club'. Clearly, the AFL intends to trade off GCUFC's bling factor.

Ironically, it may be A-League clubs' ability to survive on $10m per year, as opposed to AFL clubs' requirements for $30m to $40m that could see football victorious in the longer term.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

aah, the battle for the hearts and souls, of australia`s youth ... and their parents cash.

my favourite sport for watching is soccer. for playing, soccer is number 2 (i spent more time with basketball, and more of my friends played basketball, so that is number 1 for me).

there is nothing wrong with different codes competing for participants, but we spend so much time thinking about finding the next harry kewell/nathan buckley that we start to think of children as merely cattle. cattle that can be trained to play sport at the highest level.

we ignore the other side of the equation, which is "what can sports do for communities". if someone out there wants to contribute to kids lives by giving them an outlet for friendship development, skills development, teamwork, learning about success and failure, and all the other great things that you can get from sports participation ... then i am all for it. especially kids in danger of getting caught up in the criminal justice system. the discipline and patience they can learn from sports is a wonderful thing. out in remote Aboriginal communities where everyone is bored, sport gives so much to the community.

the afl is doing all this work trying to get itself out to kids, and i think it is a good thing. i`d love to see soccer do more to reach out (yes, it is the number one participation sport, but why not grow the pie?).