Friday, December 14, 2007
Musical chairs in the Australian Football League
Like any good Aussie, I like my vegemite, Aussie rules footy and a cold beer. I reacted in shock when I heard back in June from a visiting Australian that crowds of 50 000 have been know to attend soccer league matches in Melbourne. That would certainly make for some culture shock upon my return to Melbourne. If you can see that I don't like the idea of one language dominating the whole world, you can also guess that I don't like the idea of one sport dominating the whole world. Soccer is so mundane and uncreative. I lament the fact the ice hockey is greatly decreasing in popularity in Russia and that young guys can be seen running around playing soccer in the snow. Why are we giving into this world deception in Australia too. Anyway, I take solace in the fact that the A-League only have 7 teams in Australia, and they are too afraid to play in winter because they know they would not get crowds during footy season.
So for now footy is still strong, and the AFL is working hard to keep it that way. The AFL are on a new expansion drive. They can see that Aussie rules is growing in popularity at that the market on the Gold Coast and in Sydney is ready for new teams. I am excited to hear this, and would love to see the AFL keep growing.
It is a tough question to know how many teams can really flourish (not just survive) in the AFL. If Adelaide is taken as an example, it may provide a rough mathematical formula for how many teams a population can support. Adelaide has a population of roughly 1 million people and comfortable supports two AFL teams. But could they support more? The Adelaide Crows have 47 000 members, but have had to cap membership there because Football Park in Adelaide can not hold more than 47 000 people. If there was a larger ground, Adelaide could surely have more members. If there was a third team, they could surely attract members can not get a membership with the Crows. So Adelaide could potentially support 3 or more teams. They do however easily support 2 teams. This is a ratio of roughly 500 000 people to one AFL team. The ratio is similar in Perth. Perth has two AFL teams and a population of roughly 1 million.
If this same formula is applied to Melbourne, how many teams can Melbourne support? Melbourne has a population of 3.7 million people. There are currently 9 AFL teams in Melbourne. At least two of these teams are severely struggling to survive. Melbourne used to have 11 teams. (I am not counting Geelong which has a separate geographical supporter base.) These 11 teams were supported by a then smaller population. As the competition has gone national (the best players from SA and WA always came to Vicotoria in the past) Melbourne has been less capable of supporting so many teams due to a diluted player base. It is my hypothesis that Melbourne can currently only comfortably support 7 teams, at an average of roughly 500 000 people per team. According to these crude calculations, two teams need to leave Melbourne.
The AFL have indicated that they would like to add teams in Sydney and the Gold Coast by 2010 or 2011. They have financially propped up teams in Melbourne for a while now. It would seem logical that the two weakest clubs in Melbourne, (Footscray) Western Bulldogs and (North Melbourne) Kangaroos, should be the teams to relocate. Both clubs dropped their suburb name some time back to broaden their supporter appeal and even to prepare in advance for a possible relocation. They could easily have been the Gold Coast Kangaroos and the Western Bulldogs (but in Sydney instead of Melbourne).
But the Kangaroos recently rejected a $100 million proposal to relocate by 2010 to the Gold Coast. They asked the AFL for an extra 12 months grace in making their decision. But the truth is that (North Melbourne) have been deliberating over a decision to relocate for years. They have flirter with Canberra, Sydney and the Gold Coast. The AFL have seen that the Gold Coast market is ripe and wanted to strike while the iron is hot. But the parochialism in the North Melbourne tribe has got in the way of common sense. They rejected the AFL proposal, and instead now intend to change their name back to North Melbourne again, putting to death any plans to relocate.
Fitzroy were smart to get out while they did. Especially as they avoided a take over (merge) by North Melbourne that would have ended in eventual death of the new merger anyway. In relocating to Brisbane the Fitzroy Lions kept much of their identity. Melbourne based Lions supporters enjoyed three successive premierships in this decade, and will be sure to see more success in the future. They can relax knowing their club will never die. In the game of musical chairs, Fitzroy and South Melbourne are the winners. They got the best pickings for future growth markets in the AFL. They both have steady memberships and large attendances at their games.
In the continued game of musical chairs there are still some potential markets to be filled, but they will never be quite as good as first cab off the rank in Sydney or Brisbane. North Melbourne have missed their chair. I think it is safe to say that North Melbourne's life expectancy is now limited. Their future is either a permanent relegation to the VFL or extinction altogether. Since their members have shown that survival of the North Melbourne name is more important than anything else, they should probably take the opportunity to drop down to the VFL before they do go bankrupt. When a 17th team from the Gold Coast does enter the AFL, they days will be numbered to less than 10 years. (They could go back to being the North Melbourne Shinboners and give up the Kangaroos name for an AFL club.)
Will the Western Bulldogs be stupid enough to miss their opportunity in Sydney. This is yet to be seen. But if they let their hearts rule over their minds, then they too will sink.
I still think that Tasmania and Canberra can host teams in the future. Tasmania has a population of 500 000. If games were split between Hobart and Launceston then most of that population would have the chance to see 5 games a year. But the AFL must first expand further in the bigger cities. This will increase their overall market share. The AFL will become a stronger brand name than the NRL or Rugby Super 14 or the A-League in soccer. When the AFL is clearly the strongest brand in Australia (it is not far from this now) then some of the smaller markets will also be able to support a team.
I am looking forward to an 18 team competition. I don't see how a two conference system could work well though. It would seem illogical to split the Victorian teams into different conferences. But this is a topic for another day.
North Melbourne have been foolish to give up their chance of relocation. The clock is now ticking on their existence. Footscray should not make the same mistake when their chance comes. If the bell comes tolling for St Kilda or Richmond, then neither should they.