General Footy Writing: It would gladden my heart to see an AFL club in western Sydney

I am a major advocate for an AFL team in western Sydney. I believe that it will ultimately be very successful – but it will take a long time and a concerted effort by the AFL and its fellow travellers to make it work.

I’ve been involved in the promotion and development of football in NSW for 35 years, coaching kids’ teams in Sydney, coaching and umpiring schoolboy teams in the bush, helping to form new clubs on the north coast, playing all over the state, writing about it, presenting media shows , serving on various administrative bodies including local leagues, the NSW-AFL, and the old National Football League, and generally just engendering passion and enthusiasm for the game in others. It just gladdens my heart to see the tremendous progress of the game in the state.

And I’m not alone; there are thousands of others who share my passion for the game throughout NSW. The Sydney Swans are firmly established. They have a strong groundswell of support, but their support base is essentially in the eastern suburbs and on the North Shore. The missing link is western Sydney.

I wrote the story below that was posted on fellow Almanacker Les Everitt’s Australian Rules website on 11 September 2008 in the wake of the controversy over the poor attendance at the AFL elimination final between the Sydney Swans and North Melbourne at the Olympic Stadium. Thanks to Les for allowing it to be reproduced here.

Full assault on the western front: The case for a team in Western Sydney

About 82,000 fans packed into to the Olympic Stadium at Homebush to witness a local derby between the Sydney Swans and Western Sydney is the  aim of the AFL by 2030. I’d like to see that!

A clash between the ‘silvertail-Swans’ and the ‘fibro-westies’ has all the hallmarks to rival the now traditional clashes between Melbourne and  Collingwood, Adelaide and Port Adelaide, and West Coast v Fremantle.

The rivalry will not necessarily be pre-fabricated because it’s a social/cultural divide that already exists at other levels and in other sports.

The poor crowd attendance at the AFL elimination final between the Sydney Swans and North Melbourne at the Olympic Stadium might suggest Sydney is still not ready for a second team, but at least there’s a base to build on.

“It will be a long and challenging journey. However, by 2030 a sustainable Western Sydney team will be core to the success of the national competition”, according to AFL NSW general manager Dale Holmes.

Just as making the game national in the 1980s gave the code much needed impetus, so will the addition of teams from the Gold Coast and Western Sydney. It will shore up the market and ensure the game’s continued growth, and therein its survival.

It will almost certainly be a harder slog than simply relocating South Melbourne to Sydney and the remnants of Fitzroy to Brisbane; in fact, both are start-ups in non-totally football environments just like the Brisbane Bears were in 1987. The football world learnt a great deal from that experience and so it seems have the game’s custodians.

When North Melbourne turned down a $100 million over to relocate to the Gold Coast late last year they actually created a major strategic opportunity for the AFL to expand to 18 clubs and to establish national league clubs in the fastest growing regions in the country.

While the football community was quick to embrace the Gold Coast move it has been much more sceptical about Western Sydney. The critics claim that there is not enough support for AFL football in Sydney and that there is not enough passion for the game.

The argument for a Western Sydney team is compelling on purely rational grounds; it’s big already and it’s growing; depending where you draw the boundaries, it has a population of anywhere between 2 and 2.5 million, which makes it a bigger than Adelaide, Perth and well ahead of Canberra and Tasmania, and on a par with south-east Queensland.

It will undoubtedly have the capacity to generate the sponsorship and membership levels necessary for a competitive AFL club of $20 to $25 million.

Perhaps most crucially, new teams in Western Sydney and on the Gold Coast will underpin the AFL’s quest to maintain, if not increase, the revenue from television rights for the game when the rights are next negotiated in 2011.

Unlike the Gold Coast the Western Sydney team has a ready-made stadium at Homebush. In fact according to media reports in July 2008 the AFL made an offer of $200 million to buy the stadium. Clearly, they are not going to fill it for every home game; it is believed that in the early years most games will be played at the new Showgrounds and also in the Olympic Park precinct.

AFL attendances at home and away matches at the Homebush stadium have gone down to an average of 45,480 in 2008 after 63, 000 last season, but it should be acknowledged that the Swans’ indifferent form as well as that of opposition teams Essendon and the West Coast have impacted on attendances.

Research shows that many of the people attending matches at Homebush are from western Sydney, particularly through sales of the three-game passes to Swans games – up from 2500 in 2006 to nearly 11,000 this season of which 50% were purchased by fans in western Sydney.

A key factor providing confidence for the sustainability of a Western Sydney team is the support of local government, principally the City of Blacktown. Mayor Leo Kelly has been vociferous in his support for an AFL team in his region and has committed council funding to the redevelopment of the Olympic baseball site located on the M7 as a training and administrative base.

It will take sustained effort and money to establish the game in western Sydney, but the consequences of not doing so will just leave fertile ground for the game’s competitors. Currently, there are four NRL clubs in the region; there is no A-League soccer team and no Super 14 rugby union franchise. The latter two codes also have plans to establish a presence there.

The establishment of AFL clubs in western Sydney and on the Gold Coast will strengthen the game’s position as the No. 1 football code in the country.

Without them that position could be in jeopardy – by 2030.

Comments

  1. You’re right Rod!

    The critics of the move – those blokes sipping lattes in North Fitzroy & lamenting the passing of the Roy Boys that have never been further north than the end of Bell St have got to move on!

    It almost seems that like the late Jack Hamilton they would like to still have a competition domiciled in Melbourne with all games played on a Saturday afternoon and the teams wearing black shorts for home games and white away.

    The game has moved on – its a national competition – and it is a competition! The gloves are now off between the AFL and the NRL – rugby league has probably never been more vulnerable. The rugby league can’t find their way out of a hotel corridor…

    The time to do it is now while the AFL has the resources to fund it and resource the growth.

    Bring it on!

  2. Neil Belford says:

    Rod – Victorians are funny. They resent NSW and this is manifested in all sorts of ways. The arguments that have been fabricated against a team in western Sydney are laughable and somehow desperate. Half the Melbourne teams in the AFL are on life support – which is dished out in all sorts of covert ways, as well as the overt ones.

    Recently North Melbourne played Melbourne on a Sunday afternoon at Docklands. 16,000 people came. You never have to argue the case for attendances in Sydney again – this single stat highlights the rotten core of the AFL and why it has to expand to survive.

  3. With all due respect Rod, your dream regarding the spread of AFL throughout the western regions of Sydney will remain that. True there are small pockets of the area where Aussie Rules is played, but when you consider the overall population, the numbers are non existent. The only way the game has appeared to have spread is through some schools adopting the Auskick program as their sports day. As soon as the program is over, hardly any of the kids are interested in taking it to the next level. AFL in Melbourne is indeed a religion and attracts ground attendances that League and the other codes in Sydney can only dream of obtaining, however Victorians forget that the Rugby League supporters, even though not as parochial as their southern counterparts, are just as passionate as them. I don’t know whether you were aware that the AFL supportive Blacktown Council came within a handful of votes from being turfed out because of their stance. For what it’s worth the sitting AFL members in the Gold Coast lost their seats because of the money being wasted on what will be seen to be a worthless investment. Shortly after the NSW government wisely decided not to waste Taxpayers money on developing a white elephant at the Showgrounds, a poll was taken in the Blacktown region to determine what the locals regarded as football. 90% answered Rugby League, while only 2 people answered AFL and one of those was a visitor from Adelaide. The most successful team of the last decade is the Brisbane Lions by far, yet the club is a basket case with ever dwindling ground attendances and a non existent TV audience. Even worse is the Swans, that groundswell of support you credit them with has obviously passed by unoticed by the majority of Sydneysiders. They too are suffering from almost a complete lack of interest as their ground attendances are falling and you may not have noticed the live telecast of their game against the Pies attracted only 50,000 odd viewers. Where does that leave the wild west….. 95% League, Union and Tiddlywinks, with only 5% playing Aussie Rules in parts of the Hills district. Good luck mate, you’re going to need it.

  4. OOPS, Sorry! Previous post should read ALP Members in the Gold Coast, not AFL.

  5. Tiger Tom says:

    Not sure if Trev is a Labor bloke or a League man – probably both, who also enjoys a schooner, but these figures look rubbery to me.

  6. Rod Gillett says:

    The news that a Western Sydney team will play in next year’s TAC Under 18 competition is another positive move that will garner support in the area for a footy team ahead of the entry of the senior club into the AFL competition in 2012. Apparently the Gold Coast model has been deemed successful in this regard and will provide the basis for the Western Sydney Under 18 team.

    Currently there are just over 50 boys on scholarships with AFL clubs in NSW, with most of them located in Sydney. The talent is there and the Queensland model developed by Mark Browning of identifying talented kids in other sports like new Swans forward Jessie White (basketball) and Tom Williams (rugby) of the Western Bulldogs and introducing them to our game is also being followed. It was Browning that spotted star Gold Coast signing Karmichael Hunt playing footy at Churchie in the GPS schools’ competition.

    A case in point is Jarrod Witts – a member of the Firsts in cricket and rugby at Barker College who was introduced to footy through the schools’ competition where he was spotted by Collingwood’s Sydney talent manager Rocket Carter. Witts, a Magpies scholarship holder, now plays for Sydney Uni in the Under 18’s competition. The Witts family live in north-west Sydney -part of the western Sydney catchment area.

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