Almanac Footy: C’mon the Darwin Dingoes or the Canberra Capitals? – Who will be the AFL’s 20th team?

C’mon the Darwin Dingoes or the Canberra Capitals? Who will be the AFL’s 20th team?


By Tim Harcourt*


Now that the Tasmania Devils have finally secured the 19th licence in the Australian Football League, (AFL), who is going to win the 20th? After all, then AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan North Hobart Oval when announcing Tasmania as the 19th club did say the competition would eventually return to an even number of teams. This means either an expansion to 20 teams, or a reduction to 18 through a merger or relocation, which has historically been painful and political for players, administrators and the fans.


Merger, expansion or relocation is always tricky. Mergers either end up in tears, or a takeover, or do not happen at all (like Hawthorn-Melbourne or Fitzroy-Footscray). Very few mergers work. Woodville-West Torrens in South Australia is probably an exception to the rule. Relocations are also hard even if eventually successful. The struggling South Melbourne Swans moving to Sydney to form a very successful club. It is a good story but it wasn’t always. The Swans took years to get Sydney to want to them (and South Melbourne fans to forgive them) and there was financial pain for the AFL and its predecessor, the Victorian Football League (VFL), along the way. The Brisbane Bears-Fitzroy merger to form the Brisbane Lions was again a success, eventually without considerable pain. In fact, 10 years before, Fitzroy were going to relocate anyway but eventually had to go through a messy merger process with North Melbourne, which failed in favour of the Brisbane Bears.


The difficulty with mergers and relocations has seen the AFL mainly go for expansion. With WA and SA teams added from footy heartland, as well as Tasmania. Expansion has also occurred in regions on the other side of the so-called ‘Barassi line’ that splits Australia between AFL and Rugby League.


The Barassi line was created by Australian historian Ian Turner that traced the divide between Australian Rules football and rugby (league and union) on the Australian continent. Named after the great Aussie rules champion Ron Barassi, Turner drew a line based on the River Murray border separating New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria up to the Gulf of Carpentaria where Queensland meets the Northern Territory (NT). Generally speaking, anyone south or west of the Barassi line played Aussie rules and anyone north and east rugby league or rugby union. The line holds up when looking at fan interest (google searches and the like).


After the relocation of the Swans to Sydney, and Lions to Brisbane, the AFL got brave and formed two clubs from scratch on the wrong side of the Barassi line, Gold Coast Suns (2011) and Greater Western Sydney Giants (GWS). The results have been mixed. The Giants have been great on field with a pool of talent. When AFL legend Kevin Sheedy took up coaching the Giants in his foundation year, he told me that he would “play the kids” rather than spending big money on a recruit like Gary Ablett junior at the Gold Coast. His predictions came true. The GWS had a good young squad that got thrashed initially then gelled as team as they matured and have been regular finals contenders. Off the field they have struggle to get good crowd numbers, although they have boosted their membership through the Canberra experiment of playing 3 home games a season in the nation’s capital. The Suns, however have struggled on and off the field, and Gary Ablett went back to Geelong, having not played a single final for Gold Coast.


The latest expansion by the AFL, to Tasmania, has been a safer bet in terms of territory. After all, Tasmania is footy heartland and the new club, the Devils, already have over 170,000 foundation members (and counting) with the first bounce still some 4 years away. There are no footy missionaries needed in the Apple Isle, the pace is rusted on Aussie rules.


With Tasmania the 19th, team who will be the 20th?


Some of the likely candidates are the Darwin Dingoes (or Crocodiles or Buffaloes) and the Canberra Capitals. And other suggestions have been made on both sides of the Barassi line. For example, Kevin Sheedy has cheekily suggested Newcastle (well in the heart of rugby league) and other suggestions have included Sunshine Coast, Central Coast and even Cairns in Far North Queensland (maybe jointly with Darwin as a team for Northern Australia?).


And on the right side of the Barassi line there’s been suggestions of a team in Regional Victoria like Ballarat or Bendigo, or a 3rd team in Western Australia, based in Joondalup or Mandurah, or a 3rd team from South Australia (SA) with the famous club, SA 3rd team Norwood being the obvious choice.


Off shore, some left field choices like New Zealand and USA have been thrown up perhaps with varying degrees of seriousness. The Los Angeles Crocodiles were once mooted by Victorian Football League (VFL) boss Ross Oakley – believe it or not – in the 1980s, but this fizzled out almost straight after the Hollywood press conference.


But importantly, Oakley did set a rule of thumb for expansion (as cited most recently by Sports Data analyst Dan Hansen) that for locations south west of the Barassi line in footy heartland, a population of 500,00 is required and north east, a population of 1.5 to 2 million people and a good 20-25 years of investment.


At the moment, if there are to be 20 teams (the AFL could decide on 18 but that would also involve some pain) I think the final spot will be between the Darwin Dingoes and the Canberra Capitals


Darwin is the sentimental favourite, as it would make it truly a national competition. After all, NT has produced so many great players like the Rioli family Michael Long, Andrew McLeod, Nathan Buckley David Kantilla and Michael Graham in SANFL. It could be a team based in Darwin, with a few games in Alice Springs (and even potentially Cairns as a team for Northern Australia).


However, the sentimental favourite will have to overcome the hurdles of a low population, unsuitable climate, and the economics of a new stadium or renovation of the TIO ground.


That is why the NT government has set up a taskforce co-chaired by NT Sports Minister Kate Worden and experienced football administrator Peter Jackson, formerly of Essendon and Melbourne.


The next cab of the rank is Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Canberra has been trying to get into the VFL (and AFL) since 1981.


Canberra was originally more of an Aussie Rules town than the rugby codes before the Canberra Raiders and ACT Brumbies took a foothold. This is because when Canberra was founded many public servants were from Melbourne and took their favourite footy code with them when the capital was moved from Melbourne to Canberra. Whilst the population small but growing, surrounding areas of southern NSW are strong on Aussie Rules. Moreover, Canberra has its own great Aussie Rules names – like James Hird and Alex Jesaulenko (you beauty).


The main obstacle to a new team in Canberra is that the GWS Giants have already put their flag down in the ACT, with 3 home games a year plus an academy and a growing membership base. It would be tough for the AFL to take the ACT off the Giants after all the work they have done. The Giants also get good crowds in Canberra.


Assuming Tasmania is the 19th team, some scenarios have been mooted, such as:


  1. Add Darwin NT as 20th team (Canberra keep the Giants 3 games a year)
  2. Add Darwin NT as 20th team and move Giants to Canberra
  3. Add Canberra as 20th team (Darwin NT misses out)
  4. Move GC to NT and add Canberra
  5. Move North Melbourne to GC (take over Suns franchise) and add Darwin NT and Canberra
  6. Move North Melbourne to GC and move Giants to Canberra and add Darwin NT
  7. Move North Melbourne to GC and reduce the league to 18 teams.


Of all the permutations and combinations, I think the AFL will go with Scenario 1. This avoids the pain of relocation, and why should North Melbourne put up with a merger or relocation whilst the AFL is subsidizing expansion clubs and the AFLW? After all, North Melbourne has been a progressive and innovative club, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, with its clever use of the 10-year rule and the innovation of Friday night games at the MCG.


Although, I suspect it will be 10 years off (giving the Tasmania Devils a chance to consolidate as the 19th team) I think the Darwin Dingoes will be added, playing a few games in Alice Springs and possibly Cairns as the ‘team for Northern Australia).Canberra will host the Giants three times a year, sharing with Western Sydney. Having teams play a few games at an alternative home ground is now commonplace so the Darwin Dingoes playing part time in Alice Springs, GWS Giants in Canberra, and Hobart based Tasmania Devils playing 3-4 games in Launceston is a good compromise.


If this scenario 1 takes hold, Australian Rules Football will have at least one team in every Australian state and territory and will be a true national competition.



*Professor Tim Harcourt is industry professor and chief economist at the Centre for Sport, Business and Society (CSBS), University of Technology Sydney. 



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  1. Adam Muyt says

    Fair bit on this very topic covered here just a fortnight ago.

  2. Would it be conceivable for Tassie to get a second team as has happened in every other state. But I guess the demographics say no.

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