Five Reasons Footy Should Stay In Cairns

The recent AFL premiership match in Far North Queensland attracted a crowd of just under 9500 fans and curious spectators.  The figure was lower than anticipated (hoping for between 10-12 thousand or more) and made it another year where attendances dropped – though not significantly.


Over coming months the AFL decision makers in Melbourne will chat with their people in Cairns to thrash out whether or not Cairns deserves to hold another AFL match. Since 2010 the Gold Coast Suns have come to the northern city. They started in 2010 in a VFL fixture against the Essendon affiliate the Bendigo Bombers, then from 2011-2013 they played the Richmond Tigers before 2014-15 saw the Western Bulldogs come to town. Will there be more?


Both teams made commitments to that effect whilst in town last week, stating their desire to return. But that might not be enough. At the end of the day the decision may be made purely on number-crunching, but the following reasons should be considered also. Here are five reasons why there is more to this than just numbers.


Meeting The People:

The past few years have seen a cavalcade of stars and former stars arriving in Cairns and making themselves available to the local football community. This year saw Western Bulldogs players again heading to local junior clubs for meet and greet sessions as well as joining in with training.


Last year at my own club, Jordan Roughead, Lachie Hunter and Liam Picken joined in with a handballing match. What a thrill it was for the kids to receive a handpass from an AFL star and then score a goal. This year, big Will Minson worked one on one with a local junior player practicing snap shots at goal. Other local junior clubs would have similar stories to tell above and beyond the photo sessions, selfies and autographs.


But there were other opportunities.


In the past couple of years I have been able to interview Kevin Sheedy and Malcolm Blight for stories. Young Bulldog player Jason Johannisen gave an interview this year. Other local newspapers, television stations, radio stations and freelance writers have had their own media opportunities. I have had long private chats with Luke Beveridge and Guy McKenna – not for stories but to help me as a coach at my local club. There have been press conferences, coaching seminars, corporate and community luncheons and open training sessions for kids and fans to see their heroes close up and more. Bit by bit the AFL world is moving deeper into the collective psyche of the Cairns community. The mere fact that junior numbers are still growing at a great rate is due in part to this proximity to the greatness connected to the game. To grow the game further this connection must continue or risk stagnating against other powerful local codes.


Impact On Local Kids:


The curtain raiser to this game was a local representative affair between a Cairns All Stars team and the Cairns based Gold Coast Suns Academy team. It was a showcase of the best local talent. The young players from my own club were excited and delighted to wear the Suns’ or Bulldog’s colours in a bid to maybe catch an eye, or just revel in the achievement.


The half time NAB Auskick games saw young kids from all local junior teams grace the field in front of the biggest crowd they might ever perform in front of. It was all kicks and giggles, but a day they will not forget.


The two girl’s school teams from Gordonvale and Freshwater played the middle field for their 15 minutes of “fame” in from of almost 10,000 appreciative footy fans. The report back from the girls was how much the just loved the experience. If they were not footy converts prior to the match, they certainly are now.


The crowds in Cairns were once littered with a motley collection of sportswear, with as many rugby league jumpers as AFL. But now there are kids everywhere wearing Suns, Dogs and most other team’s colours.  Suns jumpers proudly boast Gary Ablett’s number “9” on the back. He has been so well marketed locally as the iconic image of the game in Cairns that most kids know him. That is a huge coup in a city which is still heavily rugby league.


This interest will continue to boost local footy growth for years to come – provided it stays.


Development Of The Game In The North:


Prior to the Suns arriving in town in 2010 there had been a variety of pre-season Wizard Cup, NAB Cup or similar matches played in town. At various times the Geelong Cats, Melbourne Demons, North Melbourne Kangaroos, Brisbane Lions, Port Adelaide Power and St Kilda Saints have also played in Cairns. That is nine of the 18 AFL clubs – half of them – that have visited the city to play.


Since the Gold Coast Suns arrived, all three Richmond games from 2011-13 attracted over ten thousand fans. Both Western Bulldogs games have been just below that figure. That would suggest that there is a solid permanent base of followers, many of them kids. The correlation between crowd figures and junior club numbers is probably unmeasurable, but it could well be argued that the consistent attendances are reflected in a continued uptake of the game locally – naturally, really, as nothing advertises better than direct exposure to the product.


It is also no coincidence that more and more local players are making it to the “big time” AFL. The top end of the pyramid is seeing the very highest quality players produced locally which has huge advantages. Local kids now have local players to idolise and local feats to aspire to, all of which raises the interest and the standard of the local game at junior, and by extension senior, level.


Capitalise On Talent:


Currrently the AFL playing lists boast some serious locally produced talent. Jarrod Harbrow at the Gold Coast Suns is an ex-Cairns player playing for both the Manunda Hawks and South Cairns Cutters. Team mate, Charlie Dixon, is also a local having played for Redlynch (now Cairns City Lions). Essendon star, Courtney Dempsey is another Cairns player who started at Manunda Hawks – I coached him at training twice as a junior when his own coach was late…taught him all he knows!


In recent seasons Cairns players have been on AFL club lists more frequently. Rex Liddy (North Cairns Tigers) and Lewis Moss (Port Douglas Crocs) were both Gold Coast Suns recruits. Peter Yagmoor (Cairns City Lions) played for Collingwood and Sam Michael (Manunda Hawks) for the Brisbane Lions. There is a growing talent pool locally that is being tapped in conjunction with the higher Cairns exposure.


Local junior lists are brimming with more talent. Players have already been absorbed into the Gold Coast Suns Academy programs, playing with local teams in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast. Some have headed to Melbourne and are playing local representative football – one lad was recently picked in the VAFA Under 19’s team. He and another ex-Cairns lad both played for the Laguntas – a Richmond linked indigenous representative team. The talent level is increasing and the Gold Coast Suns and Western Bulldogs are in a great position to capitalise.


Watch this space as more Cairns kids reach the highest level in coming years.


Cairns Showcase:


There are few AFL grounds which boast the natural scenic backdrop to Cazalys, not to mention the incredible scenic and cultural attractions of the surrounding region. Reef, Rainforest, Outback. These, combined with the game which is arguably Australia’s premier football code, should be a match made in heaven.


The Cairns economy is certainly boosted by the arrival of the AFL caravan each year through hotel bookings, car hire, dining, day trips, transport companies and more. There is no doubt that the once a year game is a positive economical bonus for the city and region.


But the AFL could also benefit further, dovetailing with Cairns to promote their game both nationally and internationally. The images of our national game juxtaposed with photos of the Great Barrier Reef, the heritage listed Daintree rainforest, Atherton Tablelands, Cape York Peninsula, Mission Beach would simply have to attract potential visitor’s attention. Gary Ablett taking a screamer over Fitzroy Island would probably look crass and exploitative, but tasteful joint advertising could be a massive bonus for the AFL in expanding their game to newer markets.


There are many more reasons why footy should stay in Cairns. These are just some of the arguments. Hopefully the local AFL people can work closely with the southern bosses to map out a long term blueprint for success.


But as it stands there is plenty of compelling evidence to support a sustainable future for AFL premierships matches in Cairns…and they don’t all involve money.

About Wesley Hull

Passionate lover of Australian Rules football. Have played and coached the game and now spend my time writing about the game I love and introducing young people to the game through school coaching. Will try and give back to the game what it has given me for more that 40 years.


  1. Pamela Sherpa says

    I certainly hope AFL footy stays in Cairns . I’ve experienced footy at Cazaly’s twice and enjoyed every minute of it . The atmosphere is unique . I loved speaking to footy followers up there who came from all parts of the country but had made FNQ their home and kept their footy passion alive. Fantastic place for footy and a winter warm up!

  2. When one thinks of Cairns and footy codes – League, Union, soccer/football or Aussie Rules – its Aussie Rule one thinks of first. Enough said I reckon.

  3. Wesley,
    I’d be very surprised if the AFL knocked Cairns on the head.
    It is invaluable PR and a great experience for the kids.
    And that’s what it is all about.
    Getting the kids hooked on AFL and fostering their talent and enjoyment.
    It’s great you’ve been able to interview those legends too, and the current players.

  4. Well put Wes. We went up for 5 days this year and had a ball. The fact the dogs were victorious helped.
    But it’s a great place to visit in the middle of a Melbourne winter. Great to see plenty of kids there and the backdrop at the ground is spectacular.
    However the main 3 omens that the dogs should continue to play there are:

    Cairns was settled in 1876; the same year of the formation of the earliest Footscray side.

    Cairns High School has on the side of its main building in very large writing “Home of the Mighty Bulldogs” with a bulldog caricature.

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