Trouble at The Cave

by Eric Ellis

THERE’s a place, on Singapore’s Sentosa Island, that Demetriou should induct into the AFL Hall of Fame, a sod in his sacred turf of the competition’s haollowed places, a place Where Magic Happens.

Its my mate Alex’s basement den, The Cave.

We’re drawn – a hard core five of us, Asia lifers all – to The Cave like
junkies most every week for three days on the trot, to watch the footy on
the ABC’s Australia Network on Alex’s big screen. There’s Guru Gus, mad
Sainter and tech titan; Gibbo, advisor to Asia’s plutocrats and another
Linton St tragic; Banker Paddy, a Dockers man who does million-dollar trades
in his spare time; mine host Alex, fund manager and NRL convert to the Swans
who’s topping our tipping comp; and me, humble hack. We used to let Hopey come but that was before 2010 and the Pies, when he became intolerable.

The Millennium Club at Docklands can’t hold a candle to The Cave. Here in
Singapore, there’s always a drayful of ice-cold Crownies – ‘top turn, mate’ – sometimes a feisty red if Asia’s markets have been kind. Villi’s sausage rolls are a staple, and Gibbo’s centimetre-perfect own sossies if the Saints are going well. And tomato sauce, never ‘ketchup,’ but we’ll empty a bottle of chilli sauce to nod to the region. I brought imported tins of dolmades for last year’s replay, contentious for a whitebread fella from Geelong, and they went down well until Gibbo lost his appetite – and the Saints another GF – after Shaw’s smother of St Nick.

McAvaney might call The Cave ‘special.’ And it is, except maybe its not so
special after all. I know of hundreds of Caves around Asia, where expat fans
gather for the great game, to boo the Pies and scowl at Eddie, to marvel at
Pav, at Gazza’s genius (until he went north) and Goodesy and BJ, to drop our
guard, be amongst mates, maybe even re-affirm our essential Australianness. There’s about a century of Asian experience in The Cave but its no less Australian for it.

Long may these myriad Caves last, welcoming to allcomers and converts, except they may not if Kevin Rudd gets his way.

Here’s why. This week this email out of Jakarta lobbed into inboxes around the region.


The future of AFL telecasts to Asia on Australia Network is in Big Trouble. The ABC’s current management rights expire at the end of August and the winner of the next 10 year tender, is yet to be announced by the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade. According to AusNet’s CEO, Bruce Dover, “DFAT has indicated in the associated tender documents that in any case in the future, sports programming on the channel should be limited, as ‘much of the Sports [football] historically shown appeal more to the expatriate community rather than the target audience.’ Consequently, sports programming – be it NRL, rugby or AFL – will be significantly restricted on the channel after August 2011. Objections should be emailed to  The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard at, Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, at;  [email protected], the Australian Embassy Jakarta at [email protected].”

Within minutes it went viral. Suddenly ambassadors, TV execs and politicians’ email addresses were winging around the net. Influential people were engaged to lobby the powerful. The campaign had begun.

Here’s my 20c worth, as a career-long foreign correspondent in Asia, observing Australia and the region’s often fractious relationship with each other. It would be madness if the Australian Network dropped – or restricted, as they prefer to put it – the footy.

Sure, I love watching the Cats and god knows its been fabulous these recent years in The Cave or wherever events have lured me watching them go around. What is it? 86 out of 100 or something? Its been amazing. I’ve been privileged.

But its not about me and my mates, The Cave and all the others caves in the region. Its about the kids of my mates, many of whom are married to Asians – be they Singaporean, Chinese, Malay, Lankan or Pakistani. They tend to produce mixed-race children, who love AusKick (yes, even in Asia), some of whom journeyed to Perth last weekend to display their wares at half-time of the Subiaco derby.

The Oz Network’s CEO, Bruce Dover, knows this better than most. He ran around here in the 80’s as a hack for the old Melbourne Herald – he was best known for reporting for the Barlow-Chambers drug trafficker hangings in Malaysia before marrying a Vietnamese and taking Rupert’s coin and repping him fruitlessly in China, writing a kiss-and-tell book about it before he bailed to the ABC.

Dover and the ABC argue its about broadcasting rights, who’ll pay for them and that Auntie can’t afford them on the Oz network. Rudd and the spoilsports at DFAT have said “sports programming on the channel should be limited, as much of the sports [football] historically shown appeal more to the expatriate community rather than the target audience.”

Er, target audience? Let’s think about who they are. Are they the elders of the Chinese Communist Party salivating at the bikinis and shortskirts of Summer Bay, another Oz Network staple? Or the Islamist madmen of the Ngruki pesentran in Solo, Central Java, learning what an Australian looks like by watching McLeod’s Daughters so they can bomb them in Bali?

And what precisely is the message Rudd, allegedly a Brisbane Lions man, cobber, wants to send to the region via the Oz Network? Australia looks like a lot like paradise on the ABC service beamed free into the region. The DFAT-sponsored channel’s signature promo – ‘From Our World To Yours’ – portrays Australia as a land of healthy white people in fashionable locales dining, swimming, sporting and sipping latte affluently with their well-shod families and gleaming teeth. That’s great for attracting tourists from Japan – another war-torn hellhole, not so long ago – but it also looks pretty good on the communal tellies of wartorn Oruzgan and ethnically-riven north-east Sri Lanka. And we wonder why the boats are lining up at Christmas Island.

It might just be, Andrew “$1.25 billion” Demetriou, about your much-desired expansion of the AFL. It’s the inconvenient truth that we are the odd man in the region, a pre-dominantly white and Western land in an emerging Asia that hasn’t much cared for us in the past. But Australia is here and has a lot of what Asia needs – fresh air, fresh produce, space, freedom and the stuff that keeps the (insert random thrusting Asian nation) boom ticking over, Asia as our new sheep’s back.

And footy. Its not going anywhere and I’ll bet, Andy D, there are more potential AFL aficionados and even franchises in Zhejiang province or Jabotabek (look it up) than in Greater Western Sydney or South Africa. Pauline Hanson look away now but those mixed-race kids running around Subi last week, and their kids after them, are the next generations who’ll secure Australia’s inevitable Eurasian future, the one where we become the world’s most culturally distinct – and richest – nation, a place where instead of Ellis, Gibson, Rombola, Hill and McDougall in The Cave of 2040, there’ll be Lee, Herianto, Jamaluddin, Weerasinghe and Smithy cheering on the Kuching, er, Kuchings (look that  up too) over sate. And Crownies too – top turn kawan!

Its supposed to be the best game in the world. Let’s see if its true. Join
the campaign to keep the footy beaming across Asia.

Formerly Fortune and Time Magazine’s regional correspondent, Geelong boy Eric Ellis is a foreign correspondent specialising in Asia.


  1. johnharms says

    I’m with you on this Eric. And not just because I am in concert with all Caves. I have argued against an expansionist mindset, if it means grass roots footy suffers across Australia. But this seems different to me. Can you just clarify who pays what to whom to secure the rights. And what the AFL’s role might be in all of this? And where the final decision is made?

  2. John, the Oz Network management itself has presented the issues it sees as facing it, in respect of the NRL, which I believe are not that dissimilar to the AFL. The letter was posted here I struggle to see what value would be placed on the AFL broadcast rights in Asia. The broadcasts themselves now struggle to get any ads – its been pretty much solely a financial and mortgage services company aimed at Oz expats so far as I have ever seen, padded by internal house ads for the Oz network programming, and maybe the occassional Qantas. Duly, if it boils down to paying for broadcast rights, as Dover claims (that seems a cop-out to me), there would seem to be an opportunity for the AFL to maintain the broadcast by subsidising the Oz Network to keep footy on air in Asia, which would corner the long term promotional opportunities in the region that Demetriou et al believe lies down the track, per the AFL’s international expansion mantra. If the DFAT squareheads get hold of the Oz Network agenda, I forsee English lessons squeezed between Oz propaganda, uber alles.

  3. Typical lack of foresight from so many angles here.

    How many of the target audience does DFAT think they are actually reaching? If the intention of the Aus network is to inform people about our culture then the football is the best example of the multicultural country we have.

    In Abu Dhabi, we have 2 games a weekend, maybe 3 if there is a Monday or Tuesday game. Whereas there is every NRL game, (despite there being absolutely no presence here) and every Super 15 game. While I can understand the Rugby, (there is the same number of teams in the Middle East as there are Aussie Rules teams), it beggars belief that there is so little AFL available on TV here. Given the effort put into the Adelaide vs Collingwood NAB Cup game a few years back, and the apparent success of it amongst the local community.

    Surely the AFL windfall would cover the continuance of this service in order to maintain the ‘seepage’ into the global sphere???

  4. More importantly, how are the Falcons going? I played very badly for them in Sharjah a couple years back..

  5. I havent had the pleasure of visiting the cave in person, but would love an invitation, however as the main sponsor for the AFL Broadcast on Aust Network for the last 5 years, I am very personally involved in this matter.
    I think it is a disgrace that it is even contemplated to be stopped never mind that they are seriuosly looking at it. Do we not forget what happened last time it was axed, we had nothing!
    It is not just expats that watch, but even if it was is that a bad thing? Arent we important enough? aren’t we individual Amabssadors promoting the merit of our great country. C’mon give us a break and leave well enough alone for once!
    Our company, SMATS Group, contributes a pretty penny to help Aust Network afford the footy, if you want to help us keep it go and sign in on our online Petition at
    Lets hope we have the footy for years to come and keep building the sports popularity and comradery in the region. We”ll even let Kevin get a kick every now and again.

  6. Bit worried about that trip over to Santosa, and the ‘Cave’ on the cable Eric.

    Been on it once some time ago and spent an hour and a half dangling a hundred metres above a concrete block. Next thing I read that one of the cars had hit the deck. Uuurrrgghh.

    I learned at an early age that SE Asia was there, was big and we were part of it. Cultural (not selective) exchange is the way to go. Hope the polies work it out.

  7. Dave Nadel says

    It is probably a low priority, but apart from the “target audience” and the expats there are also rather a lot of Aussie tourists in Asia. In 2008 I spent ten days in Vietnam touring with my family. Several of the hotels that we stayed in had Oz TV. Between the afternoon sightseeing and the evening restaurant I manged to watch AFL games on two occasions. I wouldn’t have wanted to watch more than that since I was over there to see Vietnam not the MCG and Subiaco but it is nice for Aussie travellers.

  8. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says

    Good on yer Steve Douglas!

    We really appreciate your financial support for AFL telecasts in Asia and the Middle East.

    You know it makes sense…

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