The Australian Football League differs from the Victorian Football League in that rather than seeking to consolidate a local, state league as the premier competition of Australian rules football, the AFL seeks to broaden the game’s popularity, participation and fandom. This has an impact on the game’s culture and the kind of teams that are formed. Are the teams clubs with a connection to community, or, are they just artificial franchises set up and run by the AFL?
Australian rules in the mid to late 1980s was at a low point: low crowds and suburban football grounds were in poor condition – on the field and in the stands alike. Curiously, so was football (soccer) in England: which was blighted by stadium disasters, rioting and poor attendance. Just as the First Division was turned into the English Premier League, the Victorian Football League became the Australian Football League. Both transformations involved a dislocation and enforced amnesia of football traditions and practices.
The ‘visionary’ Kevin Sheedy
The AFL era, however, is marked by the founding of clubs introduced and validated by the League itself. West Coast Eagles in Perth, Adelaide Crows in Adelaide – at the initial expense of Port Adelaide – and of course the failed Brisbane Bears. Western Australia and South Australia were indeed already ‘footy states’, but their traditional fans had to be attracted to a new club that went beyond mere state loyalties. The arrival of secondary teams – Fremantle Dockers and Port Adelaide would test the resolve of the early adopters of the Eagles and the Crows.
From the Victorian side of the fence, fans felt that suddenly their local, suburban teams were up against State teams. With the weekly appearance of teams representing WA, SA and Queensland, it is little wonder that State of Origin football soon fell by the wayside. Traditional VFL clubs came up against the AFL creations. This is the reality of football as we now know it. The AFL asserts that if we want the competition to remain healthy – i.e. to stave off competition from football (‘soccer’) – we need expansion.
Yet, these early formations of ‘interstate’ teams playing in the expanded VFL now known as the AFL, seem boutique and wholly integrated into their community in contrast to the two project clubs of the Australian Football League. The Gold Coast Suns (debut season: 2011) and the GWS Giants (debut season: 2012) are representative of the AFL’s efforts at dominating the Australian sporting landscape. Their participation in the League compromises a fair sense of competition with the existing clubs, as well as compromising the value of sports clubs that are contributors to society and are representative of the communities from which they emerge.
The Australian Football League is in an intense contest with the other main football code, Association Football, to reach and secure the market of Western Sydney. This is despite that ‘soccer’ in Australia is a summer sport and the fact that many fans watch, attend and enjoy both soccer and Australian rules. The Australian Football League’s conviction is that for GWS to be successful in the long-term in Western Sydney, it needs to have early success. And thus, the GWS has been handed a series of concessions, privileges and bonuses to ensure that the team not only wins frequently, but is almost guaranteed to be the best. Many experts regard it as a fait accompli that GWS will be not only premiers, but will be able to back up premiership success with further premiership success.
The Bulldogs’ victory over GWS in one of last year’s preliminary finals was a sweet victory for football romantics of all kinds and it also showed up the lack of support within Western Sydney for the club: the travelling Bulldogs fans outnumbered and out-cheered the locals, turning an away final into a game with a strong, vocal presence of Bulldogs supporters. Like the Gold Coast Suns, memberships hovers around 13-15,000. What kind of memberships these are and how they are secured is not necessarily transparent.
GWS’s local rivals, Sydney Swans, have consistently railed against the privileges handed to GWS, as it complicates their efforts at maintaining top-dog status in NSW. Fans of perennially unsuccessful clubs such as Richmond, Melbourne and St.Kilda, have also had their faith in the League further questioned as their clubs have had to battle harder to be successful in an ever-expanding league in which the newer clubs are handed a range of benefits.
There is little proof that the GWS has an independent identity beyond being an AFL club. Indeed, it is owned entirely by the AFL itself. Imagine the EPL owning a club in the English Premier League. There is little indication that the Club has been embraced by people in Western Sydney: this a demographic that already has a successful and actively supported team, Western Sydney Wanderers – not to mention rugby league teams. Even though this club is a recent creation established by the A-League, at least it was done in consultation with potential fans. And thus, WSW have a strong active – albeit sometimes problematic – supporter fan base.
Yes, it is legitimate to dislike GWS, without resorting to the derogatory remarks of Eddie McGuire (‘the land of the falafel’). The founding of GWS is one indication of the Australian Football League’s misguided efforts at expansion-at-all-costs, and its contempt for the practice of establishing clubs that are fully integrated into their communities.
The expansion at all costs is also exemplified with the AFL’s efforts at bringing the game to China. Melbourne Football Club has previously made an effort to be a part of this globalisation of the game. And now, the charge is being represented by Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast. Port Adelaide is creative and steadfast in its engagement with Aboriginal Australia, yet, its efforts at making inroads in China are, at best, quixotic and wrongheaded.
The AFL’s over-estimation of its importance and likelihood of success in China can be juxtaposed with the money that is being invested in football – i.e. soccer – i.e. the world game. The world’s most expensive players are now playing in China. Moreover, Xi Jinping is investing in thousands of football schools throughout the country. To what success? China can barely, regularly, make it into the World Cup? They are also far from being able to compete with Asia’s stronger teams: Japan, Korea, Iran and Australia. Perhaps the Australian Football League thinks that ‘the Chinese will like it as it is just another game to gamble on’. Perhaps they are not looking for players or supporters, but just one or two big companies to sponsor a few games or a few teams? This of course would be consistent with the Australian Football League’s corporatist bent and intoxication with gaming, but inconsistent with their claim to be investing in creating football communities.
The Australian Football League’s obsession with expansion has skewed the possibilities for equal competition between the clubs. The competition is characterised by a proliferation of clubs with little historical ties to local communities. The A.F.L. is perpetuating a kind of sporting imperialism throughout the Australian landscape. The continual failure of the Gold Coast is a symptom of this. The highly manufactured success of the GWS is hardly to be celebrated.
Packed to the rafters
It is not simply an act of bleary eyed nostalgia to critique the AFL. The transition of VFL to AFL marginalised some aspects of football culture while prioritising a corporatist bent. The 80s and before were marked by racist attitudes from the crowd and the players and of course the administrators. The grounds were in terrible conditions and players were poorly paid. Yet, in the outer, unlike now, one could have a conversation without trying to shout above advertisements. That is sort of a good thing.
The folly of the AFL’s China adventure is juxtaposed by its ignoring of establishing an Indigenous run team in the Northern Territory or a team in the football state of Tasmania. Founding an Indigenous run team would give credibility to the AFL’s claim of being a progressive contributor to Australian society. Indigenous players are much-lauded, but, there are very few Indigenous coaches, administrators. The AFL states that an Indigenous commissioner is important; yet, it still has not appointed one. Why the delay?
Australian rules football will never succeed in China. GWS’s inevitable success will be founded on huge hand-outs from the AFL and its surrounding community won’t care. Australian rules football has stronger nascent competitions in Southeast Asia – particularly in Indonesia. Why not invest there? The AFL endlessly praises itself for its support for Indigenous Australia: yet, it fails at appointing an Indigenous commissioner, who might have some say in asserting that ‘expansion’ should also represent the interests of Aboriginal Australia.
Unlike the original Don Quixote, the quixotic adventures of the AFL are humorous only for those who are laughing all the way to the bank: Gill and the gang and the gambling companies. For the rest, each club strives for its fleeting shot at glory.