Should the AFL expand to 20 teams, and if so, where?

As a child, I think that the first ‘chapter books’ I read were Ruth Park’s Muddle Headed Wombat series. She was quite prolific and there were over a dozen of them in my primary school library. Close to a decade later, I also read her rather tragic adult novel, The Harp in the South, which seemed very far removed from the adventures of an anthropomorphic Wombat and his friends.

But for all the reading proficiency I gained from reading about the Muddle Headed Wombat, I had far more affection for Blinky Bill, the mischievous koala, even though his author, Dorothy Wall, was far less prolific.

After all, we all love koalas, don’t we?

The original Brisbane team, introduced in 1987 along with the first Perth team (the West Coast Eagles), was, despite being called the Brisbane Bears, more inclined to use the image of a koala bear who rather resembled our childhood friend Blinky Bill as their mascot.

Below are the relevant koalas for your perusal.

Of course, the Brisbane mascot seemed a little closer to a Drop Bear than to our loveable friend Blinky Bill.

The long march to a national football competition started in 1982 when the South Melbourne Football Club was persuaded to move north and become the Sydney Swans. It was then followed by the introduction of Brisbane and West Coast in 1987.

The VFL renamed itself the AFL for the start of the 1990 season, after having first tried unsuccessfully to force a merger between Footscray and Fitzroy Football Clubs, which was blocked by a grassroots revolt by Footscray supporters, led by Peter Gordon.

The competition became more legitimately a national one in 1991, when the AFL was able to use somewhat sneaky negotiations with Port Adelaide to leverage the SANFL, who had been holdouts, into entering an Adelaide team into the competition.

1991 also saw West Coast make the Grand Final for the first time, with them taking the premiership in 1992 and 1994.

1994 also saw Fremantle join as the second WA team

The current Brisbane Lions were formed from a merger with Fitzroy at the end of 1996 which saw that foundation VFL club effectively die. This opened the way for Port Adelaide to finally join as the second SA club.

There then followed a golden decade or so for interstate clubs, consolidating the AFL as a genuinely national football competition. This started with Sydney making the grand final in 1996, followed by Adelaide winning back to back premierships in 1997-98, and Brisbane Lions then winning three in a row in 2001-02-03.

2004 saw the first time in history when there was no Victorian team in the AFL grand final, when Port Adelaide defeated Brisbane. This was followed by Sydney defeating West Coast in 2005 and West Coast doing likewise to Sydney in 2006.

2011 saw the inclusion of the ill starred Gold Coast Suns, followed by the Greater Western Sydney Giants in 2012.

These two teams have not been very successful. After the 2019 grand final, a meme did the rounds that Tom Boyd (Western Bulldogs hero and former GWS recruit) and GWS had both kicked three goals in a grand final.

I consider the Pandemic to have been very good for the AFL. It lifeboated the competition to Brisbane in 2020, playing the AFL grand final at the Gabba, and proving that it could survive outside the Australian Rules Football cradle of Victoria. It then followed that up in 2021 with many games in Tasmania, and a grand final in Perth.

And now we are waiting for the newly announced Tasmanian 19th team to join the completion in 2028.

So, where do we go from here? Each state will have at least one AFL team? NSW, QLD, WA and SA each have two, and Victoria has ten (nine in Melbourne). The asymmetry of having 19 teams screams out for a 20th team to enter the competition, but from where?

Let’s eliminate some unlikely contenders first.

Canberra is not big enough to add to the TV market. Most people there are expats from other cities, and have their allegiance to their original football codes and teams. The best they can hope for, at least for the next decade or two, is that GWS plays more games there (and that GWS actually starts winning games generally).

One big sentimental favourite idea for me is to have a team based north of the Tropic of Capricorn, taking in the WA town of Broome, the NT capital Darwin, and the FNQ cities of Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton. It could be called The Northern Terror, with a crocodile as the emblem, and focus predominantly on recruiting and developing the local indigenous talent.

Sadly, much as I love that idea, I do not think that it is viable at all just yet, even if (something I do not support), a lot of taxpayer money from the federal, territory and QLD state government went into subsidising it.

So let’s look back around the population centres which might support a team.

Queensland is still mostly a rugby zone (both league and union), and the Gold Coast Suns are going the way of most professional sporting teams of any code (ie they are sinking rather than swimming). The AFL will persevere there, as it does see much potential growth in the TV market in Queensland.

Similarly, we have NSW. The Sydney Swans have been very successful on field, and very successful off it in attracting sponsors and a middle class supporter base. GWS is the key to attracting a very different demographic of supporters, and so far this has not worked out. But the TV market there is potentially extremely lucrative, and so the GWS experiment will continue.

And this leaves the two most populous cities outside of Melbourne where Australian Rules is the dominant football code: Adelaide and Perth.

I am firmly of the view we need to have a 20th AFL team, and that it should be a 3rd team from either Perth or Adelaide.

There are pros and cons to both.

Let’s look at Perth first. A big pro is that there is a larger population (2.1 million as compared to the 1.4 million of Adelaide). It also has a very good stadium, which holds 60,000. And let us not forget the mineral wealth which makes the potential sponsorship of a third team very lucrative.

But, and this is a big BUT, I do not think that there is any particularly strong club in the state competition which would stand out as to draw support away from West Coast as to command an independent presence.

Then there is Adelaide. The population is smaller, and the state is not as wealthy as WA. Nor does it have a stadium quite as good.

But it does have two things going for it which are quite important. Approximately 8.7 % of the population currently are members of one of their two AFL teams (as compared to 7.7% of the population of Perth, and 13.6% of the population of Melbourne). This is indicative of a slightly more intense sporting culture in Adelaide, which is more likely to commit to another team. The recent success of the inaugural ‘Gather Round’, which will see this hosted by Adelaide for the next three years, is indicative of this.

And the other thing that it has is a much stronger local competition, the SANFL, than in Western Australia. Norwood, in particular, is a long standing and extremely successful club which has a strong supporter base, second only to Port Adelaide, which was able to successful move into the AFL.

My personal view is that the AFL should start to look at transitioning Norwood into being the 20th AFL club.

But the other thing that the AFL does need to do in the meantime as we await the debut of Tasmania in 2028 is to look at building the supporter base north of the Barassi line. GWS should play most of its games, including away games, either at home or in Canberra, or in other cities like Newcastle and Wollongong. Similarly, Gold Coast should play most of its away games in Darwin or FNQ.

And when the time comes for another Gather Round city to be selected, it should be Sydney, so as to rebuild interest in the competition there.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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