The battle for the hearts, minds, and
viewing time of people in New South Wales became front page news
yesterday when
Swans coach Paul Roos publicly announced his team would be
“slaughtered” in tomorrow’s practice match, organised by the AFL, against
Essendon.

For the AFL, who are no doubt
hoping last year’s grand final victory by the Swans will translate into more
members, more ticket sales, and better ratings, it’s not the sort of publicity
they’d be hoping for just two weeks before the pre-season competition starts.

Not only has Roos told the media his team
will be beaten, he said they’d be fielding only four of their best 22 players. In
effect, Roos has uninvited any new fans that were planning on heading out catch
a glimpse of their heroes from last year, thereby undermining at least some of
the reasons the AFL organised the game – cashing in on the interest surrounding the
premiers, and re-igniting interest in the competition after nearly five months
of no football, in a state that generally doesn’t care what the A-F-L stand
for.

In many ways, Roos’ response has taken its
cue from Leigh Matthews’ many ongoing battles with the AFL. For Matthews’, it’s long
been about location. To paraphrase him: “Brisbane is a long way from
Melbourne,” he says, “and you southerners just don’t understand how hard it is
running a footy club this far away from the motherland.”

While the AFL manages a hugely
complex set of competing needs, it also needs to be careful to avoid a
situation where Sydneysiders also feel geographically hard done by.

Or does it?

That perceived exclusion is a furnace in
which fierce loyalty can be forged. Leigh Matthews knows it, and Paul Roos has
learned a lesson or two from his more experienced counterpart. Ahead of the
season proper, the off-field game is well and truly on.

Peter Fray

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