The AFL can bang on all it likes about the Kangaroos’ poor membership, and dire finances, but if it was serious about turning around the Roos’ fortunes – rather than just shunting them off to the Gold Coast – it would have given the club some meaningful help years ago.
And that means scheduling their games on free-to-air TV more than once in a blue moon, and handing back some of the prime Friday night games which the Roos helped pioneer in the 1980s. Only then, by increasing the club’s exposure and profile, can the Roos possibly hope to compete with the league’s big boys.
As it is, they’ve been left to die a death of a thousand cuts, ignored by the league and left to make up the numbers on Foxtel while Collingwood, Essendon, St Kilda and the like get the plum free-to-air gigs and big audiences. Little wonder that any Auskick clinic you see on Saturday morning has squadrons of little Magpie, Bomber and Saints running around but hardly any from the unfashionable Roos, Bulldogs or Demons. Why? Part of the reason is that they’re hardly ever seen on Channel 7 or 10.
The Kangaroos were given one Friday night match this year; Collingwood – to pick another team at random – had five plus the Anzac Day sellout against Essendon on a Wednesday. The Kangaroos will have two Friday night games in 2008; Collingwood eight.
The Kangas were given eight free-to-air games this season and will have 10 in 2008. Collingwood had 18 this year and will have 19 next season. By contrast, St Kilda get 16 in 2008; even poor old, down-at-heel Carlton manage 14. The Roos, who finished third in 2007, have little to show for their on-field success, just another low-rent draw.
Sure, the league throws money at the weaker clubs from its Special Distribution Fund to compensate them for their lack of “blockbuster” games and other injustices that relate to the hopelessly flawed draw, but that’s no solution for the deeper problems faced by the Kangaroos, Bulldogs and others. Money is only a BandAid treatment. What the Roos would really like is a level playing field in terms of exposure and big-ticket games. And, crazy I know, a sense they’re valued by the suits at HQ.
It is against this backdrop that the AFL has given the Kangaroos a 30-day deadline to make a decision about relocating to the Gold Coast. The league – led by its chief executive (and one-time Kangaroos player) Andrew Demetriou – has lost patience with the Roos’ increasingly pitiful hand-to-mouth existence and want to capitalise on the fastest growing area in Australia by installing a team there by 2010.
An ultimatum has been delivered to the Roos: if you don’t go up north, we’ll grant a licence for a 17th team. And the threat is implicit: if you don’t go, we’ll make life even harder for you down in Melbourne. Carrots are being offered to the Roos but, in the background, a big stick is being handled menacingly by the AFL, too.
But it should never have come to this. With some far-sighted planning and fair-minded treatment a decade ago, the Roos could have been allowed to build a half-decent membership base. So the AFL has been complicit in this sorry state of affairs at Arden St.
Now it seems inevitable that, following on from the death of South Melbourne and Fitzroy, North Melbourne – and its proud 138-year history – will be no more. If that is allowed to happen, the distance between the AFL and its fan base will widen some more.
The fabric of the competition, once so sturdy, will surely begin to fray at the edges. And the ties that bind the game to its community in Melbourne, once thought indestructible, will be loosened further still.