As the AFL ploughs head first into a wild expansion onto the Gold Coast and into Western Sydney, the media and clubs appear to be taking an unquestioning line.

It is oft forgotten that the unofficial instigator of the national league was former Carlton President, John Elliott. In the early 1980s, Elliott summoned leading Melbourne-based clubs to Elders’ Mount Eliza retreat to discuss a breakaway league including a handful of powerful Melbourne clubs, as well as teams from WA and SA. The breakaway competition was later abandoned, but its themes were incorporated by the then VFL Commission with sides from the Gold Coast and Perth joining the competition in 1987 (followed by Adelaide in 1991). It is not without irony that the national competition was spurred by Elliott, who later nearly bankrupted what was once Australia’s second largest company (by revenue) and did bankrupt himself.

The VFL/AFL’s Gold Coast flirtation died in the early 1990s with the Gold Coast-based Brisbane Bears club virtually bankrupt. The team relocated to Brisbane, where with the help of generous salary cap assistance, went on to won three consecutive premierships.

Late last year, the Gold Coast was placed on the agenda after a “steering committee”, made up of local Gold Coast business identities thought it would be a good idea for the Gold Coast to have a football side. The AFL has now appointed the same group to “demonstrate an AFL Licence for a new team based on the Gold Coast had all the foundations for long-term success,” which is a little like asking Transurban whether Melbourne needs another toll road.

Upon the advice of the blatantly self-interested committee, which came up with the shock decision that a Gold Coast team would be viable, the AFL attempted to shunt the North Melbourne Kangaroos to the Gold Coast. Much to its chagrin, moving North to the Gold Coast was roundly rejected by North Melbourne members who didn’t take too kindly to their team being moved to another state.

After failing to relocate the Kangaroos, the AFL turned to Plan B — create a new club on the Gold Coast. The fact that a team once played on the Gold Coast and virtually went under appeared to be of little relevance. So did the fact that the team with the lowest membership in the AFL is Brisbane. Brisbane playing in Brisbane, which proved far more successful than Brisbane playing on the Gold Coast, has a mere 22,000 members.

The AFL seems to be relying on the untested notion that a Gold Coast team will be cash-flow positive, presumably because of the increased value of broadcasting rights, a notion which seems to be based on belief rather than evidence. Earlier this year, when Channel Seven screened a match between Brisbane and Collingwood live, a pitiful 96,000 Brisbane viewers tuned in (compared with 327,000 for the competing League match). Those numbers (and the fact that a 9th match each week would most likely be shown on Foxtel) imply that broadcasters won’t pay for the extra match. If anything, they may even discount the broadcast bid if they are forced to show matches live into unpopular markets.

Not only are the promises of broadcasting riches a pipe dream, but there are also serious questions over whether the Gold Coast white-shoe brigade would attend AFL matches. Two weeks ago, an AFL match held at Carrara (a possible home ground of the new Gold Coast side) drew a mere 6354 attendees. A crowd of 25,000 in Melbourne is deemed a dismal failure.

On the topic of home grounds, there is also the small matter of the AFL contracting with the Queensland Government to play all AFL matches at the Gabba until 2015. If the AFL allows a Gold Coast club to play away from the Gabba (which is essential for the club’s success that will give rise to a $40 million damages claim not to mention the $100 million cost to develop a Gold Coast stadium).

By all accounts, a Gold Coast side would be a financial black hole, but no one, especially not the Gold Coast businessmen appointed to determine the feasibility of the side, will tell the AFL that.

On Tuesday, Adam Schwab turns a critical eye on the AFL’s plans to move into western Sydney.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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