A key plank in the Australian Football League’s plan to expand the national competition is to establish permanently a second Aussie Rules team in the Harbour City, with their headquarters in the western suburbs, most likely at Blacktown.
Perhaps surprisingly, the long-time chairman of the Sydney Swans, Richard Colless, told me on Monday that he is “enthusiastic about any move to grow the game in New South Wales and the ACT.” However, Colless makes it clear that “the mechanisms to achieve the creation of a second Sydney team capable of sustained success remain a work in progress.”
But crucially, is any second AFL team in western Sydney (or in AFL’s other expansion option on the Gold Coast) likely to be any more financially viable than were the badly-misnamed Brisbane Bears? Along with up to 80,000 avid Aussie Rules fans, I’ll be trekking out to the ANZ Stadium for the game. Given such a huge level of support for a single game, I wonder what a second Sydney team, coming out of the western suburbs, might mean for the Swans? Will they be seeking to take food from the Swans table?
Some critics, mainly Melbourne-based, see western Sydney as an AFL wasteland. Yet last year for the three games played at ANZ Stadium, the Swans averaged a staggering 63,000 fans. As far as attendance goes for any of the football codes in New South Wales, this is extremely impressive, especially when you consider that the average TV audience for a Swans away game is currently around 120,000, which is far from satisfactory.
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It means that while the majority of AFL supporters in Sydney might love the Swans, they don’t love them enough to watch their every move. To many Sydneysiders, they still remain a curiosity, not a commitment. Sure there’s a solid core of supporters, but many only embrace the Swans when it suits and in particular when they win. Unlike died-in-the-wool Magpie or Eagles supporters, Aussie Rules fans in Sydney are fickle.
So how will a second Sydney team affect the Swans?
The AFL is the best-administered and financially savvy sporting organisation in this country. The powerbrokers at AFL House don’t like to fail; indeed, they rarely do. Western Sydney, therefore, will be exposed to AFL like never before. Capturing the attention of kids and parents is at the forefront of its plans and this is where I see the next few years being a major opportunity rather than a threat for the incumbent Swans. The flow-on benefits to the Swans of growing the AFL market in NSW and Sydney are obvious.
Of course, the Swans will have to protect their supporter base, but they have nothing to gain by knocking the new team until it’s up and running and a “traditional rivalry” can be born. The current Eagles-Dockers local derby is fiercely contested, as are the Adelaide Crows-Port Power showdowns. As one Fremantle supporter recently put it, “no matter how badly our season is going, if we beat the Eagles it’s been a good year.” Factor in tickets sales and merchandising and you begin to see how two teams in the one city become somewhat symbiotic, no matter how loudly they proclaim their disdain for each another.
But make no mistake, the challenge to the AFL’s expansion plans will be massive. Just how many hearts and minds can the AFL win in what is the toughest sporting market in the western world?
A life-long Collingwood supporter, Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 29 books, most recently The Pope’s Battalions: B.A.Santamaria and the Labor Split. He is contributing co-editor of Growing Old (Dis)Gracefully: 35 Australians reflect on life over 50, recently published by ABC Books.