Why aren’t the shareholders in the AFL up in arms about the League’s plans to spend $100 million on growing a new team in Sydney, and a new team on the Gold Coast?

In fact, if the AFL were a public company, shareholders would be quite within their rights to demand answers about the plans to waste $100 million, especially in Sydney, after the events of Saturday night and last week.

It was a comedy of errors, arrogance and misplaced self-belief that saw just over 19,000 people turn up for the most important AFL game this year in Sydney at the concrete canyon AKA as ANZ Stadium.

The AFL and its CEO Andrew Demetriou are kidding themselves if they think they can start a second team in Sydney by the time the new broadcast agreement starts in 2012, even if the organisation spends the $100 million he promised on Saturday night to spend.

The AFL CEO came to Sydney (along with iconic ground announcer, Craig Willis) to attend the official AFL dinner before the Sydney Swans played and beat North Melbourne before the smallest finals crowd in 84 years. The pair didn’t go to Adelaide for the Collingwood game. They chose Sydney because of the “growth” plans. It might have been more sensible to have gone to Adelaide. No-one was listening in Sydney, especially among the Swans heavies at the AFL dinner.

They have heard it before from the AFL CEO and long ago concluded that he speaks with a forked tongue: says one thing to Sydney and other things to other audiences.

From the figures the AFL CEO bandied about in his speech on Saturday night are correct, the AFL wants to spend $100 million on Sydney and the Gold Coast, or similar amounts on both. The way he worded those comments left the impression it was either/or. His speech was written to be a little hazy in this area as he once again praised the Swans, the coach and the management and board led by Richard Colless.

But it wasn’t just the Sydney AFL public that delivered the “not interested” message. The TV viewing public did just that over Friday and Saturday nights.

A miserable 77,000 watched in Sydney on Friday night the final between Hawthorn and the Bulldogs. Seven showed it at the same time across the country, seeing its figures in Sydney and Melbourne plunge on the night. Seven still won because of big viewer numbers in Melbourne where an average 602,000 watched, the largest audience in the country over the weekend.

Saturday night’s game saw 186,000 watch the Swans in Sydney, just 82,000 in Brisbane, and 594,000 in Melbourne. That’s a small mercy for the AFL. 80,000 watched yesterday’s Geelong-St Kilda final in Sydney. The NRL games pulled more viewers in Sydney and Melbourne on Nine on Friday night and yesterday afternoon.

The competence of AFL media advisers, supposedly the best in the country, was brought further into question. Ten Network promoted the Swans final itself: the first AFL ads didn’t appear until just after midnight Saturday, over two hours after the Swans had won.

The Swans pull crowds at the SCG. They tried to get the game shifted to that ground on Monday and Tuesday but the AFL and ANZ Stadium would not budge. ANZ Stadium gives the AFL (and it’s the same for the NRL) a big financial guarantee to hold the final at the ground. It’s believed to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It’s not that the AFL can’t afford to eat a loss on the game by switching it to the SCG. Mr Demetriou said in his speech that the AFL had no debt, had $40 million in cash and this would swell to $80 million in three years time. That’s at the end of the current broadcast contract.

The AFL wants both new teams up and running in time for the new broadcast contract which starts from 2011 and which will be sorted out in 2010. It thinks more games will mean more money.

But that’s a mirage. It will be two untried teams on top of the existing teams, in two markets where Rugby League is the main winter sport, despite what the AFL might argue.

If the AFL were a public company and you were a shareholder like the existing clubs are, you be telling the leadership of the game to pull their heads in and hand out that $100 million. It’s not just the likes of Allco, Centro and Babcock and Brown are fools with money, so far the AFL is giving a pretty good impression of heading down that route.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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