When the AFL Commission held its first meeting for 2009 yesterday, it did so with an elephant making its presence felt in the boardroom.

Primary agenda item was the league’s expansion plan for its 17th club proposed for the Gold Coast in 2011, and further discussion on the progress on its west Sydney license set to kick off a year later.

Yet no firm decision was reached on either despite assurances these deadlines were still in play. But it’s the apparent prevarication over the Gold Coast license application causing the greatest heartburn not just at headquarters, but more painfully on the Coast. Despite having easily met all the onerous pre-conditions for entry as acknowledged by the commission last October — the Coast bid known as GC17 is still in a holding pattern. Unspoken by all involved is the elephant that presents the greatest impediment to any license approval. Just who is going to fund a new super stadium or massively redeveloped Carrara — the existing ground posing as a stadium!

Everyone agrees Carrara’s playing field is second to none and the same for its Christopher Skase purchased light towers that help illuminate all AFL night time fixtures including last Saturday’s pre-season NAB cup game debacle. Debacle because while the official attendance at the Brisbane Lions-St Kilda match was a disappointing 7000, thousands of fans who had driven to the ground never made it inside. After an earlier deluge risked turning available paddock parking areas into quagmires; most gave up and returned home. This further highlighted the absolute necessity to ensure any future stadium development is not done on the cheap and even parking and traffic flow infrastructure is foremost among any plans.

But the AFL Commission and its administration is facing its own quagmire, bogged down in torturous negotiations over a funding model for the Coast’s future home ground. Before the commission commits to pour tens of millions in its formative years until the Gold Coast can financially stand on its own two feet without subsidy; it wants the Queensland and Federal Governments to come to the party over stadium funding. Already the council has done its bit by promising a $20 million contribution.

While there are lots of figures being thrown around with the top end approaching $300 million and various configurations depending on who’s prepared to contribute towards the construction pot — all concerned are currently maintaining diplomatic silence. Hence no hint after yesterday’s meeting at the massive angst being felt over the inordinate time and effort it’s taking to get a stadium deal in place. Earlier the AFL was seething at the Bligh Government’s refusal to put any dollars into a stadium despite pouring $160 million into the construction of the 27,000 capacity Skilled Park stadium at Robina that’s home to the NRL Titans and soon to be A-League expansion club Gold Coast United.

It was felt in some quarters that influential Rugby League loving Bligh ministers and others outside government with influence, wanted to do the Gold Coast AFL bid no favours. While Kevin Rudd is another NRL fan he’s not so bellicose about trying to advantage league by pleading poverty as the AFL hangs out it begging bowl. Also it can be argued any stadium construction that can’t get underway soon enough to even stand a chance of meeting 2011, provides a homogenous political fit in job creation.

While GC17 has to bite its lip over its mounting frustration in being given the official thumbs up; it understands the need for the AFL to be discreetly knocking political heads together to get a favourable result. Otherwise if it was purely left to the AFL and the council to fund any stadium development; everything changes. Just how combustible this stadium issue has become was revealed by the extraordinary lengths to which lawyer and bid team leader John Witheriff, pleaded ignorance while being grilled by Kevin Bartlett today on Melbourne’s SEN radio. In claiming to know virtually nothing of the progress in the stadium’s current status; it led Bartlett to suggest Witheriff was being kept out of the loop.

The Minter Ellison Gold Coast managing partner isn’t out of the loop at all. But right now if he has to take a bullet of the kind suggested by Bartlett; he satisfies himself by knowing in playing hard ball behind closed doors — the AFL’s chances of getting the kind of stadium funding it requires is a battle much better fought free of media speculation. But until such time as the commission and Demetriou have stitched up an acceptable funding deal that doesn’t leave just the league and local council holding the baby; an expectant GC17 like its eventual home remains very much a work in progress.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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