The AFL commission and its administration have again underlined why their collective decision making confirms them as the savviest governing body in Australian sport, on the heels of Anna Bligh’s historic Queensland election win.
Although the league seldom gets credit for diplomacy as the 1000lb gorilla in most of its negotiations, where it usually gets what it wants when it seeks to protect its interests; a Bligh victory proved the soundness of a league staying mum in a political bunfight. Unlike its current, very public war against the operators of the stadium that dare-not-speak-its-name at league headquarters; and the MCG trust over a greater share of ground receipts and a naming rights issue at Docklands.
When the AFL decided the time had come after years of record financial consolidation to expand the national competition by introducing two new clubs that would provide south-east Queensland and Sydney with home games every weekend; it was in a time of rude health. While many clubs now fear the inevitable contraction from a depressed economy; the commission sees opportunity. More so without spelling it out — at a time when the NRL is showing big cracks in its on-going viability.
But the commission did make a bad call in trying to solve two problems with one solution when it came to establishing a Gold Coast club. By looking to relocate one perennially struggling team away from Melbourne to the Coast — it saw a win-win situation. But the North Melbourne Kangaroos, despite dipping their paws in the Gold Coast waters via big AFL financial incentives, backed off and in the process its board did the Gold Coast a huge favour. It was never going to be a club welcomed with open arms by a sizeable local population already sold on AFL with existing allegiances — particularly the Brisbane Lions. However, having a club built from scratch with no other baggage as one they could truly call their own, became a much more enticing proposition.
Since the AFL set about establishing a local bid team that headed up the GC-17 licence application and more than satisfied all the stiff pre-license conditions relating to major sponsors (plus garnering wide corporate support and expressions of membership interest that’s topped 40,000) only two things have stopped the bid in its tracks. The first was doubts about the resilience of a Coast economy now in deep recession. But the AFL commission at its meeting last Friday, continued to be fortified by the impressive business case made by the GC-17 team.
The second and greatest challenge was building or redeveloping the existing Carrara stadium to meet the AFL criteria for a minimum 25,000 capacity phase one stadium. Ideally one funded by state and federal governments; along with the Gold Coast City Council already on board with a $20 million contribution. However, until two weeks ago when Anna Bligh publicly committed her party to provide $60 million as its share to a $130 million construction; and the Federal Government sought to provide most if not all the remaining $50 million; securing this funding appeared a precondition to any Coast license.
So when LNP leader Lawrence Springborg decided to use Carrara as a political football by giving Bligh’s $60 million funding the thumbs down; to many he was effectively helping kill off the GC-17 license if he became premier. Or at best he looked set to delay its introduction by several years. There have been a plethora of jokes about Andrew Demetriou turning up to hand out ALP how to vote cards on the Coast on Saturday. But even though Demetriou and the commission held off giving GC-17 the license the city craves until they knew the election result, they didn’t succumb to taking election sides. They played a very straight bat pre-poll, insisting they would be happy to talk and deal with whoever controlled the purse strings in a new government.
In this way, while fearful of what a LNP victory meant for Carrara, the AFL was intent on ensuring that even if its worst private fears were confirmed; it would have done or said nothing publicly for which it could be rebuked by Springborg if he did attain power. Now that the Borg is dead in the water politically speaking and Anna Bligh has proven an army of political pundits and pollsters wrong, the AFL is firmly on course for announcing the Gold Coast as its 17th club. The Herald Sun speculates an announcement could be as early as today.
But given the canny waiting game the AFL has conducted until now — with the Federal Government still yet to publicly declare its end of any funding deal; will the league wait for that announcement? Or has Demetriou already taken the Canberra call that already allows the league to confirm the Gold Coast as its brave new frontier from 2011 — safe in the knowledge Carrara has ceased being a political football?