With the AFL’s bumbling northern expansion continuing, the creation of a Gold Coast side (and likely development of a Western Sydney-based team) has led to yet another headache for long suffering Victorian clubs. Jake Niall reported in The Age last week that the two Melbourne stadiums, the MCG and Etihad Stadium in the Docklands are not keen on hosting matches involving the impending Gold Coast franchise.

The MCC noted that the new expansion sides will not draw substantial crowds (unless playing high-drawing clubs such as Collingwood or Essendon) and therefore, will damage the financial returns earned by the ground. Etihad boss, Ian Collins, took a similar view, telling The Age that “there’d be some [Gold Coast] games that would have some appeal, but the majority would not.”

The lack of suburban grounds which would allow for clubs to profit from attendances of less than 30,000 is causing extraordinary financial strain on the Victorian clubs. Etihad Stadium requires a crowd of 35,000 for the host club to merely not lose money from the match. Despite the Gold Coast’s overly optimistic forecasts of 40,000 interested members (the successful Brisbane Lions side has just over half that number), it is widely expected that matches involving the Gold Coast in Melbourne would struggle to draw a crown in excess of 25,000 against all but Collingwood and Essendon.

As Crikey noted recently, the closure of Melbourne’s suburban grounds in the 1990s (including Moorabbin, Victoria Park, the Western Oval and Princes Park) have placed the league in a horrendous negotiating position with the MCG Trust and the privately owned Docklands stadium. Niall took a similar view, observing that:

The AFL has huffed and puffed about shifting games interstate, tried to get the State Government to heavy the MCG Trust, and yet negotiations remain mired in Middle Eastern mode. The MCG has a contract and doesn’t need to budge. What the AFL doesn’t have — and even delusional romantics understand this — is leverage.

There is no third ground, because, in its sociopathic drive to remove all vestiges of suburbanism from an expanding competition, past AFL administrations forced the closing of the smaller grounds. A policy that made a certain amount of economic sense, was over-cooked and the clubs have been badly burnt.

The AFL has never provided any public disclosure of financial motivations underlying the costly Gold Coast expansion and it appears that Victorian clubs will be financially worse off by the creation of the new team. Aside from the start-up costs (which the AFL suggested could be as high as $100 million, the new side will have a monopoly on early draft choices in the coming years and low crowds will ensure that matches held in Melbourne against the new side will be money-losers for Victorian clubs). Short of a significant boost in broadcast revenues (which is highly unlikely given the impending recession), it appears that the Gold Coast and Western Sydney side will be bankrolled by existing club members, already paying record amounts to attend matches during a serious financial downturn.

A brave and long-sighted AFL Commission would cancel, or at least postpone the creation of expansion sides in the Gold Coast and Western Sydney until a new Melbourne stadium is constructed and the financial crisis eases. Sadly, bravery and financial prudence are two qualities which do not seem in abundance at AFL headquarters.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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