People have a habit of avoiding elephants in the room. And there are few bigger elephants than the continuing disaster of the AFL’s botched expansions in western Sydney and the Gold Coast.
Ignore their stunning on-field success; the GWS Giants have been given the most raw talent ever assembled in AFL history. But despite their tremendous performance (GWS were only a kick away from making this year’s grand final after only five years of existence), it appears that the people of western Sydney couldn’t care less about their AFL-manufactured team. In what must be an AFL first, there were clearly more interstate Western Bulldogs supporters at GWS’ home stadium on Saturday than there were GWS fans.
The Giants have become the prototype AFL-sponsored team both on and off the field. On Saturday night, 16 (out of 22) Giants players were first-round (or underage priority) selections — then there are players like Callan Ward and Shane Mumford, who were effectively first-round selections when traded to the Giants. Only two of the Giants’ players from its first preliminary final — Rory Lobb and Nathan Wilson — weren’t high-round gifts from the AFL. The Giants team even has three top draft picks and two second picks.
To maintain this incredible talent, the Giants are the only club to receive salary-cap concessions (around $300,000 in 2016). In a competition desperate to remove any unfair advantages, the concession is significant.
This gerrymandered talent has been expertly reared by some of the AFL’s best development coaches. First Kevin Sheedy and Mark Williams, and more recently, Leon Cameron, and the club itself was expertly managed by Graeme Allan (recently appointed by Eddie McGuire at Collingwood).
Despite creating a team with more first-round draft selections than any other in the history of the game, crowds for the manufactured club remain embarrassing. The AFL (although more accurately, supporters of pre-existing clubs) have spent $85 million on building GWS alone. That money has come from more expensive memberships and higher Foxtel costs for genuine fans. All to be spent on a team that not even Western Sydney residents appear to support. Earlier this year, an embarrassing 8000 fans attended the GWS v Gold Coast match, less than some country games attract.
And let’s not forget the other costs of the expansion club experiment.
After 30 years of measures aimed at making the AFL a more even competition (specifically the draft and salary cap), three teams have won nine of the last 10 premierships. The main reason for the AFL becoming significantly less even? Mid-tier clubs (until the Bulldogs last year) weren’t able to improve due to half a decade of compromised drafts. The introduction of GWS and Gold Coast played almost as big a role in Hawthorn’s three-peat as Alastair Clarkson’s masterful tactics.
Then there’s the cost to clubs of low gate receipts as a result of the tiny supporter bases of the expansion sides. Every time an Etihad stadium-based club plays GWS or Gold Coast, they write a stadium operator a six-figure cheque. These clubs are then criticised for making losses, even though the losses are caused by being forced to pay in expansive costly stadiums against poorly supported expansion teams.
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But don’t hold your breath for any changes. While most companies would (begrudgingly) come clean about their failures and end loss-making endeavours, such financial responsibility just doesn’t exist in AFL House. Media outlets, most of whom rely on the AFL itself for accreditation, dare not criticise the AFL executive’s financial incompetence, while feedback from the likes of Eddie McGuire is drowned out by GWS chairman Tony Shepherd.
Shepherd, a former public servant turned business lobbyist aggressively attacks anyone who dares question the GWS gerrymander. Shepherd’s corporate career has been devoted to extracting taxpayer money to private interests (first at road builder Transfield, and later at the Business Council).
So before you celebrate the stunning on-field successes of the GWS, don’t forget who’s writing the cheques.
*Adam Schwab is the author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed