AFL expansion to change sport landscape

Anthony_Kerr_thumb Dr Anthony Kerr

First published in The National Times on 21 December, 2011.

Greater Western Sydney Giants will take the field in an expanded AFL in the new year, but what are the ramifications for local football rivals? Although Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes publicly welcomed "little brother" GWS into the family, how does this change the sporting landscape for the area's 2 million residents?

The AFL will start the New Year on the back of a record-breaking $1.25 billion TV deal, which will see every AFL match shown live on Foxtel as well as select matches free-to-air on Channel Seven. The Giants are the spearhead of the AFL's expansion into rugby league heartland – a $200 million investment that chief executive Andrew Demetriou has said is a long-term vision for the game. According to the AFL, its support for the expansion franchise is "not for two years, or five years, or 10 years.
We've based our plans on 20 years, 30 years and beyond."

The newest kid on the block has shown early promise. The Giants signed Hall-of-Fame coach Kevin Sheedy – who led Essendon to four AFL flags – and then staged a huge coup in signing rugby league star Israel Folau to a four-year, multimillion-dollar deal. News of Folau's signing generated more than $9 million of publicity and created a lot of buzz around the league and the new team.

At the same time the AFL has done its best to ensure that GWS gets off to a flying start. It has contributed $10 million to help upgrade the Sydney Showgrounds (Skoda Stadium) and given the team draft picks and salary cap concessions. For instance, the Giants have the first six draft picks for its first AFL season and were able to secure the services of promising young player Tom Scully from Melbourne.

Suggestions have also been made that the club has its eye on Collingwood mid-field star Scott Pendlebury.

In contrast, it has been a rocky road for cross-town rival the Sydney Swans. Although it won the premiership six years ago, crowd numbers and memberships have fallen and it has regularly posted annual losses. However, while the Swans admit they will lose some fans to the Giants, it has turned the ship around – it just posted a profit for the first time since 2007 – and looks forward to a competitive year against its new AFL rival.

The arrival of Greater Western Sydney has raised the temperature in the region and increased the stakes for the casual football supporter. Notwithstanding the city as a whole, western Sydney now boasts an AFL club, four NRL clubs and a consortium (unsuccessfully) tried to secure entry to the A-League soccer competition. Indeed, the arrival of another AFL team has prompted many to suggest that the NRL should immediately expand, either to its heartland (such as Brisbane or the NSW Central Coast) or new "hostile" markets (such as Perth) to combat the rival league's expansion into NSW. This would be an interesting strategy, especially as it could drive up the value of its next broadcast rights deal, yet this would be an expensive mistake if hastily executed – consider the Super League's Western Reds or Adelaide Rams.

The Giants decision to sign Israel Folau was to generate publicity in the rugby league heartland and to offer another role model to Polynesian teens, yet there is already significant, and well-established, competition for local residents. The Parramatta Eels is just one NRL club in the western suburbs. It plays just six kilometres away from Skoda Stadium and has a popular contingent of Polynesian players, such as Jarryd Hayne or Fuifui Moimoi.

While some question whether there is room in a congested sport marketplace for more teams, the NRL is in good hands: an AFL-style commission is on the horizon, membership is up 50 per cent in the past year, and the popularity of NRL and State of Origin football could result in the NRL securing its own $1 billion-plus TV deal. A Federal Parliament report also suggests that a second team in Sydney is ambitious, risky and faces potentially insurmountable cultural barriers.

However, only two of the 16 NRL clubs made a profit this season, which suggests the league should consolidate its position in the region before it seeks further expansion. (In the rival league, nine AFL clubs were expected to make a loss this year)

Many A-League fans are known to also support an AFL team, so it is likely that many of the 2 million people who live in Western Sydney will support any team that truly represents them, much like a city the size of Brisbane supports its four football codes. If the AFL wants to deliver on its 20-year plan, it is important that the Giants truly represent the local community and is competitive in its first year. It is up to the Giants to educate consumers about the (potentially "foreign") game, engage with local residents and provide an attractive product that is relevant to their daily lives.
Rugby League has been doing this in the region for more than 100 years and is well-positioned to withstand the AFL's latest incursion.

Dr Anthony Kerr is a lecturer in sport marketing (and a member of the Centre for Sport and Social Impact) at La Trobe University.