HANDS UP IF YOU KILLED AFL IN TASSIE boomed the front page of the Mercury on Saturday morning, those accusatory words plastered over a picture of a waving Gillon McLachlan who the day prior had declined to provide a timeline for a Tasmanian expansion into the league. A provocative and parochial response to be sure, but like most of the reporting around this issue (or perhaps cheerleading would be a more apt descriptor), it’s little more than gross hyperbole.
There is no denying that this latest setback comes as another kick in the guts to Tasmanian footy fans who have been crying out for their own team for decades now. Yet it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone not caught up in the latest bout of media hysteria that this was always going to be the outcome of Peter Gutwein’s bold ultimatum to AFL house.
Just because the State Government and local media outlets have decided now is the time for a Tasmanian team, didn’t mean the AFL was going to share that view.
The idea that the AFL was suddenly going to decide now, in the midst of the most challenging financial position they’ve been in for years and with a majority of its clubs currently on life support, to buck years of snubbing the state and expand into Tasmania was utterly fanciful. They’ve snubbed a Tasmanian expansion repeatedly when their finances were flying, so whilst the financial picture of the league remains so uncertain due to the not-so-small matter of a Global Pandemic, expansion was always going to be the last thing on their agenda.
The entire premise behind the ultimatum seemed to be based on the belief that the yet to be renewed $8 million contracts with Hawthorn and North Melbourne were some sort of silver bullets; the ultimate leverage in negotiations that would finally sway the AFL to give Tasmanian a team. Well, we saw just how powerful and effective that leverage was: earning a tokenistic reply from head office on deadline day at 5 pm. The response basically equated to the AFL kicking the can down the road once more and saying they would conduct their own review into the viability of a Tasmanian team. That suggestion has been met with indignation locally, due to the existence of the Government’s Taskforce Report.
That the league would want their own report into the viability of a Tasmanian team, rather than blindly accept the findings of the Taskforce report should also come as no surprise. The report smacked of having a pre-determined outcome and was filled with more holes than a block of swiss cheese. Show me another sporting body in the world that would just accept an externally commissioned report to drive such significant decision-making at a point where their finances are under extreme duress, go on, I’ll wait.
Now no doubt the AFL has treated the state disdainfully in the past and this response was an all too familiar one for locals who have seen and heard this song and dance all before. But to suggest the game is now doomed in Tasmania because the AFL didn’t make such a seismic, long-term decision in the midst of a pandemic seems an entirely hyperbolic response to this latest round of disappointment. Yet that is the narrative that has been pushed for the past 12 months. As the story goes, without an AFL side to inject enthusiasm, the game won’t remain number one in the state for much longer, with Soccer and Basketball set to steal away all the juniors and threatening Footy’s position atop the Tasmanian sporting pyramid. For a while, the numbers were certainly trending that way and no doubt Footy has taken a hit from the halcyon days of old, but on closer examination, it would seem a rather exaggerated, if not downright specious claim.
Junior player numbers for footy in Tasmania actually increased year on year from 2017–2019, suggesting that the slide had already been arrested somewhat pre-pandemic, even without an AFL team in the state. Curiously the Taskforce report decided to only use participation numbers up to the end of 2016 despite the review being concluded in December of 2019, no points for guessing why that was! Let's not let the data get in the way of a shaping good narrative!
Footy has been the top dog in Tasmania for a long time now, and when you have the market cornered there is only really one direction you can go. A natural slide was always going to be inevitable given the shifting demographics within the State, increased options to play other sports, and a raft of alternative entertainment options to fill people’s time that simply didn’t exist 20–30 years ago. Yet despite this, the fact remains that footy’s junior numbers are rising again, female playing numbers are exploding, the game remains the most played sport in the state, it has by far the most clubs, and as TV ratings will attest it’s still by far the most-watched sport in the state.
At the end of 2019, AFL Tasmania reported 16,180 registered club members and that is the metric I will use to compare sports as opposed to ‘participants’ which sporting bodies so love to spruik these days, allowing them to inflate their numbers to always demonstrate some form of growth, often obfuscating the real picture.
Looking at those numbers from governing bodies' annual reports, it turns out the big threat of basketball isn’t actually growing all that quickly in Tasmania and its rapid rise is purely anecdotal. Whilst they had a period of particularly strong growth from 2010–2017, rising from 7,920 members to 13,379. That figure has only moved to 13,831 by the end of 2019, meaning it’s actually stagnated over the past 2 years.
As for Soccer, well their explosion in growth largely comes from suddenly citing ‘AusPlay Survey numbers’, rather than their own player registration figures, taking a leaf out of Cricket’s playbook to inflate numbers for political purposes. But their registered outdoor player numbers sat at 11,688 for the 2019 season, which is actually down from 2015 when they had 12,144. So again, not quite the staggering growth set to eclipse footy that we keep hearing about.
There also isn’t really any tangible evidence that a Tasmanian AFL side would have a significant impact on the player numbers. The arguments set forth in the Taskforce report, draw upon numbers from the Gold Coast and GWS expansions as proof that an AFL side will lead to massively increased participation levels. But neither of those locations are traditional footy markets and growth is a lot easier to achieve when you’re coming from a base of very few players in huge population centres, as opposed to when you are operating in an already captured market. If that’s the best argument you have, then your case might not be all that strong.
Ultimately when you take emotion out of it and dive into the actual numbers, it’s clear that it’s really not all doom and gloom for footy in Tasmania. The grip might not be as tight as it once was, but make no mistake, it will retain its hold as the number one sport in Tasmania for the foreseeable future, even without an AFL team.
This latest gambit from Premier Gutwein may well pay off in the long run, and given the league's downright disrespectful treatment of the State in the past, it's a perfectly understandable approach that he has adopted. Although I’d argue that removing the option of a VFL side was a major misstep if we are serious about providing pathways for young players in the shorter term.
Nevertheless, we can only hope the new, hardball approach will lead to Tasmania finally getting a team somewhere down the track once the leagues' financial position has stabilised. In the short term, however, it was always doomed to fail, but that does not mean the entire sport is doomed down here. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Footy’s death in Tasmania are greatly exaggerated.