Full assault on the western front
The case for a team in Western Sydney
Full assault on the western front by ROD GILLETT
82,000 fans packed into to the Olympic Stadium at Homebush to witness a local derby between the Sydney Swans and Western Sydney is the ultimate aim of the AFL by 2030.
A clash between the ‘silvertail-Swans’ and the ‘fibro-westies’ has all the hallmarks to rival the now traditional clashes between Melbourne & Collingwood, Adelaide and Port Adelaide, and West Coast v Fremantle.
The rivalry will not necessarily be pre-fabricated because it’s a social/cultural divide that already exists at other levels and in other sports.
The poor crowd attendance at the AFL elimination final between the Sydney Swans and North Melbourne at the Olympic Stadium might suggest Sydney is still not ready for a second team but at least there’s a base to build on.
“It will be a long and challenging journey� however by� 2030 a sustainable Western Sydney team will be core to the success of the national competition", according to AFL NSW General Manager, Dale Holmes.
Just as making the game national in the 1980s gave the code much needed impetus so will the addition of teams from the Gold Coast and Western Sydney take the game to the next stage that will shore up the market so necessary to ensure the game’s continued growth, and therein its survival.
It will almost certainly be a harder slog than simply relocating South Melbourne to Sydney and the remnants of Fitzroy to Brisbane; in fact, both are start-ups in non-totally football environments just like the Brisbane Bears were in 1987. The football world learnt a great deal from that experience and so it seems have the game’s custodians.
When North Melbourne turned down a $100 million over to relocate to the Gold Coast late last year they actually created a major strategic opportunity for the AFL to expand to 18 clubs and to establish national league clubs in the fastest growing regions in the country.
While the football community was quick to embrace the Gold Coast move it has been much more sceptical about Western Sydney. The critics claim that there is not enough support for AFL football in Sydney and that there is not enough passion for the game.
The argument for a Western Sydney team is compelling on purely rational� grounds; its big already and its growing; depending where you draw the boundaries, it has a population of anywhere between 2 – 2.5 million, which makes it a bigger than Adelaide, Perth and well ahead of Canberra and Tasmania, and on a par with south-east Queensland.
It will undoubtedly have the capacity to generate the sponsorship and membership levels necessary for a competitive AFL club of $20-25 million.
Perhaps most crucially, new teams in Western Sydney and on the Gold Coast will underpin the AFL’s quest to maintain, if not increase, the revenue from television rights for the game when the rights are next negotiated in 2011.
Unlike the Gold Coast the Western Sydney team has a ready-made stadium at Homebush. In fact according to media reports in July this year the AFL made an offer of $200 million to buy the stadium. Clearly, they are not going to fill it for every home game; it is believed that in the early years most games will be played at the new Showgrounds, also in the Olympic Park precinct.
AFL attendances at home and away matches at the Homebush stadium have gone down to an average of 45,480 this season after 63, 000 last season, but it should be acknowledged that the Swans indifferent form as well as that of opposition teams Essendon and the West Coast have impacted on attendances.
Research shows that many of the people attending matches at Homebush are from western Sydney, particularly through sales of the three-game passes to Swans games – up from 2500 in 2006 to nearly 11,000 this season of which 50% were purchased by fans in western Sydney.
A key factor providing confidence for the sustainability of a Western Sydney team is the support of local government principally the City of Blacktown. Mayor Leo Kelly has been vociferous in his support for an AFL team in his region and has committed council funding to the re-development of the Olympic baseball site located on the M7 as a training and administrative base.
It will take sustained effort and money to establish the game in western Sydney, but the consequences of not doing so will just leave fertile ground for the game’s competitors. Currently, there are four NRL clubs in the region; there is no A League soccer team and no Super 14 rugby union franchise. The latter two codes also have plans to establish a presence there.
The establishment of AFL clubs in western Sydney and on the Gold Coast will strengthen the game’s position as the No. 1 football code in the country.
Without them that position could be in jeopardy – by 2030.