So, it turns out that footballers are less essential than doctors, nurses, teachers and that stoner who pushes the trolleys in circles as he tries to look busy down at the local Coles.
Well, bugger us.
As the Pangolin’s Kiss makes its way across the nation, and people ask what’s really important to them, the answer seems to be “maintaining 10 AFL teams in Victoria”.
Yes, people are going batshit crazy over the idea that some of Melbourne’s weaker clubs might struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world so scary that there’s a genuine chance of a grand final being played at Docklandscolonialtelstraetihadmarvel Stadium. In December.
Where have we heard these fears before? Oh, that’s right: Every goddamn year since about the mid-70s when the Swans realised that playing in the Harbour City might be preferable to slogging away on a partially drained swamp every shitty Melbourne winter.
Generally, the story goes thus: AFL (or club) gets a bright idea about a new market. Club spends three years or so getting established. Just when things are getting traction, a new administration comes in and changes course. Rinse and repeat.
So in the spirit of trying to write football stories when there’s no football, here are the times that clubs have looked beyond Victoria’s soon-to-be-closed borders for revenue streams so we can keep kidding ourselves that one city can house more than half the nation’s professional footballers (note: we are including Carlton players in those figures on a technicality).
— CARRARA —
WE start at the biggest, stinkiest black hole known to man; a place where no fewer than eight clubs have said “Christ, surely there’s money to be made playing games in a city with less class than the casts of MAFS and Love Island combined”.
That’s right, eight club administrations have thought playing home games in a paddock on the outskirts of Queensland’s really shitty answer to Vegas was a good idea.
It all began with the Brisbane Bears, who weren’t from Brisbane, weren’t bears, and did very little right except allowing Ablett and Co to bang home a lazy 37.17.239 against them back in the early 90s (Gaz didn’t even play that well that day).
Their Carrara games were marred by poor crowds and crappy facilities and they headed home to the Gabba, despite the fact it still had a dishlicker track running around the outside of it and, itself, was undoubtedly Australia’s worst Test cricket ground back then.
You’d have thought that’d be the end of the story. But then you’d have been an ignorant git who chronically underestimated the AFL’s ability to find a black hole and just keep tipping money into it.
Fast-forward to 2006, and with the Commonwealth Games filling Melbourne with the sorts of sport officials who make FIFA look like a bastion of good governance, the league decided to spread its wings and head to … you guessed it, the Gold Coast.
First it was Melbourne’s turn, the Demons sacrificing themselves at the altar of stupidity over the Easter weekend as they played host to an Adelaide side that suddenly realised that, yes, a ground did exist that was more pathetic than Football Park. Later in the year the Hawks followed suit, and at least the AFL dealt them the privilege of playing the Lions, who by now had well and truly gotten their shit together and brought a couple of busloads of fans down for the game (they’d have come by train, but no-one had the sense to build Carrara anywhere near a train station).
Enticed by the lure of four-figure crowds and cheap methamphetamine, North Melbourne (a club which has had more experimental phases than the young ladies of YouPorn) looked at this 2006 fatuity and said “we want us some of that there action”, signing up for nine games over the ensuing three years. In 2007, the Lions and Crows were again conscripted into the experiment, and this time Carlton, too, in a sure sign that the league hated their guts. But by the end of 2008, after realising they were even less relevant on the Gold Coast than in Melbourne (a mighty achievement), the Roos admitted they’d cocked up, and told the AFL where they could shove the Gold Coast.
So, surely that’s the end of the Gold Coast story.
ROFL, as the kids would say.
Nope, the league put the call out for volunteers to fill the three-game quota for 2009. When none were forthcoming, it grabbed Carlton, Richmond and St Kilda by the scruffs of the neck and told them to take home games head north, despite the fact that two of the three were reasonably handy sides (as odd as it might sound, that was St Kilda and Carlton, as the Tigers languished near the bottom and Plough Wallace was revealed to be wearing no clothes).
Another season, another trio of crappy crowds and general irrelevance. So, of course the answer was to put a team there permanently; a team that itself realised that this is a pretty awful place to play footy and has since sold home games to even more far-flung places. But more on that later.
— TASMANIA —
TASSIE is the complete opposite of the Gold Coast. Despite crying out for its own team – and drawing bigger crowds to practice matches than Carrara could attract to real ones – it’s been thrown Victoria’s scraps for decades.
The first mob to look at Melbourne and think “this place is too warm and exciting, let’s head across Bass Strait” was Fitzroy. The cash-strapped Lions took home games to North Hobart Oval in the early 90s, with players farmed out to local families because they were too poor to pay for accommodation. It all started so well, too, with a 157-point loss to a Hawthorn side that would go on to win the 1991 flag (at Waverley, of all places). So after two years of torturing the locals, the Royboys said bye-bye to The Map, and Tassie remained a top-flight football wasteland unti 2001.
That was the year the Hawks looked to the bright lights of Launceston to help restore their by-now-crumbling empire. They only went south for one game, against … wait for it … of course, Adelaide! Excited by Cataract Gorge, the Penny Royal, and the prospect of marrying their cousins, the Hawks went back for two games in 2002, bringing in crowds that were twice as big as anything seen before (or since) on the Gold Coast. This success prompted the Saints – still smarting from being forcibly shifted to Arctic Park AND Docklands in the space of a few years – to also jump on the renowned gravy train that is Australia’s lowest socioeconomic state.
This arrangement continued for a few years until St Kilda decided that having financial security and a bona fide home ground advantage was more of a Shelbyville thing, and moved all games back to Docklands instead. Enter Jeff Kennett. A main usually known for care, caution, and putting people before money, the Hawthorn president and former Victorian dictator signed the Hawks up for four Launceston matches each year from 2007, including one that year against eventual premier Geelong, in a match that drew 17,000 people and was still somehow MORE FUCKING ACCEPTABLE THAN HAVING THE HAWKS PLAY AT KARDINIA PARK.
Against this backdrop, North Melbourne was tearing itself apart over whether it was a Victorian club, a Victorian club that would play some matches interstate, or relocation fodder. Kudos, then, to everyone’s favourite commentator, James Brayshaw. Brayshaw took over the North Melbourne presidency using the slogan “Keep North at North”, before signing the club up to play two, then three, then four games a year at Bellerive Oval, a picturesque venue that’s damn hard to get to and is hemmed in by Boomers who get upset at all the loud noises and young people walking on their nature strips.
So Tasmania now hosts as many games per year as the Sydney Showgrounds (and nearly as many as Kardinia Park or Carrara), draws profitable crowds despite being allocated shit games, and still gets told to sit quietly in the corner any time it dares ask for its own team. Go figure.
— CANBERRA —
OUR nation’s capital isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this author isn’t afraid to admit it: I like Canberra. By the same token, I also like Nickelback, coriander, and being spanked by an obese man dressed as Catwoman, so perhaps my tastes aren’t particularly mainstream.
The first team to experiment with our revered capital city was, of course, Fitzroy, who in 1995 decided to spend the night in Bruce – delicious. Fitzroy’s dalliance with Bruce Stadium was nothing more than a one-night fling, and like Harold Holt before them, they died before they could return to the Bush Capital.
Inspired by watching Fitzroy bite the dust, North Melbourne decided that Canberra looked pretty sweet and, in a sign of things to come (Gold Coast and Hobart hadn’t happened yet; this author is too lazy to write in chronological order), took up the mantle in 1998, but this time choosing the far more suitable Manuka Oval as a home base for one game in August: surely the best time of year to visit a place too prone to snow for most people’s liking. North then didn’t return until 2001 for three games – including one against Collingwood(!) – and endured a few more years of poor crowds and relative disinterest before realising that if they were going to be poorly supported and irrelevant, it might as well be somewhere with good weather and cheap meth.
Of course, you’d expect that to be the end of the story if you didn’t know anything about the AFL. But both the Bulldogs and Melbourne tried their hands at hosting the Swans in Canberra for a few years, before the nubile Giants strutted into town in their inaugural year, enticed by government sponsorship dollars, a generous recruiting zone, a population that actually knew a little bit about football, and the lure of getting the fuck out of Sydney’s western suburbs three more times a year.
They’ve never looked back.
— NORTHERN TERRITORY —
DARWIN is so messed up, they play footy in summer and cricket in winter. It’s the only place where the AFL and Cricket Australia fight for ground access in July in order to stage games that no-one gives a shit about.
It’s also a place where it’s 35 degrees every day, and a Victorian gets exhausted just walking to the shops (you can tell it’s a Victorian walking to the shops because real Territorians drive everywhere, even to visit the next-door neighbour). So of course the AFL would sign a contract to play games there. When the league went looking for “volunteers” to head north, the Bulldogs, Dees and Tigers – all on life-support at the time – raised their hands with a level of excitement not seen since the 1991 grand final half-time entertainment.
This experiment continued for a few years before the Dees decided that, despite being the complete opposite of Mt Buller in every conceivable way, Darwin was their type of town, and they told everyone else to piss off back home. Nothing sends Demons supporters into meltdown like a mention of the Darwin deal. You know those images you see of crocs jumping out of the water to grab large chunks of meat in the NT? That’s like Melbourne supporters on social media. You dangle the Darwin deal as a conversation-starter and they’ll take the bait quicker than a Dogs fan on discount day at Dimmeys.
So the Dees put in several years of laying the groundwork, only for them to leave before actually consummating anything. This year the Suns – that team that was apparently super important to the people of the Gold Coast – were meant to pick up the Darwin game, but that seems unlikely in the current circumstances. Fancy the Suns letting people down!
Of course, the Dees haven’t completely said CU to the NT; they’re still stumping up to play in Alice Springs each year.
— NORTH QUEENSLAND —
LIKE Darwin, the Dogs, Tigers and Suns have all had a crack at the North Queensland market, although it didn’t take long for the Dogs and Tigers to say FU, FNQ.
The next person that tells us that Cairns is an AFL town gets a punch in the face; a mid-sized collection of ex-Victorian Boomers doth not an AFL town make. Maybe if we offered franking credits for attending AFL games, Cairns might do better. Cairns is best remembered for two things: firstly, as the joint where renowned coke-head Karmichael Hunt banged home an after-the-siren goal to hilariously sink the Tigers; and secondly, as the joint where Cyclone Bloody Nora dumped a shit-ton of rain on a Suns-Kangaroos match once, making it even worse than it otherwise would have been.
Not content with infecting Cairns with their shitty brand of unwatchable crap, the Suns also once tried playing the Saints in a game in Townsville, a city that even NRL people think is a little bit bogan. We’d report the result, but no-one cared enough to watch.
— BRISBANE —
SO remember that time when Brisbane was awesome and won three flags in a row? That was the same time that Melbourne decided that selling home games against the Lions to the Gabba would be a tickety-boo idea.
Nothing like giving the best side in the competition just a bit more of a leg-up, eh? Financially, it might’ve kicked a goal – the crowds were pretty good – but with just two victories in seven years, it was a disaster on the field for a club that needed every win it could get.
— SYDNEY —
EVER since the first fleet arrived in 1788, for some reason people have thought that Sydney might be the cure to all their problems.
In football terms, first it was the Swans, who refused to do things by half measures and pissed off to Sin City permanently in the early 80s, only to spend the next 40 years bitching and moaning about how expensive everything is there.
In 1999, the artists formerly known as North Melbourne decided to prove that they could, despite being an excellent football side, export irrelevance far and wide, and played four home matches at the SCG. The next season, North went back three times, and the Dogs also had a crack, using the assumption that Sydney people knew so little about football that they wouldn’t even notice which side was playing.
This also gave the Swans the advantage of playing almost as many games on their home ground as Collingwood does every fucking year. North gave up the Sydney caper after another couple of years in favour of playing to empty stadia in Canberra and the Gold Coast, but the Dogs stuck with it for quite a while until they realised that Sydney would never have a big enough market for two sides. Oh.
— OVERSEAS —
AND of course, if you thought interstate games were a long shot, then how about those international matches?
The Saints struck up a deal to play games in Wellington, a place that’s slightly smaller than Canberra but has even fewer people who give a shit about footy. Like, infinitely fewer.
Surprised when no-one turned up to watch a foreign games on ice-cold nights at a stadium that makes Docklands look like it’s got atmosphere, the Saints flew the white flag and declared that they never really liked Wellington anyway and really would much rather be dating her older and prettier sister Auckland. Problem is, Auckland wasn’t in the least bit interested, much preferring massive Maori blokes in tight black tops to the stunning blond locks of Nick Riewoldt and Beau Maister.
And then there’s Shanghai. Although it’s David Koch’s bright idea, Port has never been the host in China; we started with the Suns (so vitally important to the people of Queensland, remember, that we needed to spend a kajillion dollars setting them up on the Gold Coast), until Kochy cracked the shits about them wearing the colours of China. Then the Saints got told that their Kiwi citizenship had been revoked, and they were now slaves to the Chinese government.
Shanghai has a population of 25 million. The reported crowd for each match has been about 10,000. That’s about 0.04 per cent of the population, even if you believe the laughably unrealistic official figures.
So that’s like spending a fortune to play a match in Geelong, having 100 people turn up, and calling it a success. Yep, definitely worth the investment.