Home away from home for all clubs
When Richmond succumbed to the Gold Coast Suns for the second successive season at Cazaly's Stadium in Cairns earlier this year, Tigers fans took to Twitter and Facebook to voice their displeasure. The subject of their spleen-venting was not the way the boys in yellow and black imploded in the last minute of the game, allowing the Suns to kick two goals and snatch a stunning last-gasp win; nor was it coach Damien Hardwick, who was seemingly powerless in his efforts to get his players to do as he wished. No, the fans' target was the venue of the match; more specifically the fact that the match at this venue in Cairns, nearly 3,000 kilometres from the Punt Road Oval, was a Richmond home game. The general social media consensus was that, by selling a home game to a far off location, the Tigers had squandered a chance at partaking in the finals - in both 2011 and 2012.
The logic behind selling a home game is sound for clubs that are battling financially. In Richmond's case, the three-year deal to play one home match per season against Gold Coast in Cairns will go a long way towards erasing the crippling debt that has been a millstone around the Tigerland neck for more than 20 years. But there are those who argue that Richmond making the finals, even if eliminated in the first week, would have brought greater pecuniary rewards. The Richmond board might even agree with that argument. But it's likely that, when they agreed to the deal, they would have expected the Tigers to win all three, or at least two, of those games. After all, these matches are against the Suns in the first, second and third years of their existence.
History shows of course that the first two of those matches went the way of Gold Coast, leaving Richmond in a more financially secure position in theory (though perhaps not in practice), but the club's fans ruing another year without September action. Losing these first two matches would have been a bitter pill for all involved to swallow. But not nearly as bitter as seeing the club merge like Fitzroy or having to move interstate permanently, meaning that all home games would be played far from Punt Rd.
Richmond is of course not the only club to have found itself having to sell a home game or two to ward off the vultures. Melbourne sold a home game per season to Brisbane for several years. And both the Demons and the Western Bulldogs continue to play a home game in Darwin each year to ensure their end-of-year balance sheet is acceptable to its stakeholders. For Bulldogs fans, switching to far-off locales has not been as much of an issue in recent times, as the team has won each of its last five top-end encounters. For Melbourne, it is probable that only once, in 2005, has the selling of a home game cost them an extra chance in the finals.
Nevertheless, the Richmond experience demonstrates that such deals can be fraught. If they backfire, they can leave the struggling clubs that broker them in a worse financial position, accentuating the gap between the “have” and “have-not” clubs.
Given that the AFL has done so much in the past 20 or so years to ensure equitability between its clubs, perhaps it needs to look at how it approaches such promotional games. Assuming that there is evidence to support the notion that such deals strengthen the league's position as a truly national competition, must the AFL keep putting the onus of making such arrangements on the struggling clubs?
In his article The Propaganda Round, Mic Rees revisited a long-forgotten June weekend from 1952, in which all six VFL matches were “exported” to venues across the eastern seaboard and Tasmania. The match played furthest from the home of footy was between Geelong and Essendon, the first ever VFL game to be played in Brisbane, at the Exhibition ground. But the Cats and Bombers weren't league cellar-dwellers at the time. Indeed these two sides had contested the 1951 Grand Final less than nine months earlier. The opening line of Rees' article poses a question:
How surprised would Joe Public be if upon perusal of the 2013 AFL Draw he saw the Cats scheduled to clash with the Crows in Camperdown, the Dees and the Dockers drawn to duke it out at Deniliquin or a Richmond v Roos rumble in Rochester?
Joe Public would no doubt be very surprised. But he wouldn't be as surprised if he came across a match between say, the Dogs and the Demons in Dubbo. Because Joe would be well aware that these are clubs that must do what they can to survive, even if it means risking a place in the finals by selling a home game.
But should it be only those at the lower end of the AFL's socio-economic scale that are made to take those risks? It might be a bit far-fetched to suggest that the 2011 Grand Finalists, Geelong and Collingwood, square off at Wangaratta City Oval in front of 15,000 people. The cost to the League (and the outcry from Cats' and Magpies' fans) would be too great. But what if it was Collingwood that was sent to Cairns to face Gold Coast 3,000 kilometres from home? Perhaps it would help Collingwood president Eddie McGuire understand a bit better the challenges facing clubs like Richmond, Melbourne and the Bulldogs.
Reinstituting a full weekend of fixtures along the lines of Propaganda Round is not a move that the AFL or many clubs would consider. Perhaps, however, the league could embrace the spirit of that weekend of over 60 years ago by getting each of the 16 established clubs to take a home-game “holiday” once a year. If each side took such a trip once a year, it could be spread across a 22 or 23 round season. Or if that's too much to ask, perhaps once every two years for each club.
Such a scenario would mean that the burden of selling a home game each season would not be imposed on just two or three Melbourne-based strugglers. On the other hand, it would mean finding a way to replace the income that would be lost to the clubs that make such deals. And perhaps it would not be a strategy that aligns with one of the AFL's former agenda items (and one that, while not spoken of publicly, is believed by many to remain on the AFL's "to do" list) - the rationalisation of Melbourne clubs. Having 10 of the 18 AFL clubs based in Victoria's capital (including Geelong) is clearly another form of inequity in a national competition.
There can be no doubt that the AFL would rather have seen an existing Melbourne team migrate to the Gold Coast, as North Melbourne nearly did, than create one from scratch, as was done eventually with the Suns. The League would have preferred to maintain a competition of 16 teams or less but felt they could wait no longer in pushing for a game each week in both Queensland and Sydney. With calls for an AFL team based in Tasmania from many prominent figures, including Tim Lane on this website, the League would still harbour hopes of an existing club making a permanent move. That is why it would be quite happy with North Melbourne's current arrangement of playing several home games each year in Tasmania. Though Andrew Demetriou would not say as much publicly, no one seriously doubts that the AFL would welcome the prospect of that schedule being expanded to incorporate most, if not all, of the Kangaroos' home fixtures being played at Blundstone Arena in Hobart. And, as it seeks to ensure its long-term survival as an AFL club, that's an option North Melbourne can't afford to summarily dismiss.
Nevertheless, unless and until the AFL declares its hand on such matters, I believe it should seek to ensure that "home" games played away from home should be a responsibility borne by all clubs, not simply those who are struggling financially. If the AFL considers scheduling games in footy's "outposts" to be a strategy that should be a part not only of the pre-season competition, but one that belongs in the season proper, then it should make it mandatory for all clubs to participate in that form of promotion. I'm not suggesting that this proposal would be without its own challenges. While resolving some issues, it would almost certainly create others. But I am suggesting that it's an idea the AFL should give serious consideration.
There may come a time in the not too distant future when the Demons, the Dogs and the Tigers are in a sound enough position as to no longer need to sell any home games. How then, will the AFL go about promoting the national game in Darwin and Cairns and other Australian outreaches? They could begin by looking back at what their predecessors did more than six decades ago and adapting the concept to the future.