The Evolution Of Australian Rules Football In Canberra
My father’s parents moved here from Melbourne in the 1960s like so many others who were lured by the Federal Government’s policy of populating the ACT through job offers and affordable land. His family are one-eyed Collingwood supporters, and so my brother and I were draped in kids’ Collingwood outfits and given footies as soon as we could hold them. Every weekend in winter I looked on in wonder at my father’s great passion for the game, and I soon also became caught up in it. School was more Rugby-focused but there was also an Aussie Rules Club. I signed up for the under-10s as a matter of urgency and Dad helped coach. My brother, on the other hand, having been brought up in exactly the same house, was attracted to Rugby. He remains an avid Brumbies fan to this day.
Such is the great football divide of the ACT that Gen Ys have either followed their family’s preferences or been influenced by local teams and moved completely in the opposite direction. Australian Rules Football remains the only football code in Australia to have never had a professional sporting outfit permanently based in Canberra. Yet the game has always had support here, which poses the question of why? I believe the Australian Football League’s failure to have a Canberra-based team has certainly led to its wavering support with Gen Y here, but is it too late or can we still save Aussie Rules in Canberra?
The idea of a Canberra-based Australian Rules team is one which has been addressed many times over the past few decades. The late 1970s and early 1980s represented perhaps Canberra’s greatest opportunity to acquire its own team. At the time, the popularity of Rugby League and Australian Rules football were equally divided. What more could a professional sporting franchise ask for than a new and diverse population that was looking for something to unite the Canberra community?
Bruce Kennedy, a football historian and a Victorian expat, believes that if the Victorian Football League (VFL) were looking to expand during this period then Canberra would have been an ideal destination for an expansion team. Surveys conducted as far back as 1976 showed that Australian Rules football was extremely well supported in the ACT. The local competition generated a big following and VFL games that were broadcasted on television attracted better ratings than in Perth and Adelaide. Hypothetically, if Aussie Rules expanded into the ACT during this period the sporting landscape in Canberra would be vastly different today. Instead the Australian Rugby League (ARL) identified Canberra’s need for a professional sporting commodity and in 1981 the Canberra Raiders were founded and based at Bruce Stadium.
Ironically, the following year marked the VFL’s first move for expansion when South Melbourne relocated permanently to Sydney, signalling the VFL’s intentions to make the game national. Only four years later in 1986 the Western Australian Football League and Queensland Football league were given licenses to join the VFL, which led to the introduction of the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears (now the Lions). Australian Rules football was now played in four states in Australia, and it was clear that the VFL wasn’t stopping there.
During this period of VFL expansion, the Australian Capital Territory Australian Football League (ACTAFL) had given former VFL chairman Allen Aylett the responsibility of strengthening Canberra’s chances for a team. Aylett who was also a former player and administrator for North Melbourne was perhaps most renowned for his involvement in the successful formation of the Sydney Swans.
The VFL’s criteria for a Canberra based team were: sufficient funding, industry standard facilities, and a suitable organisational structure. The ACTAFL believed they met these criteria and aspired to have a team in the VFL by 1988. In 1989 VFL Commissioner Alan Schwab declared at a press conference in Canberra that South Australia was the next state in line for an expansion team. He revealed that none of the Melbourne sides were in a position to be relocated and simply did not believe Canberra would be able to come up with the finances to fund its own team. “You are looking at somewhere in the vicinity of $4 million to get a team on the field and keep it functioning,” he said, also noting that South Australia already had a large supporter base with a significant number of players already playing in the VFL.
Schwab’s declaration that Canberra wasn’t in the right position for its own team was probably a bit of a reality check for the ACTAFL. This brought about a stronger push to get top line talent playing in Canberra. 1990 showed good signs for Canberra when for the first time the nation’s capital was awarded competitive Australian Rules footy. The city hosted a pre-season match at Bruce Stadium between the reigning premiers, Hawthorn, and the Sydney Swans, attracting 13,000 fans to the ground. The game was broadcast nationally and was treated as a real test to determine the support of the game in the ACT.
In 1990 the VFL was re-badged as the AFL (Australian Football League), strongly demonstrating the organisation’s national focus. AFL expansion continued and in 1990 the Adelaide Crows were established, joining the competition in 1991. Now that South Australia’s void had been filled the early 1990s loomed as another great opportunity for Canberra to put forward its case. Bruce Stadium proved to be up to standard, the Raiders were enjoying success, and geographically the Territory was in close proximity to Melbourne, and the population of Canberra and surrounding regions was now in excess of 600,000. The idea of having an AFL team in Canberra was becoming increasingly popular.
Barry Rollings, a reporter for the Canberra Times, was a huge advocate of the game in Canberra during this period. “Without representation from or presence in the National Capital, the AFL can never regard itself as a truly national competition,” he wrote.
Ron Cahill, who at the time was the ACT’s Chief Magistrate and chairman of the ACTAFL’s committee, said “logic tells us that it is inevitable that an AFL team will be based in Canberra. It is only a matter of when and how.”
Even AFL great Tom Hafey was on board. “There have to be second sides from Perth and Adelaide but I would still see room for Canberra, particularly with a relocated club,” he said. “It would spread the game further and make the AFL a more genuine national competition.”
Despite the calls for a Canberra team, The AFL continued to assert that it would not be financially viable unless a Melbourne-based team relocated to the Territory. The costs of starting from scratch, generating sponsorship, and creating a brand new supporter base were too high in its opinion.
The nail in the coffin for the dream of an Australian Rules expansion team in Canberra came eventually in 1996. The Fitzroy Lions decided to merge with the Brisbane Bears, leaving an empty spot in the competition which was filled by the newly-formed Port Adelaide Power. The AFL competition now featured a round number of 16 teams: ten from Victoria, two from Western Australia, two from South Australia, one from New South Wales, and one from Queensland. Unfortunately for Canberra, no other Victorian-based team showed any interest in relocation. And to make matters even worse, the recent formation of the ACT Brumbies Rugby Union team showed that there was no scope for another professional sporting organisation in Canberra.
It appears that the AFL and the ACTAFL are equally responsible for the failure to establish a Canberra-based Australian Rules team. If given the opportunity, Canberra could have been a viable option but it appears the AFL were always quick to shut down any bids with predictable responses. The problem was that the AFL did not place any faith in any of the ACTFL’s proposals and they were simply not interested unless a Victorian side relocated. It seems more tangible evidence of support could have strengthened Canberra’s chances of an expansion team, but until 1995 no home and away games had ever been offered to the ACT public. And when a game was finally played it was between Fitzroy, who were facing extinction, and West Coast, who are based on the other side of Australia. A handful of other pre season matches were also played in the 1990s but due to poor scheduling the games were generally not well received.
The reality is that an AFL team in Canberra never eventuated. Despite this, AFL’s history in Canberra over recent years has been very interesting. Three teams — North Melbourne, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs — all took turns to give up home games to play in Canberra for economic incentives. As it stands now, the newly-formed Greater Western Sydney Giants (GWS) are acting as Canberra’s semi-local team, having signed a $26 million deal with the ACT Government in 2012 to play four home games a season in Canberra until 2022. According to AFL Canberra, around 30% of the Giants’ membership are Canberrans.
So what does this mean for Australian Rules football in the Nation’s Capital? After signing the multi-million-dollar deal with the ACT Government in 2012, GWS CEO David Matthews said “it’s truly a multi-code city, Canberra. That’s what we see. I think there’s room for all sports.”
Indeed, Canberra is a multi-code city but it has also proven to be a difficult market to crack into for sporting franchises. Historically Canberrans have shown reluctance to get behind any local teams unless they’re winning. Corporate sponsorship is also difficult to come by, as is currently evident with the Brumbies. Perhaps this is why GWS is the closest thing Canberra will ever get to having its own AFL team.
The fact that a team from Western Sydney is at the forefront of Australian Rules football in Canberra just doesn’t bode well. When GWS was founded in 2009 it virtually diminished any hope Canberra ever had of securing a team in its own right. The AFL has made it clear through funding and other concessions that it’s completely behind GWS and want them to be successful.
However, I fear that the GWS strategy will not pay off in Canberra. Having spoken to many other AFL supporters, there just doesn’t seem to be enough loyalty or support for the Giants in the Territory. Perhaps if they were a genuine Canberra-based team supporters would definitely get behind them. As it stands, GWS claims to be Canberra’s local team but not one part of their name credits Canberra at all. At the moment they are a new club on the up but any major success they enjoy is likely to be towards the end of their contract with the ACT Government. If by this stage the Giants feel that they no longer need Canberra’s services, that could potentially leave AFL in the nation’s capital in an even worse state.
By Tom Kazias