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They don’t want it, we don’t want it, so why the hell do it?

Photo: Ben Rushton

DO YOU hear the people meters sing?

Does anyone feel like storming the Bastille with me? Honestly, I’m up for it. We’d meet at Parliament House, say hello to all the principled protesters like the anti-desalination-plant mob and the protect-old-growth-forests lot, and then walk down Bourke Street arm-in-arm, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, a team in west Sydney just won’t go”.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that there are too many syllables in our chant. You’re thinking it’s going to be clunky and difficult to get our mouths around. You’re thinking that the first bit has a bit too much of the Fremantle Dockers’ theme song about it.

But what you’re not thinking is that a team in west Sydney is actually a good idea. That is because nobody other than Andrew Demetriou and his vanguard of head-counting apparatchiks think west Sydney is a good idea. The public there don’t want it. The public here don’t want it. And yet there is an entire section of the AFL head office dedicated to “the west Sydney project”. It is spoken about at AFL House as an inevitability. “If we build it, they will come” seems to be the philosophy, and yet the Kevin Costner film they should be keeping in mind isn’t Field of Dreams, but Waterworld.

The NSW Government announced in April that it will not assist the AFL with the $100 million redevelopment of the Sydney Showground at Homebush. Geelong chief executive Brian Cook estimated that the AFL will have to pour in $20 million a year to keep the club afloat. Just about every potential fan within a 20-kilometre radius of Blacktown either doesn’t know or doesn’t understand footy, or thinks of it as “that poofter game that is played by girls”.

The AFL administration thinks that if the seed is sown, the conversion will begin. It believes that Australian football is inherently superior to all other football codes and that eventually, we will be heralding the courage and vision of the men who tilled the desert sand.

I think the argument is rebutted with just two words — Melbourne Storm. I know some people like the Storm, and there are even a handful of them who aren’t from Queensland, NSW or New Zealand, but even with all that News Corp money and considerable on-field success, the only thing I really get from the team is that they have a player called Cooper Cronk.
The day after the Storm wins or loses a grand final, newspaper editors gnash their teeth because they have to put rugby league on the front page. It’s just not our game. Not because it’s objectively worse, because it’s subjectively worse.

But Andrew Demetriou doesn’t care. He and the others in the vanguard only believe in people meters. At some point, somebody who was able put together a kick-arse Excel spreadsheet came to them and showed them how many television screens currently reside out in Sydney’s west, and how few of them would have to be tuned to a meaningless Freo versus western Sydney game on a Sunday afternoon for the National Australia Bank to pay this many million more to show that catchy Auskick ad. This spreadsheet-Svengali then pushed a button, and his numbers turned into a really colourful graph, and the people in at AFL House whistled, totally amazed at just how many televisions could exist together in one place.
About 10 minutes later, a final and irreversible decision was made that west Sydney was the right “market” for an 18th AFL team. The announcement was made public, and a few commentators started making some stuttering noises about Tasmania. Isn’t that practically all they do in Launceston and Hobart, talk football and drive blockies? But Tasmania was not the market the AFL was looking for. Too few people. Too few televisions. It delivered us Hudson, Lynch, Baldock, Stewart and Richo, but it can’t deliver us ratings.

I refuse to believe it. I think that the guy who showed the AFL administration that seductive graph forgot to produce the contingency version where none of those multitudinous screens are actually tuned to the footy. And I think he didn’t show them the one where the entire state of Tasmania lights up for a game. The AFL fears a sponsorship drought in the Apple Isle, but if the Tasmanian Government is willing to sponsor a team just for playing Grant Birchall, surely it will dig deep to support its own club. And even if Tassie needs a little propping up for a while, can it beat $20 million a year?

The “national footprint” argument that took the Swans to Sydney and sparked a team in Brisbane is terrific. It even made sense for the National Rugby League to lob the Melbourne Storm into our powerful indifference. But Sydney is already part of the AFL’s footprint. We’ve been there for 27 years, and if you listen to Paul Roos and Richard Colless, it’s a 27-year-old that still can’t afford to support itself. The footprint argument now says that one of the unrepresented states should get a go. And that state is surely Tasmania.