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Aussie Rules Opinion

1 July 2008 1,368 views No Comment

A key plank in the Australian Football League’s plan to expand the national competition is to establish permanently a second Aussie Rules team in the Harbour City. Not that Sydney’s proposed second AFL team will be housed anywhere near the Harbour foreshore; their headquarters will be in western suburbs and most likely based at Blacktown.

Perhaps surprisingly, the long-time chairman of the Sydney Swans, Richard Colless, said to me yesterday that he is “enthusiastic about any move to grow the game in New South Wales and the ACT. However Colless makes it clear that “the mechanisms to achieve the creation of a second Sydney team capable of sustained success remain a work in progress.

So just what form will these Western Sydney interlopers take? Who will they be? And, critically, how will they measure up in the heartland of Rugby League?

These thoughts are prompted by the blockbuster clash this Saturday night between the Sydney Swans and my beloved Collingwood Magpies. Along with up to 80,000 avid Aussie Rules fans, I’ll be trekking out to the ANZ Stadium for the game. Two of the biggest brands in Australia will go head-to-head at the very stadium where Cathy Freeman shook the country with her breathtaking 400m run at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Back then the Swannies were in the AFL mid-range of teams, a long way from the powerhouse entity that these days does the city proud. In fact, in 2000 they didn’t even make the finals.

Since then, the fortunes of the Swans have changed dramatically, for the better and, of course, in 2005 they won that premiership. It was a moment not unlike the magic of Freeman’s win, in that it captured the dreamer in almost all of us Aussie Rules footy fans.

Even hardened West Coast supporters couldn’t begrudge the Swans a Grand Final win after the 72-year premiership drought they’d endured – first as diehard supporters of the South Melbourne Bloods and then of the Sydney Swans.

Today that premiership victory is a distant memory as the Swans charge towards the 2008 finals off the back of six successive wins. With two months to go, they’ll confront some massive hurdles, very much including the Magpies on Saturday night.

Which takes me back to that other Sydney team. Given such a huge level of support for a single game, I wonder what a second Sydney team, coming out of the western suburbs, might mean for the iconic Swans? Will they be seeking to take food from the Swannies table? While the Swans focus on their own footy Everest, the relentless AFL machine continues to develop plans for a base camp out in the western suburbs.

Some critics, mainly Melbourne-based, see western Sydney as an AFL wasteland. Yet last year for the three games played at ANZ Stadium, the Swans averaged a staggering 63,000 fans. As far as attendance goes for any of the football codes in New South Wales, this is extremely impressive, especially when you consider that the average TV audience for a Swans away game (mindful that most Swannies supporters would be at home watching on the box) is currently only around 120,000, which is far from satisfactory. So what does all this signify?

In my opinion it means that while the majority of AFL supporters in Sydney might love the Swannies, they don’t love them that much as to watch their every move. To many, they still remain a curiosity, not a commitment. Sure there’s a solid core of supporters, but many only embrace the Swans when it suits and in particular when they win. But unlike died-in-the-wool Magpie or Eagles supporters, who barrack for their team no matter what, Aussie Rules fans in Sydney are fickle. There’s hardly a stampede even when the Swans play at the Sydney cricket ground.

So what will a second Sydney team do to the Swans? Its establishment is backed to the hilt by the AFL and that’s a massive tick in its favour. The AFL is the best-administered and financially savvy sporting organisation in this country, and wouldn’t be heading west without a seriously viable short and long-term plan.

The whisper is that the second Sydney team could be ready to play by 2012. If so, and I think. it’s entirely possible, it will involve the AFL throwing their considerable financial resources and their undoubted administrative and logistic expertise behind the venture. The powerbrokers at AFL House don’t like to fail; indeed they rarely do.

So western Sydney will be exposed to AFL like never before. Capturing the attention of kids and parents will be at the forefront of AFL plans and this is where I see the next few years being a major opportunity rather than a threat for the incumbent Swans.

The good news is that, at least until then, AFL supporters are likely to continue to support the Swans. But make no mistake, the challenge to the AFL’s expansion plans will be massive. Just how many hearts and minds can the AFL win in what is often cited as the toughest sporting market in the western world? On this, only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I will be avidly watching the AFL action out west both on and off the field, starting this Saturday night. If Collingwood wins, the Mighty Magpies place in the final eight will be assured.

If Sydney are the victors, they are virtually certain to make the top four, with all the advantages for the finals that such a place ensures. Either way, Saturday night will be a winner for the greatest game of all.

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