I really like this idea. How great does the proposed stadium in Darwin look?
An AFL team in the Top End? It’s not as out there as you might think
The Northern Territory’s bold bid for an AFL team is unlike anything seen in Australian sport.
By Zach Hope
SEPTEMBER 19, 2021
Mutitjulu children playing footy during the closing ceremony in the shadow of Uluru.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN
You can imagine the looks when the new footy boss of the Northern Territory emerged from coffee with Chief Minister Michael Gunner in mid-2018 and began whispering about an AFL team and a 25,000-seat stadium in a Darwin CBD paddock.
Even here, among the game’s most ardent, where participation rates double that of Victoria, it seemed a grand idea, tethered to a certain legitimacy; but in the tradition of grand northern Australian ideas, probably unreachable – if only for the fact it required the commitment of “southerners”.
Besides, the AFL has been kicking the new-club can through Tasmania for decades, and that state has twice the population and gold-standard facilities in any town kids kick a footy.
And then there’s the Gold Coast Suns – from one of the fastest-growing regions of Australia – which has struggled for members, success, money and hype since its founding more than a decade ago.
A team in Darwin? Population 150,000, hot, humid and four hours’ flying to the nearest other capital? You may be raising brows of your own.
Gunner and AFL Northern Territory chief executive Stuart Totham, sipping coffee in Darwin’s Roma Bar, agreed to “have a look”, which turned into a feasibility study.
Brand consultants Bastion Experience delivered it in June and, to no one’s surprise, found the population too small to fund a team in the traditional sense like the Lions of Brisbane or Swans of Sydney.
But it also set out a tantalising vision of a Top End team with social impact as its core objective.
A club built on an “unconventional model” could, in fact, be revolutionary.
So serious are the NT government and AFLNT about this model and its possibilities they are poised to announce a taskforce of respected administrators to get the Top End ready when, and if, AFL and AFLW licences become available.
“There is a lot of work to do,” says Totham. “But in terms of the AFL developing a legacy and a social impact, I don’t think there’s anything bigger than this one.
“And it’s there. It’s there for the taking.”
This is how.
Sponsorship, crowd sizes, membership and other revenues may generate $30 million a year, a shortfall of about $10 million compared with even the most hard-up clubs, according to the Bastion research. Add another $5 million for travel costs.
But proponents point out the $15 million investment to make up this annual shortfall is miniscule against the billions poured into national strategies such as Closing the Gap and Developing the North.
Gunner talks of a team venerating Aboriginal culture: an Indigenous Round guernsey as the every-round guernsey; the club’s name or nickname taken from one of more than 100 Aboriginal languages and dialects of the Territory.
“Not a club with a social licence tacked on, but a club built to be a social force,” the Chief Minister says.
Bastion estimates such a Top End team could inspire about $460 million each year in better health outcomes, education, social cohesiveness and crime reduction.
And where to play? TIO Stadium in the northern suburbs already hosts games and could be redeveloped for about $80 million. But architects have sketched a new 25,000-seat stadium at the edge of the Darwin CBD, in easy walking distance to hotels.
Townsville’s Queensland Country Bank Stadium is about the same size and cost almost $300 million, most of it provided by the state and federal governments.
An artist’s impression of a proposed new stadium in Darwin that proponents hope will host a Northern Territory AFL team.
“But for every dollar we spend [in Darwin], we’re pitching that a similar dollar has to be spent out in the bush,” says AFLNT chairman Sean Bowden of watered ovals, men’s and women’s change rooms and clubrooms doubling as community hubs and cyclone shelters.
“It’s a lot of money and it’s a big ask, but it’s overdue. We need the Commonwealth to support us here. And it’s simply what every other community in Australia is entitled to.”
Most pushing the bid favour a club representing, and drawing talent from, the entire north. Games could be set aside each year for Cairns, Townsville and Alice Springs. Training bases could be set up in towns such as Broome.
Inside the proposed stadium.
Eddie McGuire, one of the most powerful backers of a northern Australian side and 20-team competition, warns of the fierce competition for talent, eyeballs and participation as we approach the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and Australia’s possible bid for the men’s version.
“[We need to] have a full, national competition so that AFL football owns Australia,” he said on Footy Classified last month.
Totham says the bid is not an alternative to Tasmania, which is front-of-queue. Rather, the bids could be symbiotic: two extra teams means an extra game for the broadcasters and avoids the uncomfortable necessity of a weekly bye.
“The AFL needs to go to 20, not 19,” Gunner says. “We need Tassie and they need us.”
Supporters also note the AFL’s growing interest in exciting the markets of Asia, which have the potential to be lucrative for the game even with a niche following.
“Flying five hours south from Darwin enables the engagement of 24 million people, whereas flying north engages over 400 million people,” the report says.
Beyond the balance sheet, Bastion flags the biggest challenge to a northern Australian team is developing local talent and holding on to interstate draft picks and trades.
“People are going to want to be involved,” Bowden counters. “They’re going to want to come up here and do more than just play AFL football – have a little more meaning, maybe, to what they’re doing.”
https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/an- ... 58n90.html