The forgotten state: Australian Rules in Tasmania

Sitting on the precipice of history, it’s a frightening time for Tasmanian Footy.

The past 30 years have seen football on the Apple Isle fall into a never-ending washing machine of hope and despair, an Aussie Rules heartland treated like a wilderness in the idle gaze of the ‘Australian’ Football League.

Most recently, despair surfaced in the worrying decline of Tasmania’s northwest. In response, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan reignited hope with a surprise admission that a window of opportunity was opening for a Tasmanian AFL team.

But this cycle runs decades long.

The late-80s saw the long-awaited establishment of the TFL Statewide League in Tasmania, when clubs from the north and north western leagues joined the Hobart-based TANFL.

But dwindling attendance and debt-ridden clubs plunged the league into turmoil.

Clutching at straws and hoping an AFL team would alleviate their struggles, Tasmania put forward a bid to join the national league in the mid-90s but was knocked back.

By 1999 a number of clubs had returned to regional leagues while eight-time TANFL Premiers Sandy Bay – a 53-year old club based in Hobart – folded entirely.

The league collapsed a year later.

Hope prevailed again when the State Government backed another AFL bid in 2008. Confectionary company Mars jumped on board as a major sponsor, something no other expansion proposal had.

Yet AFL CEO of the time Andrew Demetriou dismissed the bid, having already picked his lots in Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.

Under AFL Tasmania, the statewide TSL was reintroduced in 2009 after a nine-year hiatus. A middling few years followed with lukewarm interest and concerns over AFL Tasmania’s decision-making.

In retrospect, particular bad decisions are obvious, such as the body’s attempt to merge stalwarts Hobart and North Hobart to create Hobart City in 2014.

The former refused, instead jumping ship to join the Southern Football League but AFL Tasmania insisted North Hobart change their name regardless.

In a recent speech, journalist and advocate of Tasmanian footy Martin Flanagan pinpointed the change as the moment “things got personal”, both for him – his dad was North Hobart’s oldest living player at the time – and many other Tasmanians.

By 2017 club members voted for a return to their traditional name, ending the awkward four-year saga.

The league grabbed national headlines again 12 months ago after when north-western clubs Devonport and Burnie announced – within weeks of each other – that they would not be partaking in the 2018 season.

Without representation from the state’s northwest and just seven clubs currently competing, the TSL embodied the sorry state of football in Tasmania.

Respected Australian sportswriter and keen observer of Tasmanian football Richard Hinds witnessed this firsthand last year.

“I went down there recently to a game at the highest level in Tassie, North Hobart playing against a club from the north and there was hardly anyone there,” says Hinds.

“It was really sad, a famous club at a beautiful ground on a beautiful day and it was just empty.

“The economic argument we all bought was flawed because it didn’t take into account what could happen at the grassroots if they weren’t nurtured by having some sort of top level competition.

“Of course, you can’t just blame the big end of town for all of your problems. There’s been some maladministration in Tasmania itself, though I wonder if that’s a case of whether they’ve become marginalised and have lower calibre people running it.

“Maybe they haven’t had the sort of people that the AFL sent in to New South Wales and Queensland to mind those areas, it’s just been the local administrators doing their best.”

This economic argument perpetuated by the likes of Demetriou and predecessor Wayne Jackson was cosy in its short-sighted, self-seeking ‘merits’.

The market’s too small!

The state’s divided, any club would fail!

We’re getting the most we can get out of the state, people already support teams.

These were the ‘merits’ bright-eyed journalists like Hinds took and accepted from the bigwigs of the time.

“There was an economic rationalism argument that a lot of us swallowed, while there was an emotional argument running against it, run by people like Martin Flanagan, Tim Lane – who has been thumping this tub for decades – and people from down there who were more intimately involved.

“[The rest of us] were romantic about Royce Hart and Darrel Baldock but didn’t see it dwindling at the roots because it wasn’t being nurtured at that lower level.

“With age and wisdom, you can see the emotional argument has turned into an economic argument.”

“They sold that message so hard, that Tasmania couldn’t have an AFL team. It just wasn’t viable and financial.

“People like myself bought it, but now you go, why not? There’s a fairness element now, not just a bottom line… to look at the heart and soul, not just the wallet.”

Previously pushed aside by a governing body chasing more lucrative carrots, Tasmania now has the chance to convince the AFL they deserve a license. The united media front a fortnight ago was not only brilliant marketing, but a rarely seen show of unity between the state’s north and south.

Tasmanian AFL License Taskforce Chairman Brett Godfrey has the keys to the island’s bid this time around.

The co-founder of Virgin Australia Airlines is now focused on unity and junior participation.

“An AFL side will finally give Tassie kids inspiration and opportunity on par with the mainland,” says Godfrey.

“It will allow them to see and engage with their local heroes and as demonstrated with the expansion teams, participation will rise.

“The state will finally have its own team playing in the myrtle, magenta and primrose. Not a Launceston team or a Hobart team, but Tassie’s team.”

There’s more at stake this time around.

Establishing an elite club on the island comes with the opportunity to revitalise the local game before the grassroots turn into tumbleweeds.

And this won’t just happen through fortune, there must be the intention of interlacing football in the state, from the roots to the petals.

“There certainly is more energy around the bid, how that translates to local teams is a matter of how organic they make the club and how much they can tie it in to the grassroots,” says Hinds.

“You can’t cannibalise [all your resources] to create one elite team, you need to somehow create an organism that includes those and nurtures.

“I’d worry if you just go ‘okay the Suns are failing, we’ll plonk them in Tassie as an existing entity, as an elite team not plugged in organically’.

“Even aspects like scheduling games has to be respectful to local competitions, there needs to be a local academy like they have in Sydney and Queensland.

“It needs to have a sense of being organically Tasmanian.”

The AFL’s sudden change of heart towards a state previously glossed over comes at a time where sport down there is experiencing a generational shift.

Junior participation in Australian Rules is losing the battle against the likes of soccer and basketball.

In higher levels, a recent A-League bid for a Tasmanian side was heavily considered, while NBL owner Larry Kestelman is engaging in talks to buy Hobart’s Derwent Entertainment Centre to house the league’s 10th team.

Is the AFL’s new tone borne out of reaction? According to Hinds it wouldn’t be the first time.

“AFLW’s an interesting example of that where people say, ‘they’re recognising women’, but really it came early because they were reacting massively to the participation of women’s football [soccer] and wanted to counter that.

“It was spectacularly successful because the need was there, but it wasn’t as well-intentioned. It was a commercial move as much as anything.

“It might be a similar thing [in Tasmania], but I think there’s also a bit of a perfect storm. There’s prominent people pushing it now, the government has embraced it and the people arguing the case have been very good at using GWS and the Suns as a bulwark against what they’re doing.”

For Hinds, the train probably should have left the station some time ago.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to be 10 years before it happens and its already 10 years too late.”

A full season of fixtures in Tasmania will draw far more capital to the state than a fistful of exhibition-style matches. Yet winning back loyal AFL fanbases and their membership money will prove more difficult.

“They’ve found a dollar everywhere in Southern Queensland and NSW for stadiums and other things, so they should be going to work down there as well,” says Hinds.

“Whether the money’s there I’m not sure, but maybe they owe it to Tassie to support them financially.”

Support from the elite governing body of the sport is dearly required.

Pooling Tasmania’s already scarce footballing resources to kickstart an AFL team could take the island from fragile state to failed state.

Take a look at the northwest.

Footballing decline, married with economic decline, has created a toxic environment where young talent cannot flourish as it once did.

The downward spiral could see the region that produced Ben Brown, Matthew Richardson, Alastair Lynch and other household names fall into irrelevance, survived only by the annals of a poorly built website and some trivia cards.

For Hinds, the message is clear.

“You can’t take for granted people’s passion and investment in the game,” he says.

“More than any area in Australia, Tasmanians have been punished for their investment in the game.

“They were already members and watched games on TV, they were deprived of their own team because they were already locked in, whereas the other regions were seen as being ripe for that sort of thing.

“It was a handicap race. The AFL said, ‘we’ve got everything we can get out of you financially,’ and took for granted the emotional side of it.”

That they owe it them aside, if AFL brass turn their gaze from the bottom line for just a moment, footy in Tasmania could be rescued from its depths before it sinks too deep for even the league’s cashed-up claw to reach.

For the sake of the forgotten state, look at the heart and soul, not just the wallet.

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Image by Liam Fiddick