The AFL’s Gold Coast Suns and Tasmania problems could have been avoided by looking south first
For winter sun seekers the Gold Coast is holiday heaven. For the AFL it has become football purgatory.
The Gold Coast Suns’ routinely soulless 39-point defeat to Collingwood at Carrara on Saturday night was symbolic of a club stuck somewhere between its promised destination and utter irrelevance.
Before a crowd of 13,637, dominated by vacationing Victorians, the well-organised, sometimes lively but underequipped Suns struggled away, while the Magpies — used to playing before vast and energised audiences — went about the grim business of getting the four points and getting home.
Suns captain Tom Lynch, whose season was cut short by knee surgery, sat in the coach’s box. Given his contractual status, you could not help wonder whether the powerful forward was there to assess his Victorian suitors or contribute to the Suns’ cause.
However it was a contest-within-the-contest between the Suns’ best defender Steven May and Collingwood’s young gun Jaidyn Stephenson that encapsulated the Suns’ plight.
May is considered the most likely replacement captain if Lynch leaves. Yet the Pies are already targeting him as a possible replacement should their restless young key position player Darcy Moore go elsewhere. So what was on Saturday night an entertaining battle between May and Stephenson might next season be a training drill.
The fans who witnessed the Pies win at Carrara were mostly travelling Victorians. (AAP: Dan Peled)
As ABC analyst Michael Malthouse noted, clubs are picking over the Suns’ talent like vultures picking over a carcass. No doubt this will prompt the club’s pugnacious chairman Tony Cochrane to mount another passionate defence of his club. Cochrane made his name in motor racing where he had a significant advantage. His voice is so loud it can be heard over a revving V8 engine.
The Suns will also be backed by the AFL, which desperately needs a return on its nine-figure Gold Coast investment. The cynical will suggest any continued spending is out of pride, the optimists will tell you this was always a 25-year plan.
As it stands, continued faith in the Suns is based on the numbers of youngsters playing the game in a region that has, contrary to reputation, a large and growing community.
Like all sports, the AFL knows active participants including players and volunteers are more likely to be long-term consumers — attendees, TV viewers and buyers of merchandise.
But the notional transition from junior participant to Suns fans could take a footballing lifetime. Meanwhile, the AFL somehow has to find a way to nurture a rebuild so enough locals are attracted to watch an attractive, winning team to make the franchise viable.
More draft concessions are possible. But unfortunately for the AFL, the establishment of the Suns, and to a slightly lesser degree the Giants, exposed the inconvenient truth of the AFL draft — a system calibrated for 21-year-old American college graduates is far less reliable when imposed on callow 18-year-old high school boys.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan is battling discontent among fans in Tasmania. (AAP: Joe Castro)
For even the best recruiting officer, measuring the long-term ability of 18-year-olds is an inexact science.
Just ask the American talent scouts who watch brilliant high school quarterbacks gradually slip down the rankings after three or four years playing against bigger and more talented opposition in college.
Ideally, the AFL would not draft players until they were at least 20 and find their own version of the college system where outstanding juniors could properly develop before they were drafted. This would make draft picks gold chip investments instead of Bitcoin.
The AFL draft, however, is not merely a mechanism to fairly distribute players but a means to retain top athletes — or tempt them from other sports — by guaranteeing impressive entry level wages (the AFL’s average wage rose to $371,000 this season).
So the supposition of terrified Victorian clubs, particularly, that the supposedly lavish draft concessions granted both the Suns and Giants would result in two unbeatable super clubs has proven ill-founded.
ABC AFL analyst Mick Malthouse believes the twin dilemmas could be solved by moving the Suns to Tasmania. (AAP: Joe Castro)
Instead, the Suns particularly have become a quasi-college system for rival clubs who can see which draftees prosper before picking them off. The Giants have at least developed a heartbeat in Sydney’s increasingly prosperous west.
Meanwhile, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan will be in Tasmania trying to assuage the growing discontent of locals who rightly believe the game has been neglected in a state that has contributed mightily to the game.
The olive branch offered Tasmanians is a second-tier VFL team within three years — an insulting gesture given that, with the fly-in fly-out presence of Hawthorn and North Melbourne, it entrenches the notion of the Apple Isle as a Victorian province.
Malthouse and others have suggested the AFL’s solution is simple — send the Gold Coast to Tasmania. Two problems solved for the price of one.
But again, the AFL is no more likely to give up on its Gold Coast investment as it is to grant Tasmania the team it deserves in the short term.
Besides, a Tasmanian team must be organic and fully represent the history and aspirations of the locals to be successful.
So the Gold Coast and Tassie remain separate dilemmas — ones that could have been avoided if the AFL had looked south before it looked north.