AFL to Tasmania?

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The Australian Football League has a long and complicated history in Tasmania. Despite high levels of participation and strong fan support throughout the state’s communities, Tasmania has never had a team in the national Aussie rules competition.

Currently, the AFL’s Hawthorn Hawks and the North Melbourne Kangaroos both play neutral site games in Tasmania at York Park and Blundstone Arena, respectively, and have developed strong supporter bases in both Launceston and Hobart.

Tasmania has played organized footy for longer than Western Australia or South Australia, and for such a small state, there is undeniable passion for the game. Tassie boasts the second-highest participation rate in the country (after the Northern Territory). In 1924, 1947, and 1966, the state hosted the Australian National Football Carnival.

In 1994, local footy authorities collaborated with the state government to petition the AFL to add a Tasmanian team to the national competition and play home matches at the Royal Hobart Showground. The bid went unnoticed by the AFL, who repeated the all-too-common refrain that Tasmania is too small and too remote for an AFL team, while also mentioning the lack of potential corporate sponsorship.

In 2008, Tasmanian state senator Kerry O’Brien criticized the AFL’s lack of commitment to developing professional footy in Tasmania, even mentioning that soccer was close to overtaking Aussie rules as a winter sport for children (and in some towns, it already has). Former Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon was also a notable advocate for an AFL team in Hobart.

Some media commentators have made the case that a struggling Melbourne-based club could move to Tasmania full time, as opposed to starting a Tassie team from scratch. Economist Saul Eslake, a member of the Tasmanian AFL team task force, echoes that view, saying that he doubts an AFL team will be started from scratch, and that the Tasmanian situation is unlikely to change unless a Melbourne club relocates.

In 2015, the Herald-Sun, one of the main newspapers in Melbourne, conducted a poll of 14,000 AFL fans asking where the AFL should invest its expansion resources. Over 78% of respondents wanted the league to support a bid for a Tasmanian team.

In a separate section of the poll, Tasmanian fans were also surveyed. They said that they preferred Hobart’s Blundstone Arena as the home base for a permanent AFL club. The fans also said that, while they enjoy their overall experiences at local AFL games, they felt league support was lacking in terms of marketing and promotion.

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Tasmanian Football Hall of Famer and respected sports journalist Tim Lane has mentioned that he’s seen equal enthusiasm for a Tasmanian AFL bid in Melbourne than he has in Tassie. A Launceston native, Lane began his journalistic career commentating games in his hometown before moving to Melbourne in 1979.

“I’ve found that sometimes Tasmanians have this mentality that they don’t deserve an AFL team. They do deserve one,” Lane said in a July 2015 interview with the Hobart Mercury newspaper.

“That’s the feeling in the heartland of AFL. Before, it was thought Tasmania couldn’t ­financially support an AFL team, but in this day and age you can secure the corporate funding for an AFL team. If the league expands, I think Victoria would like to see it move to an area that has a rich AFL tradition.”

Legendary Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy has been another vocal proponent of a potential Tassie club, noting that the Green Bay Packers have maintained a high level of NFL success despite being in a very small city and media market.

Several Tasmanian companies have offered to make investments in recent years to help jumpstart the necessary funding, including Mars, a pet food company, and MyStateFinancial.

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Given the nationwide support for a potential club, the onus is now on AFL CEO GiIlon McLachlan to stop dragging his feet on the idea. While significantly more open-minded to the Tasmanian bid than his predecessors, McLachlan has not maintained ongoing interest in the Tasmanian question.

In 2014, McLachlan visited Hobart, urging Tasmanian supporters to unite behind a single team, but ruled out adding any further teams to the national competition for at least another decade. AFL Tasmania CEO Scott Wade now reports directly to the league headquarters in Melbourne, and there have been occasional whispers that they’re developing ideas for a permanent team in Tassie, so all is not lost for the future. Still, critics have grumbled about AFL leadership’s general reluctance to fully embrace its Tasmanian audience.

To quote the great Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber….

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Well, there might be in due time. Until then, hang in there, Tasmania.

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