Canberra is the most logical option for the 20th AFL team

AFL, AFL expansion, featured

With a Tasmanian AFL licence a foregone conclusion, the battle for the 20th AFL licence is heating up.

Several areas have been touted for the coveted spot, with former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou stating, “The most logical places could only be Northern Queensland, somewhere in WA, but most logically in the NT”.

But one city continues to be unfairly ignored – Canberra.

Canberra is the only unrepresented city to consistently host multiple AFL men’s games every year. No other city even comes close to being a logical destination for Team 20.

Andy thinks the NT is the most logical, so let’s explore why Canberra makes more sense.

Demographics

Numbers are boring, but they’re important. Especially when determining what’s logical.

Canberra has double the population of the NT – and triple the population of Darwin.

While the bid is for the whole of the NT, focusing on Darwin is important. The team would be based out of, and play most of their games in, Darwin.

Similar to the Tasmanian bid, an NT team would share several games with the territory’s secondary city, but the two are worlds apart. Launceston (a city several times larger than Alice Springs) is only 200 kilometres from Hobart.

Alice Springs is 1500 kilometres from Darwin. Some fans can easily travel between Launceston and Hobart, but Darwin is well and truly alone.

Canberra-Queanbeyan has triple the population of Darwin – and another half of Darwin within an hour’s drive.

In terms of demographics, Canberra is the most logical option.

AFL fans

I know what you’re going to say next: “But nobody cares about AFL in Canberra.”

Well, let’s be logical and have a look at the numbers.

Numbers from tipping.afl.com.au suggest Canberra may have four times as many AFL fans as Darwin.

No, seriously, hear me out.

Of the 290,310 tipping.afl.com.au participants at the end of Round 5, the ACT had 2.5 times as many tipsters as the NT. If those figures were extrapolated to the cities, Canberra would have slightly more than four times as many registrants as Darwin.

Manuka Oval during a GWS-St Kilda AFL match

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

Tipping isn’t an absolute measure, but it’s a large sample size showing how much of a population is interested in a sport enough that they’re willing to devote part of their week to it. Note: the website was unable to provide official numbers, so here’s my working out.

Canberra also rocks up. More people to more games.

Canberra has hosted 54 AFL men’s games to Darwin’s 22. This year, Canberra will host four AFL men’s games for the first time. Since games have started in Canberra, Manuka Oval has hosted multiple games in 18 seasons, and three games 13 of those.

Darwin has only hosted multiple games in five seasons – and never more than two in a season. It will be a big leap to a full-time team.

Canberra’s pre-Covid crowds have been marginally higher than Marrara Oval, by seven per cent. But in years when the cities have hosted multiple games – which Darwin will have to do if hosting a club – Canberra crowds have been 25 per cent larger.

AFL has more support in Canberra than Darwin, and importantly, more room to grow.

Wider catchment

While an NT team has the opportunity to bring more professional footy to Alice Springs, a Canberra team has the opportunity to bring professional footy to the Riverina-Murray – an Aussie rules heartland more populous than the entire Northern Territory.

Canberra has the capacity to host an AFL club by itself, but having a club on the doorstep of the Riverina raises the opportunity to bring more professional footy to Wagga and Albury, and give back to an area that has given so much to the sport.

Southern NSW – including the ACT – had 40 players on AFL lists in 2021. This is compared to the 18 players the NT had on AFL lists in 2018. Both numbers would likely eventually rise with the inclusion of their own team, but the Northern Territory would remain more dependent on interstate talent.

The GWS dilemma

The common argument against a side in the capital is: “But the Giants depend on Canberra.”

That alone is a reason why Canberra makes more sense than Darwin.

Gold Coast has taken on Darwin as a secondary market, but nobody is stressed about the Suns losing Darwin, because compared to Canberra, it’s an insignificant market.

The Giants play three annual AFL men’s games in Canberra. But just as four games a year in Hobart does not make North Melbourne the Tasmanian team, three games at Manuka does not make the Giants the Canberra team.

Josh Kelly of the Giants celebrates kicking a goal

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

This was most evident in 2019. The Giants and the Canberra Raiders – the city’s NRL team – made their respective grand finals one week apart. The city was a mosaic of lime green, abuzz for the Raiders. There was barely a speck of orange was to be seen; the passion for the Giants was not there. Not like it would have been for a Canberra AFL team.

The Canberra-GWS relationship has been a mutually beneficial one, but one that both parties have outgrown. Western Sydney is a huge market and alienating a fanbase by keeping one foot in another market prevents the Giants from becoming the behemoth they promise to be.

The Northern Territory bid has extensive government support, which is the one area it’s currently placed ahead of Canberra. The ACT Government is supportive of AFL, and would likely support a new AFL team, but is hamstrung by the territory’s current relationship with GWS.

The NT bid is popular. But just because they’re the loudest bid, doesn’t mean they’re the best option. Just as Tasmania discovered in 2008, a popular campaign doesn’t matter if the AFL recognises a better option for the league.

A team from the Northern Territory is a feel-good story. But from demographics, proven hosting ability, existing AFL fans, room to grow and player retention, “most logically”, it could only be Canberra.

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