Empty seats: Only 6500 people turned up to see GWS take on Port Adelaide at Manuka at the weekend. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
Richmond legend Kevin Bartlett thinks Canberra has turned its back on the AFL, while Greater Western Sydney chief executive David Matthews questioned whether the Hall of Fame legend knows what he's talking about.
Just 6549 turned up for the Giants clash with Port Adelaide at Manuka Oval on Saturday – the lowest AFL crowd at Manuka and the fourth-lowest anywhere in the modern era.
Bartlett admitted the weather was terrible, experiencing the 8C and rain first hand to call the game for Melbourne radio station SEN, but he still thought the crowd was disappointing.
Disappointing crowds: Richmond legend Kevin Bartlett says Canberra might have stopped caring about AFL. Photo: Pat Scala
The five-time premiership player said the Giants were working hard to get a foothold in Canberra, but thought more should be done, suggesting the radical move of permanently relocating master spruiker Kevin Sheedy to the ACT.
Bartlett said the ACT had produced two of the biggest names in football, James Hird and Alex Jesaulenko, and remembered it as a "once tremendous football area".
He thought the AFL was like a rock star and Canberrans should come and watch it regardless of who was playing or the weather, given how few games they get to see.
"I'm always surprised they don't pack the ground out to be perfectly honest because AFL football's coming to town," Bartlett said.
"It might mean that people in Canberra are not interested in football any more.
"I know it was a cold day, but let's face it, every day in Canberra's cold, we're not going to get a heat wave.
"It clearly shows me they've got a lot of work to do if you can only get 6000 people to a stadium that holds 15,000 at the only game in town.
"They'll have to put Sheeds up there full-time I reckon."
Giants chief executive David Matthews had "no concern at all" about their support in Canberra and said the players all loved playing there because of the support.
While saying he respected Bartlett's opinion, he questioned just how much the AFL legend knew about the ACT.
"[Bartlett] wouldn't know, he just wouldn't know. I don't know that he's spent a lot of time in Canberra since the Giants started as a club," Matthews said.
"The truth is it was a very cold day and live on television ... I understand how we end up with a crowd of 6500.
"[It's] not a concern to me at all. I think we're going to build something pretty special in Canberra."
The Giants' average crowd at Manuka is 8095, which is only slightly lower than their average for home games at the Sydney Showgrounds.
Since the Canberra Raiders' inception in 1982, the NRL club has only averaged 11,304 at their home games.
But the Raiders and ACT Brumbies have turned Canberra into a rugby heartland over the past 30 years, with the AFL belatedly playing the odd game in the nation's capital since 1998.
North Melbourne, Western Bulldogs and Melbourne all sold home games to the ACT government, until the Giants signed a 10-year, $23 million deal to play three home-and-away matches at Manuka every season.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done with AFL teams viewed as treating Canberra as a cash cow.
Former Giants coach Sheedy thought the AFL had dropped the ball in not getting a team playing in Canberra earlier.
"We've got a lot of work to do to catch up and say thanks and sorry we haven't been there earlier, because it's been pathetic waiting 20 years to get there, we should've been there 20 years ago," he said on SEN on Monday.
ACT Sports Minister Andrew Barr rated the partnership with the Giants as a huge success and was also expecting crowds to grow as the Giants became a top-eight side.
He said the continued redevelopment of Manuka would also make for a better footy experience.
"Port Adelaide traditionally do not travel with as many fans as other AFL clubs, however we expect the Giants-Kangaroos clash at Manuka on August 9 to draw a big crowd given the historical connection North Melbourne has to Manuka," Barr said.