Hawthorn has 8000 Tasmanian members, with a total of 25,000 AFL club members across the state. Photo: Getty Images
An AFL-backed report into the game's future in Tasmania has questioned Hawthorn's commitment to developing the code down south and concluded that the club has failed to capture ''the hearts and minds'' of the heartland state.
Professor Jonathan West, an international Tasmanian-based economist and academic, has urged the AFL to present football's ''sleeping giant'' state with a firm strategy which could see the Hawks commit to up to six home games across Launceston and Hobart beyond 2016.
West told The Saturday Age his recommendations would include privileged access to home-grown talent for a club prepared to put roots in the struggling state via a Sydney/Brisbane style development academy.
With new AFL boss Gillon McLachlan contemplating the political and football pitfalls of his preferred one-team model playing home games in both the north and south, West said his almost completed research has strongly backed that model despite current negotiations with North to sign a new two-year deal with Hobart's Blundstone Arena.
West, the director of the Australian Innovation Research Centre, will present his report to McLachlan within the month strongly recommending the introduction of one team based both in Melbourne and Tasmania, playing at least five home games across the north and south of the divided state.
And West has thrown both Richmond and St Kilda into the preferred club mix, along with Hawthorn – his No. 1 candidate – and North Melbourne to commit to long-term home bases in Hobart and Launceston, which could inject an additional $60 to $80 million into that club over five years.
''I don't believe any of those clubs have any sense of what could be possible down there and what could be achieved for them in the long term,'' he said. ''If you could galvanise 70,000 people behind an AFL club with bases in Tasmania you would go a long way to awakening the giant.''
West's 18-month research came as a joint request from the restructured AFL Tasmania and the AFL. The AFL's game development has also commissioned former Tiger-turned AFL staffer Joel Bowden to work for six months on the extensive project.
According to his research, the AFL club that committed to Tasmania through north and south home games would include:
*An additional 30,000-50,000 new members;
*Government support, which currently totals $4.5 million annually divided between the Hawks and the Kangaroos;
*Sponsorship worth potentially $2-3 million each year from the University of Tasmania, Tassal and one other major corporation;
*A home-ground advantage translating to an additional one to two wins a season for a team playing six home games in Tasmania;
*The ownership of a development academy offering privileged access to new talent potentially through a second-tier team or through a rule similar to the current father-son guideline.
Hawthorn's attendances have steadily fallen since 2009 and North Melbourne appears to have undergone a recent change of heart over it's long-term commitment to Hobart beyond two to three home games each season. The Saturday Age understands new North director Ben Buckley has been influential in convincing his board that the Kangaroos – once on the verge of signing a seven home-game deal with the island state – no longer need to look elsewhere for a large proportion of home games due to the AFL's equalisation measures.
Neither McLachlan nor Hawthorn chief Stuart Fox would comment this week but it is also believed that key influential Hawthorn advisers have not discounted the prospect of committing to an additional one to two annual home games in the state. McLachlan suffered something of a backlash in April when he declared his preference for one AFL team in Tasmania.
West said: ''I think the AFL owes Tasmania a clear plan and strategy as to how to develop the game in its heartland state. I also think that a team playing here should adopt the relevant and symbolic statement saying: 'we are your club' whether it includes Tasmania in its name here or puts something on its jumper.
''I don't regard Tasmania as having a right to a team. And I'm not sure we could support our own team without a Melbourne base as well. We have to earn that right. But the AFL has never had a coherent long-term plan for Tasmania as to how the game will develop. I'm not sure it's a good look for football to be taking Tasmanian government money alone to be putting on games of football.
''It's a choice the AFL has to make. Is it willing to accept responsibility for the role it could play in changing people's lives and roll that into its strategic mission or leave it to the government to play that role.
''My sense is that Gillon understands that but, clearly, he has significant challenges. Hawthorn has been terrifically successful in attracting kids around Launceston but it hasn't won the hearts and minds of Tasmanians because it hasn't been able to convince Tasmanians its their team.
''Launceston is only one third of Tasmania and there's a bit of a backlash about that. Tasmanians know that Hawthorn's only there because it's sponsored by government money. I'm not opposed to government subsidies but I don't think the AFL's strategy should be dependent upon it.''
Despite boasting just two per cent of Australia's total population, eight per cent of AFL draftees last year came from Tasmania. Hawthorn has 8000 Tasmanian members, with a total of 25,000 AFL club members across the state. It boasts 33,000 registered footballers across all levels of the sport, 200 local clubs and a total of 70,000 involved in the game.
West's research shows that 50 per cent more Tasmanians than Melburnians per capita watch AFL games on TV. And its rich Australian football tradition has seen Tasmania contribute 25 per cent of Australian football's Hall of Fame legends.
He also found that AFL games in the state contributed $170 per tourist to the Tasmanian economy. ''But the damning thing about Hawthorn is that if the government cut off the money they'd be out of there,'' said West. ''Tasmanian social problems, the economy and unemployment are desperate and close to the worst in the country and yet football is our greatest social institution.
''A club could do for the Tasmanian community what Geelong does for Geelong, whereas the feeling towards the AFL clubs that play here now ranges from generally passive to vaguely hostile. What football can do is so much more than bring in tourists. It can change lives.''