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In AFL nothing is certain, except Tasmania should have a team

The argument on behalf of a Tasmanian AFL team is won. Western Bulldogs' president, Peter Gordon, who has seen his club go from pauper and premier, says there's no longer an economic case against it. AFL boss, Gillon McLachlan, acknowledges the island state should have a team.

The onus is now on the AFL to find a way. And there's the rub. A relocation is the wrong model and there isn't a 20th team on the horizon. Would the AFL consider a 19-team competition, with a built-in bye, and fancy rankings and wildcards over the last month of a 24-week home-and-away season? You never know.

The jury remains out, meanwhile, on the 17th and 18th clubs. It's year six for Greater Western Sydney and they're a flag contender. Yet last week they drew only 11,360 for a Collingwood game. That was 15.7 per cent down on the crowd for the equivalent match last year. Gold Coast is drawing 26 per cent fewer to Metricon Stadium now than in 2011, its debut season.

Not that former AFL boss, Andrew Demetriou, who drove the establishment of the two expansion clubs, will be switching philosophical horses while riding into the sunset.

Interviewed by Bruce McAvaney before a live audience in Adelaide recently, Demetriou made one concession to the expansion blueprint he oversaw. Gold Coast, he said, is likely to remain a small football club, of similar proportion to provincial Geelong. But GWS could become one of the biggest sporting clubs in the land. Demetriou remains confident about the venture he drove into what, in cricket parlance, might be termed corridors of uncertainty.

He expressed no qualms that $210 million will have been spent by the AFL on the expansion clubs through their first six years, with another $50 million still to come. Demetriou was reported as having said in the interview that the ninth game each weekend, brought about by the new clubs, is worth "more than $260 million in any year".

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This is an eyebrow-raising figure and Demetriou has since conceded that, if he said this, it was incorrect. For at that rate, nine games-per-round would be worth a total of $2.34 billion annually. That this is roughly double the aggregate of annual AFL and club revenues (after AFL contributions, pokies revenue, memberships and merchandise are excluded from the latter), indicates the impossibility of any one game each week being worth "more than $260 million in any year".

The windfall achieved in the current television rights agreement provides an average annual payment to the AFL of approximately $418 million. It should also be recognised that the contribution made by each club to this figure is not equal. Collingwood, West Coast, and Sydney pull more viewers, for example, than North Melbourne, Gold Coast, and GWS.

Bear in mind, too, that the so-called "ninth game" is, in all but two weeks of the season (when the "expansion derby" is played), a half-portion of two games: the ones involving Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney. And these two games rarely draw big crowds or, one would imagine, large television audiences. Certainly, they feature infrequently on free-to-air TV in Victoria.

Measured by home ground attendance, the two expansion clubs have consistently attracted a collective attendance of just over four per cent of the AFL total. If that equates, even roughly, to their relative popularity as television fare, their combined contribution to the annual total rights figure would be less than $20 million. And that means it could take the entirety of this TV rights cycle, and much of the next, before they've paid for themselves.

Then there's the Queensland issue. Brisbane and Gold Coast are both struggling on and off the field. Player retention is a serious problem. Leigh Matthews, football's northern state elder, recently described the Lions as a "pit stop" for players they draft.

Poor attendance figures are an inevitable outcome. Scarcely any more people are going to Queensland AFL games now than was the case when the Lions had a monopoly. A steep decline in their crowds coincided exactly with the arrival of the Suns and the numbers suggest Gold Coast has eroded Brisbane's south-coast following.

Now, even Demetriou is conceding that Gold Coast's support base is unlikely to ever amount to more than that of a "small football club". Tasmanian true believers might ask: "So why Gold Coast and not Tasmania?"

It's quite a contrast from the mindset at the dawning of the expansion dream. Believers, at that time, spoke of the western Sydney and Gold Coast corridors as growing too fast to be ignored. This was the compelling part of their argument.

The AFL's decision to opt for commercial expansion in preference to a constituency hungry for the game, has recently drawn comment from a couple of significant figures. Brisbane Lions' first-season coach, Chris Fagan, is a Tasmanian whose entire 263-game career was played out in the island state.

Speaking to Fairfax Media during the week, Fagan said: "I understand the market place argument for why Tasmania has not had an AFL team … but there is also that cultural side to football, and the four traditional football states being South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. It doesn't seem right from a cultural perspective that one of those states haven't been given an opportunity to have a team in the AFL."

Days earlier, Nick Riewoldt expressed concern for the game's health in his state of birth: "There's a big risk of allowing the sport to wither on the vine. There are already signs that the game is weakening down south … just last year there was no Tasmanian drafted for the first since 1986."

Powerful voices are at last speaking out. The AFL must find a way. Relocation of an existing team is certainly not it.