The AFL returns to Manuka Oval today in the new form of the Greater Western Sydney Giants. The Canberra Times sports editor CHRIS WILSON spoke to AFL boss ANDREW DEMETRIOU about the 10-year vision for the national capital.
Chris Wilson: Andrew, will this Giants arrangement work in Canberra?
Andrew Demetriou: Canberra's been such a great supporter of the AFL and our games there. They were entitled to feel they've earned the right to have a team now that will call Canberra home. Over time we're hoping the local population will feel a great deal of ownership and equity in this football club, whereas in the past it's been a club playing a game and not coming back for a year or two, or different clubs playing games. At least we'll get some continuity.
It's on the record that the AFL probably missed the boat in Canberra. We were there in the late 80s, we left, we came back. There's a great AFL following in Canberra that we're keen to rebuild. We've got great support at the local level. I just see this as a further extension of that relationship that hopefully gets us back to where we rightfully belong – as an AFL town.
CW: Will it be a hard sell, given the Giants are likely to struggle?
AD: It's going to be a struggle, but it's a struggle we're prepared for. I don't think the fact they're not going to win is going to be the big challenge – this club has to be genuine in it's commitment to the community both in Canberra and Greater Western Sydney. You can't connect with a community if you do it half-hearted, the community will see right through that. I think success will be judged on whether they earn the respect of the community. If they're losing fine, but if they're committed and engaging with the community on and off the field I think that gives them a good foundation to go forward.
CW: On that, Giants coach Kevin Sheedy says previous teams that came to Canberra let down this city and the AFL by not following through with their commitment. Is that a fair criticism?
AD: That's what I was alluding to earlier. It's understandable that if you really want to engage with the local community you've got to be all in and totally committed and that's why GWS have signed a long-term agreement to play their games there. I think that's showing real commitment and I think the local population will respect that.
CW: The Giants won their first game last weekend, but how long before they're winning regularly?
AD: If I listen to all the experts, they say 2012 will be a very difficult year with a lot of losses and some by big margins, but they'll be better for the experience. I think in the second year they expect improvement. But I think everyone expects them in year three to be very competitive, with two years of experience under their belt. I think we all understand 2014 is a year where you're going to see the club being competitive.
CW: Are you confident Canberrans will be patient and follow the Giants through that set-up stage?
AD: I think people want to see a committed team having a go. Despite the fact the Gold Coast were losing last year, you could see they were having a go and they were basically everyone's second favourite team last year. If GWS can show the same commitment, respect for the game, respect for the community, I think that'll help. I think people who know the game understand they're not going to win many games in 2012, if any.
CW: Canberra used to be a strong Aussie Rules city prior to the emergence of the Raiders and Brumbies, what percentage of that market can you win back?
AD: I'm hopeful and confident that in time we will rebuild our relationship with Canberra, the ACT and make it an AFL town. While we fully respect the NRL and ARU, Australian Rules did have a footprint in Canberra, they've still got some footprint.
CW: Do you really believe AFL could become Canberra's No.1 football code?
AD: I hope so, but I hope what it does become is someone that's putting back into the community.
CW: Critics would say the Giants have a great deal – $26 million to play 40 games over 10 years. How does the AFL plan to invest back into Canberra?
AD: We've got great support from the ACT Government and I do want to compliment [ACT Sports Minister] Andrew Barr who showed the courage and vision to support GWS. That was a courageous decision, we've worked really closely with the ACT Government and I'm hopeful we can repay that faith. Obviously we're receiving Government funds which we don't take for granted, these are taxpayers funds. We have no doubt that there'll be a huge economic impact from playing AFL games in Canberra, we see that everywhere we play. We're seeing it on the Gold Coast now, both from a tourism and local industry benefit. There's no doubt we're creating more jobs by having a team play three games in Canberra and that again goes towards economic activity in the region.
CW: But what about direct financial return? Will the AFL help in any facility upgrades to Manuka Oval for example?
AD: We've got an outstanding track record of any time we see Government funding the AFL would be there co-investing in any project. If at any point in time it's something that's the right thing to do for infrastructure, then we will certainly be there co-investing.
CW: The three Giants premiership games in Canberra this season coincide with weekends for NRL Raiders home games. Does that concern you?
AD: That's not of our doing, we put our fixtures out very early. I think it shows that the NRL are serious about competing which we understand and respect. You wouldn't expect anything else. So we'll put our best foot forward. In a way it's a shame because it's got the potential to cannabilse crowds. If there was a full-house watching the Brumbies, Raiders and GWS, that's a good thing. It's much better than having two games on at the same time where crowds are affected or even the viewership on TV is affected because of a clash. But it will be what it will be.
CW: At least the first clash, on the weekend of April 28-29, the Giants and Raiders play on Saturday and Sunday respectively?
AD: It's a stretch for a local community to go to two events on the one weekend, I understand that.
CW: What's your vision for AFL in Canberra in 10 years time?
AD: A very successful football club that's had exclellent success on the field with the player-list they've got, it's a well established club that's respected by the community, that has put back into the community and is totally committed to Canberra as well as Greater Western Sydney. Hopefully what we're doing in the eighth or ninth year – or even earlier – is talking to the ACT Government about extending this very successful partnership.
CW: Is it unrealistic then to think Canberra can position itself for its own AFL team?
AD: We haven't got any new clubs on our radar. We've said if there was ever to be a new team we could see one in Tasmania as the next cab off the rank, but you never know. It certainly won't be in my time here at the AFL because we're committed to 18 teams for the next five years. But who knows, someone might come along and think we need a team in Tasmania, Canberra and north-Western Australia, who knows.
CW: The Giants play Richmond in a pre-season game today, followed by premiership matches against the Western Bulldogs, Gold Coast Suns and Melbourne Demons. Will Canberra be enticed by that?
AD: I think so because Western Bulldogs and Melbourne have played in Canberra over the last few years and they've received good support. I think what we do expect is the people that go to games in the first year or two won't all be GWS fans. I would expect them to be AFL fans who support other clubs and that's a good thing. Hopefully in time they'll choose GWS as their team. They've got to earn the respect of the local community, they've got to engage, they've got to be committted and if they can show that hopefully they can become someone's first team or, if not, their second team.
CW: Will you personally attend any matches in Canberra?
AD: I'm planning to attend the Western Bulldogs game, which I understand is going to be attended by some very important people.
CW: The Prime Minister?
AD: It may be, but I don't do her diary.
CW: Back to the schedule, is there a plan to rotate different AFL teams through Canberra?
AD: That's our intention. We've got 10 years and I think the local population is entitled to get a good mix of teams playing in Canberra. This agreement allows for that. Let's see what happens this year but I think it's a fair call.
CW: Can I make just one request then on behalf of Canberra – what about bringing back our favourite AFL son James Hird in a clash against his old Essendon coach Sheeds. It would be a marketing dream. Can it happen?
AD: Of course it could happen and it would be a marketer's dream, it'd be great to see Kevin and James going head-to-head. We look forward to that when Essendon play GWS up at Skoda Stadium, but you never know, I don't see why not.
CW: So Canberra will be considered capable of hosting marquee games?
AD: I think so, given that we've got some constraints about playing at Skoda Stadium because of the Royal Show. It's difficult for the Giants to play before May in Greater Western Sydney so that throws up all sorts of possibilites and flexibility for this team to play all sorts of clubs.