AFL success is hard for football to swallow

by Sebastian Hassett on May 13, 2011

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Seen the column inches lately for GWS Giants or the Gold Coast Suns? For the league and union-loving northern markets, it's staggering stuff.

I had the pleasure - or misfortune, depending on your view - of going out to ANZ Stadium to watch Israel Folau play a practice match for the Giants a few weeks ago. And I can assure you, I use the term "play" loosely.

Splashed over every newspaper and news bulletin was the fact that Folau, one of the great stars of the NRL until now, didn't get a single possession as his side plummeted to a 96-point hammering at the hands of the Sydney Swans' reserve team.

All through the subsequent week people wanted to talk about Folau's performance, or lack thereof, and the inglorious debut of Karmichael Hunt, another code-jumper. Both failed to have an impact that weekend and their respective teams flopped; Hunt's Suns getting belted around by Carlton to the tune of 119 points.

There's plenty of arguments to be had about the respective merits of both clubs and both players, but that's missing the point. The rank and file punters are now talking about the Giants and the Suns - and debating their future prospects, not just the novelty of the two switch-hitters. All of which means they are talking about AFL.

Let me cut to the chase. Those same people could have been talking about football. Instead, the whiff of triviality threatens to grow into something more tangible.

I've written extensively about the opportunity that has been lost in western Sydney and what the failure of Sydney Rovers means for football as a whole.

Having said that, I'm not surprised. The process behind finding a winning tender was barely a process at all. The FFA ended up hand-picking a group, who, in a whole year, managed just one press conference, an accidentally leaked logo and a generic name. Talk about uninspiring.

Now, we're stuck. On the Gold Coast, we've got an owner who can't decide if he wants to stick with football and whether it has a future in this country. Meanwhile, the Suns pulled nearly 28,000 to their first match [in Brisbane, no less], with 11,000 members already paid up and with a boutique stadium to call their own. Gold Coast United have never pulled 11,000 to an A-League match.

There's another 12 months to wait for the Giants, but they'll pack a serious punch when they start. They won't be as big as the Suns for a while, but over time, their potential can't be underestimated, especially when the AFL is certain to keep them up afloat for the next 25 years.

We haven't even mentioned the NRL yet or the significant work they're doing to reinforce their stronghold. They have the box seat in this battle and certainly won't be giving it up without a fight in the next 100 years.

Where does that leave our next western Sydney A-League team? Gasping for air in a saturated market, that's where. Having blown the chance to make a great Gold Coast team, and with the Rovers still-born, the next move out that way must be thought out extremely carefully.

Another false dawn and it could mean that football, in its supposed heartland, goes to the bottom of the pile once more. It's a sickening thought.