RAW: How The SANFL Is Also Being Stitched Up By The Adelaide Oval Deal

31st May 2011

That now near infamous telephone call placed by AFL Chief Andrew Demetriou with SACA President, Ian McLachlan, in August 2007 may well go down as the most pivotal moment in this State’s sport, if not ever, then certainly since the SANFL decided to split from its co-tenancy at the Adelaide Oval 40 years ago.

The invitation communicated at that time was to the SACA to get top flight football back to Adelaide Oval, an intended boon to its members and football followers across the State. Suspiciously, those discussions were held in secret for near on two years, with the SANFL, runners of the local competition and owners of both the Port and Crows franchises, excluded from the forum negotiating the future of football in South Australia.

For the AFL, at its core, were three main objectives. Ostensibly, at the top of the list was a desire to get football back into the centre of the city, thus dealing with the decline in the remaining useful life of Football Park and regenerating interest in football in this State, then starting its period of decline.

The second objective, only just now making its appearance on the public stage was to rid the SANFL of those AFL team licenses and have them return to AFL ownership.

There has long been AFL antipathy towards the SANFL over the management of those licenses. The oval management deal at Football Park, in particular, means that profits from games held there have been mostly creamed off by the SANFL itself with a view to using those funds to prop up the nine clubs (Glenelg, Sturt, Norwood etc) that own it. The great brag that the local SANFL competition was the second best in Australia (after the AFL itself) was built on the amount of money clubs had available to them to pay players.

But as Port crowds, in particular, started plummeting, the impact on the AFL competition was becoming obvious. Port games played at Football Park cost it an estimated $750,000 in 2010, causing the Power to enter a period of financial crisis and lose touch with the major clubs around the country in terms of spend, on and off the field.

With this history, this morning’s news that Port is broke and needs to be taken over is neither a surprise nor contrary to the plot.

By participating in the Adelaide Oval deal, cheered on by a desperate Port Adelaide, itself supported by the likes of Ian McLachlan himself and Treasurer, Kevin Foley, and The Advertiser (after its conversion about the oval on the road to Damascus after last year’s State election), the SANFL has now exposed itself and is caught out hopelessly in no man’s land.

Behind it is Football Park, admitted during the SACA members’ debate and in every corner since as clapped out and out of date. After the State Government withdrew its $100m promise of upgrade money in favour of the Adelaide Oval idea and FIFA and FFA made it plain it had no interest in that place, the SANFL ran out of options about how to bring that oval back up scratch, especially with both the Crows and especially Port, on the back of declining attendances, costing it money to support.

Before it is their interest in the SMA but its tenure on that is fragile. With no sign of any party being willing presently to put up the extra cash needed to fund the Adelaide redevelopment works when the costs blow out, they are left vulnerable, especially as the SMA is a company limited by guarantee meaning (amongst other things) the shareholdings have no value and profits generated by the SMA cannot be distributed out. (As pointed out previously, the SMA is no joint venture when it comes to ownership and profits between the SACA and the SANFL at all.)

To its flanks it has the prospects of the sale of Football Park and the present offer of the State Government to build one of its tram lines to its door, an offer that experts suggest will add around $100m to the lands’ value.

Thus, their problem. The AFL will contribute next to nothing to the Adelaide Oval project, firstly because of the poor negotiating position taken by Foley and Conlon and secondly because the AFL will do nothing to help the SANFL while it retains ownership of the Crows and Power licenses.

When the costs start to blow out, a government already in the deepest financial hole, will embrace the AFL’s new offer but it will be one predicated on the transfer of the Crows and Power licenses back to it.

If the SANFL does not play ball, then not only may the Adelaide Oval not happen (how then will it revive Football Park?) but the Government may also see fit to withdraw its commitment to the tram line, worth $100m to the value of its West Lakes land. How then also to finance the black hole at Alberton?

With the licenses gone, so too its raison detre for being involved in the move to Adelaide Oval at all. Further, the AFL will not stand for a repeat of the SANFL creaming off profits in management deals for catering, booze and the like as it has at Football Park. Hence, SACA’s stakeholders in the SMA will become representatives of the Crows and Port, then owned by the AFL and it will be they who control the profits (including the car park revenue) and not the SANFL.

With the AFL firmly in control of the Adelaide Oval, then the only decently sized stadium in the State, it can dictate which if any and profit handsomely from any fixtures contemplated in this State by the other football codes – rugby league or union or soccer.

And so these are the reasons why the club licence debate has suddenly been kicked off now, post the SACA members’ voter and before the legislation is approved by Parliament.

So at the end of this, the SANFL will likely be a wealthy football association running a tin pot local feeder league for the AFL clubs to poach from. Its status in the world of Australian football as a big player gone and its hubristic name, the South Australian National Football League, a bigger joke than it has been for very many years. The ultimate humiliation will be that forty years after securing its own future by establishing its own home, now it will no longer have one. Max Basheer must be grimacing watching all this and Don Brebner turning in his grave.

As for the end game, four years hence, well that leads back to the AFL’s third objective for wanting the SACA to embrace the AFL on Adelaide Oval and that is the advancement of its league as the national football code. If, upon returning major league football to Adelaide Oval, Port crowds don’t pick up as that silly South Australian Centre of Economic Studies report assumed (to an average of 30,000 per game – around double the last Port home crowd and 50% greater than its season average to date), then the AFL will simply move the franchise elsewhere – to Canberra, Darwin or perhaps, given Port’s suitable history, to Port Arthur, just south of Hobart.

This will give the AFL with little additional cost, the sort of national competition that the NRL and FFA can only dream about.

Of course at that point, Port Adelaide cheer leaders Michelangelo Rucci, Graham Cornes, KG and their ilk, along with Foley (long gone to Sydney) and McLachlan will realise they too have been duped. And  The Advertiser and Sunday Mail, faithful and superb supporters of the Adelaide Oval redevelopment, already with falling readership, will see that their last hold over the rank and file Port supporters as readers gone as well.

With Adelaide Oval ruined, a hideous footbridge leading to the door of the casino, Port playing in Darwin, the SANFL without much purpose in life and the SACA unable to afford playing its teams on what had been its home for 130 years, all those who sort a ‘game changer’ in town will have every cause to feel very pleased with themselves.

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