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Business case enhances NT bid for AFL's 20th licence

David Prestipino -

A bid to establish an AFL team in the Northern Territory has gained momentum, with the addition of three AFL heavyweights to a taskforce investigating the financial feasibility of a 20th league club - based in the region - and the release on Thursday of a strategic business case.

The taskforce first formed in 2021 comprises NT government and AFLNT representatives, industry and AFL leaders, was boosted with the addition on Thursday of former AFL boss Andrew Demetriou, Collingwood champion Nathan Buckley, and Indigenous legend Andrew McLeod.

The NT has more than 40,000 Australian rules players, with 5,000 in Darwin alone, with the business case stating a club based there would bring significant social, cultural and economic benefits to the region.

AFLNT chairperson Sean Bowden said an AFL team in the NT would enhance the region's appeal as a travel and lifestyle destination, while showcasing the Territory as an attractive place to live, work and play, in line with the NT government's 2030 population growth targets.

"The AFL has a proven track record of positively influencing community outcomes in relation to education attendance, mental and physical health, crime and anti-social behaviour and equality," he said on Thursday.

"A Territory team would give our young people not just a team to follow, but a dream to aspire to, whether as a player, a supporter, a physio, a team manager, a statistician, or media broadcaster." 

The business case proposed future construction of a multi-purpose stadium in Darwin city, where the team would be based, and found the current TIO Stadium was capable of being upgraded and provide a cost-effective way of delivering a better facility for major sporting events like AFL matches. 

Investment NT has now been charged by the NT government to guide the next 18-month stage of the AFL licence bid, with an advisory group of leading professionals and industry experts to guide recommendations and decisions on investment and benefits of a 20th team in the NT.

Mr Demetriou was at the helm of the AFL when the league expanded from 16 to 18 teams when the Gold Coast (2009) and Greater Western Sydney (2010) joined the competition.

Mr Bowden and Federal Sports Minister Kate Worden head the taskforce, which found a team could be formed in the next seven to 10 years and deliver significant economic, cultural and social benefits to the NT.

The business case stated an AFL club in the region would justify construction in the Darwin CBD of a multipurpose, 20,00-seat stadium, further enhancing the economic benefits and profile of the city, while upgrades to existing stadiums TIO Stadium and Traeger Park, which currently host AFL fixtures, would also occur.

A 2019 feasibility study by AFLNT on an AFL licence in the region the forecast an economic benefit of $559m if the new club was provided a new stadium and training facilities, and up to $148 million in the first season using existing facilities. 

A permanent team would create more than 160 full time jobs and a $116m a year to the Territory economy, as the NT government eyes a $40b economy by 2030 on the back of booming resources activity and population growth.

NT Chief Minister Eva Lawler said a long-term plan to get a team in the NT was the best way to ensure success.

"This process and the strategic business case is about making sure the NT is ready to make a bid for an AFL licence when one becomes available," she said.

Last month University of Technology Sydney chief economist and industry professor Tim Harcourt said Darwin was a sentimental favourite to be the AFL's 20th team as it would make the league truly national (given Tasmania is granted its 19th licence, as expected).

"The NT has produced so many great players and the side could be based in Darwin, with a few games played in Alice Springs, and even potentially Cairns if the team encompassed Northern Australia," he said.

"However, any club in the NT would have to overcome the hurdles of a low population, the economics of a new or renovated TIO Stadium, which holds just 12,500 spectators, and an unsuitable climate. Darwin is exceptionally humid in wet season, making the ball slippery and games often unattractive."

Mr Harcourt said NT would still be a small market, even allowing for population growth, but often leads the country in Australian rules participation rates, with more than 13 per cent of Territorians in AFL programs, compared to 8 per cent in WA, 6 per cent in SA, 2 per cent in Victoria and 1.9 per cent for NSW/ACT combined.

"At AFL level, the NT produces 56 elite AFL players per million people, with only Victoria and SA ahead. ACT produces 17 ahead of Queensland, NSW and Ireland - the only major source of AFL talent beyond our shores," he said.

The AFLNT feasibility study found the AFL and its 18 clubs injected more than $1.2b directly into the Australian economy in 2018, employing 4,600 full-time employees and an additional 4,000 through casual employment.

Resulting indirect and induced economic impact associated with that found the AFL contributed $5.2b to the Australian economy each year.

The study found the AFLNT had an overall economic impact of approximately $32m, meaning each dollar it spends generates $3.20 in economic impact for the NT. 

In 2020, the NT had more than 13 leagues, 180 clubs and nearly 40,000 participants in AFL, and produces more elite level players per capita than any other state or territory.

Random AFL fixtures in Alice Springs and Darwin in past seasons and during COVID were usually sell-outs.

The Dreamtime in Darwin match between Essendon and Richmond in 2020 saw 99 per cent of available tickets sold within 15 minutes of tickets being made available.

Darwin was voted as the most popular option to have the 20th licence by AFL captains ahead of the 2024 season.

The AFL, which was contacted for comment on the taskforce announcement, is now working with the NT government and other league clubs to attract additional AFL and AFLW games to the region.

Darwin currently has a partnership with the Gold Coast Suns, which plays two games a season at TIO Stadium and has approximately 10 NT players on its AFL and AFLW lists.

A multi-criteria assessment of multiple options to engage the NT in the AFL found a sole AFL club license in the region the most attractive proposition to key stakeholders, with other options including a 'Northern Australia' licence split between Cairns, Alice Springs and Darwin, or an existing club relocating to the region.

That options would likely be struggling North Melbourne, whose coach Alistair Clarkson this week backed an expansion team in the NT, as questions on his club's future intensified after a 0-7 start to 2024.

His comments followed the Labor opposition in Tasmania on Monday backing construction of a $715m roofed stadium in Tasmania, paving the way for the AFL to grant a 19th AFL licence to the island state, where the Kangaroos continue to host four of their 11 home games a season.

Clarkson's call came as rival AFL presidents expressed reluctance for a 19-team competition.

The Kangaroos have regularly faced calls to relocate, merge or fold since the 1990s, famously turning down a lucrative offer to move from Arden St to the Gold Coast in 2007.

Besides Buckley, McLeod and Demetriou, other taskforce members include:
Kate Worden, Minister for Sport (Co-Chair)
Mr Sean Bowden, Chair AFLNT (Co-Chair)
Mr Nigel Browne, CEO, Larrakia Development Corporation
Mr Tony Edmondstone, CEO Airport Development Group
Mr Lewis Martin, Managing Director Seven Melbourne & Network Head of Sport
Mr Peter Jackson, CEO, Melbourne Football Club (2013-2018) and Essendon Football Club (1996 to 2009)
Dr Josie Douglas, General Manager, Central Land Council.

The AFLNT’s club licence strategic business case is available online.

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