Tasmania remains AFL's blind spot, and it's local footy which is now suffering most

Tasmania remains AFL's blind spot, and it's local footy which is now suffering most

Tasmania remains AFL's blind spot, and it's local footy which is now suffering most

Updated 9 February 2018, 6:40 AEDT

Despite its half-measures and empty gestures, the AFL continues to treat Tasmania as the country's footballing pariah — and now, writes Richard Hinds, local footy is beginning to suffer.

At the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, hundreds of dancers formed a huge map of Australia covering the middle of the QEII Stadium, with a famously glaring omission.

They forgot to include Tasmania.

During the uproarious days of Barry Humphries' cunning ocker linguist Bazza McKenzie, we chuckled a lot about the ''map of Tassie''. But the absence of their entire state from such an iconic image did not get many laughs from Apple Islanders.

Now, 36 years later, Tasmanians have a right to feel they have again been wiped from Australia's now much larger, richer but still scandalously incomplete sporting map.

Tasmania has no A-League, W-League, NRL, NBL, WNBL, NRL or Super League team to foster local pride. Just the Hobart Hurricanes to wave the flag during the BBL and WBBL's brief summer holiday seasons (and the Sheffield Shield team, if you happen to be walking the dog).

But it is the absence of genuine representation in the AFL that wounds Tasmanians most. Because of their rich history in that game; because less worthy and far less engaged regions have been given heavily subsidised teams and, now, because of the pain this absence is inflicting upon local clubs.

News that the Burnie Dockers had withdrawn from Tasmania's state league due to a lack of players is the latest example of how the AFL's footballing imperialism has stunted the growth of the game in a once fertile province.

On the surface, this is the sad story of a how a once prosperous club from the football-loving north-west with a rich history of participation, one that was a production line for elite level stars, can no longer find sufficient players to field a team.

There are local factors — an economic downturn, a dwindling population of football-age playing males in the region. These are not glory days in north-west Tassie.

But Burnie Football Club's collapse is also a reminder that professional sport still depends heavily on a sense of ownership and personal investment from local supporters to flourish. Regardless of what the financial indicators suggest.

The AFL rationalises its refusal to give Tasmania a team of its own on the basis of the island's relatively small and divided population and, particularly, the lack of corporate dollars required to support a team in an expensive national competition.

The case is compelling if — like myself for a time — you swallowed the idea that a club's likely survival can be predicted purely by its potential revenue streams; and if you ignore both the multiplying effect of passionate, organic fan engagement and the value this bring to the competition as a whole.

The AFL's patchwork solution to its "Tasmania problem" has been the fly-in fly-out presence of Hawthorn in Launceston and, more recently, North Melbourne in Hobart for a few games each season. These clubs bank handy cheques from the state and local governments whose taxes end up across Bass Strait.

In this way, the AFL believes it is giving the precious gift of its national competition to the grateful people of Tasmania. Much in the way most invading forces feel they are giving the gift of culture, language and "civilisation" to those they conquer.

But while the AFL boasts about rising levels of entry-level and low-age juniors in Tasmania, these numbers are not translating to participation among higher age groups. Hence the sad decline of Burnie and its north-west Tasmanian rival Devonport, which also recently withdrew from the Tasmania State League.

Retaining teenage participants in an ultra-competitive sporting, social and educational environment is difficult, as the volunteers at any local club can tell you.

Tasmania's lack of a standalone AFL team is now clearly an added impediment for local clubs in engendering greater interest in the game beyond the ceremonial appearances of the contractually obligated Hawthorn and North Melbourne.

That Sydney and GWS were allowed to operate academies outside the draft system was an acknowledgment that an attachment to a local club helps inspire and prolong participation. Tasmania's pathway between local juniors and the AFL has become a narrow, overgrown bush trail.

The AFL's "divide and conquer" method of handing northern Tasmania to Hawthorn and the south to North Melbourne only drives a footballing wedge between the two most populous cities rather than building the bridge required to field a united Tassie team.

The advent of AFLW provided another opportunity to give Tasmania a team to call its own. But instead the AFL insisted upon a joint venture with North Melbourne.

Thus Tasmania's AFLW team will be the Vichy Kangaroos, collaborating with the mainland occupiers. Not the home-grown product that might have given Tasmanians a chance to prove they could get behind a single, local team.

The reflexive response of disgruntled Tasmanian is to denigrate the AFL's expensive crusade into western Sydney and the Gold Coast. Understandably, Tasmanians ask why so much is being spent to convert heathens in the north when they have put so much in the AFL's collection plate for so long.

But regardless of its successes and failures, the AFL is wedded to its northern expansion franchises by the sheer magnitude of its financial investment.

Unflattering comparisons with apparently indifferent fans or empty stadiums in Homebush or Carrara won't sway the AFL. Tasmanians must continue to demonstrate — as the staunchest advocates have done extremely well — that their footballing history and their passion can sustain a team and, even if it can't, they deserve generous financial aid to do so.

Sadly, it might take the demise of yet more local teams for the AFL to understand what it is missing.