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Tasmania's AFL push: The burning questions

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Inside the push for a Tasmanian AFL team (1:07)

Tasmanians are feeling positive about the push for a standalone AFL team based on the Apple Isle. (1:07)

For decades, many Tasmanians have campaigned for a standalone AFL team, without success.

But the Apple Isle is pushing again, thanks to the State Government-appointed Taskforce, which is looking at the business case of whether an AFL team would be financially viable in Tasmania.

Recently, ESPN spent time in Hobart talking to key figures as the Tasmanian AFL push gathers pace. Here's what you need to know.

Why is Tasmania pushing for a standalone AFL club?

Tasmania is accepted to be the first state to play the sport outside of Victoria and has a football history dating back to the 1860s. The Apple Isle has produced a long line of champions and has long desired its own team, but applications were denied in the early 1990s, ahead of the introduction of the Fremantle Football Club, and in 2008, when the AFL launched expansion clubs Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.

On several occasions the AFL dismissed bids for a Tasmanian club due to the state's relatively small population, possible lack of sponsorship and corporate support, concerns about the divisions between the state's north, south and north-west and the fact Tasmania is already a rusted-on football state, as opposed to the league's attempts at breaking into NRL and rugby heartland with Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.

Now, there is a renewed push for an AFL and AFLW team in the state.

Long-time Hobart Mercury sports editor Brett Stubbs believes this push is different to previous campaigns.

"I've been working here for 18 years, and we've been writing stories about a Tasmanian team for all that time and even longer," he told ESPN. "[In] 2008 ... the timing was wrong, as the campaign [came] after it was announced Gold Coast and GWS would receive the 17th and 18th licenses - it was [Tasmanians] putting out our hands asking 'what about us?' after the decisions had already been made. There wasn't a license available.

"This time feels different. Tasmania is a much more vibrant and economically well-off state ... Tasmania is a lot more confident in itself and we feel the timing is right."

What is the current state of play?

Earlier this year, the State Government set up a Tasmanian AFL Taskforce to build a iron-clad business case that will aim to prove the state can financially sustain an AFL team. The Taskforce -- chaired by founding Virgin Australia CEO and tourism industry entrepreneur Brett Godfrey and also including former Woolworths CEO Grant O'Brien and former GWS chief financial officer and current TasRacing CEO Paul Eriksson - is about a month away from reporting its findings back to the government. From there, if the business case stacks up, the State Government will likely seek provisional AFL and AFLW licenses from the AFL.

"The economics become the driver for whether or not the AFL will even bother to read this report," Godfrey told ESPN. "We need to be confident the numbers stack up and if they do we hope the AFL will consider the presentation."

Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman is optimistic the state will be in a good position to lobby for its own team.

"It's a fantastic opportunity to build and present a case, understand what the impediments are and plan for the longer term," he told ESPN. "I don't think anyone is expecting us to run out in a year or two, this is a longer term proposal and I think ... we have everything in place to present to the AFL, and they have important decisions to make as to how their competition looks like moving forward and how they can truly capture a national market by having Tassie in it. I think Tasmania would only add value [to the competition]."

Can the state financially support an AFL team?

This is the big question. Key figures in this push are increasingly certain Tasmania can support an AFL team.

"We know how much [AFL] football clubs cost to run: all up about $35m or so [per year] as a start, and we clearly know we need to get north of that ... the number around $40m is a start point," Godfrey told ESPN.

"The AFL provides each club with a base level of income - a share of the broadcast rights. So if we got into the competition, we'd need our share of that. But we don't want to be a drag on the AFL and by default the other 18 clubs. That's a key to our thinking - to sit around the 50th percentile in terms of our needs [from the AFL] would be the goal."

Hodgman believes the state's previously struggling economy would be robust enough to handle a standalone club.

"Tasmania's economy is the best performing in the country - we've had the highest levels of investment in our state and exports out of it, and the highest rate of growth [for tourism] of any state in Australia," he told ESPN.

"So there's a lot of interest in the Tasmanian brand in terms of business opportunities in the state and that would attract corporate support locally but also nationally and potentially internationally."

What about the north-south divide in Tasmania?

The long-standing concern that parochial divisions within the state would cruel any possible push for a Tasmanian team are a thing of the past, experts say.

"It's a great furphy," Hodgman told ESPN. "It's a myth ... this is a state-wide campaign and we're breaking down any of those misconceptions. If you look at what's happened with the Hobart Hurricanes in the BBL [Big Bash League] - they're a Hobart branded team and if you had've said a few years ago that they'd go to Launceston to play games, people might've raised eyebrows. Now when they do, it's the biggest drawing crowd they get. It's proven to be a successful venture and I think it shows Tasmanians now come together."

Nick Cummins, outgoing Cricket Tasmania CEO, reinforced that point.

"When I first started, the Hurricanes were very strongly Hobart, we played all our home games at Blundstone Arena and one of the things I was really conscious of was the fact with a relatively small population, we really did need the entire population to get behind us to grow the club," he told ESPN.

"Initially, when we approached Launceston Council [about playing games there] there was a little bit of concern or resistance. But ... it's been really successful, to the point where we have gone from playing one game to two there. Playing WBBL games in Burnie [was also a success]. We were told that no one in Launceston would support a team that has the word 'Hobart' in it but in our first game in Launceston we sold more Hurricanes merchandise at that game than we have sold at any Hurricanes game in history.

"While there is intrastate rivalry, sometimes that's used from outside the state to drive it [the north-south divide] ... it perpetuates a myth that the state can't work together and I think the Hurricanes have shown that's a falsehood."

Recently, the state's three major newspapers - the Hobart Mercury; The Advocate, based in the north-west and Launceston's Examiner - joined forces to push state-wide support for the cause.

"It was great symbolism that the three regions can work together - this hadn't ever happened before, we've never worked together to come up with the same front page, we're independent newspapers, competitive among eachother," Stubbs told ESPN. "We use the analogy that it's like [Collingwood president] Eddie McGuire and [ex-Carlton president] John Elliott coming together and doing something for the betterment of the game, not their individual clubs."

Where would games be played?

The team's base is still yet to be decided but all parties are adamant that games must be split between Hobart and Launceston to ensure state-wide support.

"There are about 250,000 people in the north and 250,000 in the south, who are all largely similarly engaged in football and it makes perfect sense ... to play games equally in both areas," Godfrey says.

Launceston's University of Tasmania Stadium, and Hobart's Blundstone Arena can both hold just under 20,000 fans. Hodgman says he supported sharing games between each venue, while his government is "open minded" about the possibilities of redeveloping either ground, or exploring whether a bigger, more modern stadium would be more suitable.

"Both 'UTas' and Blundstone are capable venues but as to what happens in the future there, or other exciting opportunities, we have to be open minded and it's all part of the package we need to present to the AFL," he told ESPN.

What about player attraction and retention?

One of the major question marks regarding a possible Tasmanian team is the fact some players from major metropolitan areas may not want to move to a smaller city such as Hobart or Launceston.

Cummins, who has overseen the Hobart Hurricanes' recruitment over the past three years, admits his club had experienced some issues in attracting players to Tasmania.

"It is challenging ... I think cricketers [more than AFL players] probably better understand they may have to move for opportunity but even then we've had lots of conversations with players who are reticent to move to Tasmania just because they don't want to move away from home," he told ESPN.

But Godfrey, a Queenslander with business interests in Tasmania, said the state's two major cities had become much more vibrant in recent years, adding not all young draftees want to live in the big smoke.

"People often forget that not every kid in Australia lives in a city and plays junior footy in a city ... some kids just can't or won't cut it (living in a city like Melbourne or Sydney)," he told ESPN. "[Former NRL star] Jonathan Thurston by his own admission said he played his best footy in Townsville because he got out of the city environment and he felt at home going back to the smaller city. Then you look at Geelong - it's a regional city. I think people will go and play in Tasmania just as they do in other sports and I think it'll surprise people how vibrant the two cities are today."

As far as current Tasmania players in the AFL, several contacted by ESPN had no hesitation in saying they'd love to play for their home state.

"The only bad thing would be, I'd likely be too old to play by the time a club gets set up," one veteran AFL player told ESPN without wanting to be named. "I'd be gutted to miss out."

Would a 19th AFL team dilute an already thin talent pool?

This is another key concern for critics, who believe the AFL talent pool has already been stretched too thin after the introduction of Gold Coast and GWS.

In 2019, there were 812 male players on AFL lists and a 19th club would add more than 40 extra players.

AFL Tasmania boss Trisha Squires said while a Tasmanian team was still only a hypothetical, she was confident participation would spike if it was given the green light, which would only lead to more talent making its way into the AFL system.

"It's hard to quantify because it hasn't actually happened so there's no hard facts but what I do know is, when the VFL team was playing in Tasmania, participation took a large spike in the state," she told ESPN.

"[That may have been] due to people being more interested in football [and] having footy heroes based in the state."

Godfrey agrees, saying more Tasmanian AFL draftees were likely if the state's grassroots systems were healthier, and young hopefuls had local heroes to look up to.

"If you look at engagement and participation in GWS and Gold Coast, they've gone through the roof since they've had their own AFL teams," he says. "There's no doubt talent pathways have been challenged [in Tasmania] since 2008 and our research shows engagement has declined since that time. I credit the AFL for looking to fix those problems.

"Increase participation and more talent should flow through to the AFL."

Where does AFL Tasmania stand in all this?

AFL Tasmania is in a tricky position of being an arm of the AFL but being the public face of football in the state.

Squires says while she was well aware of the push for a standalone team, she had to remain focused on her key issues, namely growing grassroots football across the state.

"We try to support the Taskforce with any information they may need, [namely] things that are relevant to the work we do, which is grassroots footy and talent pathways," she told ESPN.

"We have to stay focused on grassroots footy - that's what our role is as the governing body in Tasmania, to look after the Aus Kickers, or [those] playing TSL, or community leagues. But there's no denying there are passionate Tasmanians who have an aspiration to have an AFL men's and women's team and if we can provide any assistance for that group [the Taskforce], we're happy to do that."

What about Hawthorn and North Melbourne?

Since 2001, the State Government has backed Hawthorn to play games in Launceston while in 2012 a similar deal was struck with North Melbourne to host games in Hobart. The government's outlay is a combined total of about $7 million a season (the government refused requests for an exact figure). Both deals will expire in 2021 and it's unclear whether they will be extended beyond then.

Hodgman said both clubs had delivered huge positives to the state since playing games in Tasmania.

"The arrangements with Hawthorn and North Melbourne have been fantastic and we respect those relationships built over many years ... we do need AFL content in Tasmania and we don't have a team of our own, so we want Tasmanians to be able to watch footy in their own backyards," he told ESPN. "We do need to be conscious of the investment that both clubs have made ... they are important partners and we really respect them. We've been open and transparent with them through this process and they've been engaged with it, which is fantastic as they have insights in to the Tasmanian market and football community.

"North Melbourne and Hawthorn do so much more than just play games here, they're so active in their respective communities and support a lot of Government policies and priorities. So we'll see what the report says and what it means for the next steps but we will continue to engage with those clubs in the process."

Both Hawthorn and North Melbourne declined to comment when approached by ESPN.

Is the AFL listening?

This is the big elephant in the room. As strong as any business case or emotional argument may be, if the AFL is resolute in not wanting a Tasmanian club, then it will amount to nothing.

Godfrey says the league had been supportive of the Taskforce's work but had offered no guarantees.

"The AFL has been supportive and given us access to information that they could've easily not done," he told ESPN. "But it's not on the AFL to come and ask to give them a valid reason for a license, it's up to Tassie to put their best foot forward and prove why they'll add value to the competition. The AFL is a business, it is responsible for 18 clubs and is a long and sustainable competition - for them to do what they've done so far is all we can ask of them."

Hodgman is also in regular discussions with the sport's governing body.

"We have [had ongoing discussions with the AFL] and previous governments have also lobbied the AFL," he told ESPN. "I think their preferred position is to let this process run its course [and then see what happens] - they've been supportive of it and understand where we're coming and once the work's been done, we can go to the AFL and present our case but also understand what they expect from us."

The AFL declined to comment when approached by ESPN.

What happens to Tasmania if this never gets off the ground?

Make no mistake, football is under threat from rival sports, particularly basketball and soccer, when it comes to participation and engagement in young people. While AFL Tasmania has done a commendable job in boosting these figures in some areas, the likely imminent arrival of a Tasmanian NBL team and the possibility of an A-League side in the state would further weaken football's previous iron-clad dominance as the No. 1 sport in the state.

NBL boss Larry Kestlemen is forthright in saying his league saw the state as a huge opportunity.

"We're a national basketball league, and ... our goal is to try to grow the game as much as possible around Australia," he told ESPN. "And there's a real appetite and hunger for the people of Tasmania to have a team in a national league ... and it's a great opportunity for us to deliver what they want.

"We're working hard ... to make it [basketball] the No. 1 sport there."

Trish Squires: "All sports have a space in Tasmania - we want all kids playing sport. I don't necessarily think it's a competitive space ... football is affordable, safe and enjoyable for men and women so if you were to choose one, [we hope] football is at the top of the list."

Hodgman believes all sports are welcome in Tasmania.

"We are a footy state but we want to see Tasmania on the national stage," he told ESPN. "For the first time in a long time, we have basketball, soccer and other codes to be looking at Tasmania's sporting landscape."

Godfrey says the threat of basketball is obvious.

"There are viability issues [for football] as the prime sport in the state - there are other sports making inroads and national leagues looking to enter the market and that will send participation [for those sports] skyrocketing," he told ESPN.

"In business -- and the AFL is one of the best businesses going around -- the No. 1 thing is protecting your existing market share before you look at new markets. Protect your underbelly and your own market share because that's what saves you in tough times. The risk is, if there's no certainty now, I think there's a real risk of a founding football state losing its dominant position."

Would Tasmanians support a Tassie team or their current clubs?

It's a question most football fans in the state would wrestle with if a team was established in Tassie.

Jim Wilkinson, chairman of the Football Tasmanian Board who has passionately supported the Swans since playing for South Melbourne in the VFL in the early 1970s, told ESPN he'd have to switch allegiances if a club was formed in his home state.

"[I'd] have to go for Tassie - you'd be hoping your children could come through the pathways that are being introduced to hopefully be picked up by the Tasmanian team," he said.

But Aaron Robinson, North Melbourne's Tasmanian supporters group president, said he'd always support the Kangaroos as his No. 1 team.

"I probably wouldn't support them [Tasmania] to start off with -- I've supported North Melbourne my whole life -- I'll probably sign up as a member to go to the matches but I'll still support North," he told ESPN.

The vast majority of Tasmanian footy fans contacted by ESPN said they'd buy memberships for both their current club and a Tasmanian team should it be introduced, something Lauderdale Football club president and Taskforce member Julie Kay had also been told by many in the state's football community.

"I understand a lot of Tasmanians already support teams but hundreds and hundreds of people have told me 'I'll keep barracking for [my current team] but Tasmania will always get my membership as well'," she told ESPN.