Could we have our own team?

PRIME Minister John Key might have been a little overzealous when he urged the AFL to “get real” and put a team in New Zealand.

 

But three years on, his country looms as a logical destination, should the league decide to expand.

St Kilda and Carlton will play the third match for premiership points on New Zealand soil this Saturday and Saints midfielder Shane Savage believes a team representing the land of the silver fern is “not out of the question”.

“One day down the track. There is a lot more work to do now. If the AFL can keep doing what it’s doing and gain more awareness with the people then it’s definitely a possibility,” Savage said.

Coincidentally, both of Savage’s AFL clubs — St Kilda and Hawthorn — have developed partnerships with New Zealand.

The 24-year-old would like to see more AFL games played across the ditch.

“For me being a New Zealander, it would nice to have more games. Right now St Kilda are pretty happy with one game on ANZAC DAY. Hopefully we will keep it going, and then get more happening and get it bigger.”

In response to Key’s declaration before the AFL’s first international match at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium in 2013, former AFL chief Andrew Demetriou described New Zealand as the league’s fastest growth market outside Australia.

There’s an estimated 40,000 children playing football in schools across the country and AFL NZ’s talented player pathway is starting to flourish. There’s three international scholarship holders with AFL clubs and another two international rookies.

AFL NZ chief executive Robert Vanstam believes developing a connection with an existing AFL side will eventually grow the market to support a stand-alone franchise.

“I think in the short term what you’re going to find is a team in Australia that New Zealanders call their own,” he said.

“As soon as they’ve got enough players that are established in Australia it starts to become an option.”

St Kilda has been the home side in all three matches in Wellington.

Club chief Matt Finnis hopes to sign 10,000 New Zealand based members to a tailored packaged by 2018.

While Tasmania is the popular choice, New Zealand could prove a move profitable venture and give AFL footy an international feel.

EIGHT REASONS WHY AN AFL TEAM IN NEW ZEALAND MAKES SENSE

1. STRONG GRASSROOTS

There is already 40,000 kids participating in AFL across the country through AFL New Zealand’s KiwiKick program and there’s an established pathway for youngsters to progress through to an AFL club. An AFL academy program has been established and a combine for AFL recruiters to assess the best talent is in place. There’s currently three New Zealanders on international scholarships with AFL clubs and two international rookies.

2. SUITABLE GROUND

Westpac Stadium, or ‘The Cake Tin’ as it’s affectionately known, is a 34,000 capacity oval-shaped, multipurpose venue built in 1999. About to host its third AFL match, the stadium is 235m in length and more than adequate for AFL football.

3. JUST ACROSS THE DITCH

The time zone, climate and distance are favourable to an international venture. It’s just under four hours to fly from Sydney to Wellington, which is a shorter journey the Swans make to play the Dockers or Eagles. Australian Eastern Standard Time is two hours behind New Zealand, meaning clubs could comfortably return home on a Saturday afternoon following a match.

4. BROADCAST CASH

A New Zealand franchise would open up a whole new market (approx. 4 million people) and therefore boost the value of the TV rights deal. This expansion would give AFL exposure across four time zones and allow the league to stagger fixtures from east to west. Saturday lunchtime matches from New Zealand would be shown in Australia on a Saturday morning, allowing coverage of four games back-to-back leading into Saturday night.

5. SUCCESS OF KIWI FRANCHISING

AFL is one of the only major codes not to have a professional presence in New Zealand, while Kiwi franchises in Australian domestic competitions have been successful in the past. The New Zealand Breakers are the reigning NBL champions, the Warriors are always entertaining in the NRL and the Wellington Phoenix are well placed to contend for the A-League title.

6. FAN ENGAGEMENT

The excitement generated by the success of the Blackcaps during the ICC Cricket World Cup shows the love for sport in New Zealand and its ability to defy the odds. While country v country battles are a while off, there’s little doubt the Kiwis would rally behind a side competing in Australia’s native game.

7. ATHLETES

The successful transition from Rugby League to AFL by Kieren Jack and Isaac Heeney demonstrates the growing crossover in athletic traits between the two sports. New Zealand has such a strong Rugby League and Union culture, therefore many athletes with that unique size, agility and speed could add another dimension to our game.

8. ROLE MODELS

Along with Savage, Max Gawn, Jasper Pittard, Heath Grundy and Greg Broughton are AFL footballers with New Zealand heritage and they’re already role models to young New Zealanders wanting to play our game. The form of Hawthorn defender and international scholarship holder Kurt Heatherley in the NAB Challenge was extremely encouraging, too.

 

Story – Adam Baldwin (Fox Sports)