Off the Wall

Clever moves such as the recruitment of Kevin Sheedy as coach of the AFL's future Western Sydney team masquerades the actual enormity of the challenge the AFL is issuing rugby league - and other codes - from 2011 onwards.

I know little about the AFL, but enough to know that Sheedy is one of the greatest coaches, and finest ambassadors. His appointment is a significantly more credible one than the "recruitment" of Karmichael Hunt by the future Gold Coast AFL team.

But the real test for rugby league in particular, and other codes in general, is the dollars the AFL is putting into its Western Sydney and Gold Coast franchises.

I saw a figure of $35 million over a four year period mentioned for Western Sydney alone. I understand the total spend is significantly more than that.

I read somewhere that the total budget for the development programme of the AFL in the two new target areas is something like $130 million over a five or six year period.

Because rugby league has a divided administrative structure it is just about impossible to work out what our game - under the ARL/NRL, and state entities - is spending on development. But it is safe to say it would be a fraction of what the AFL is going to spend in two areas alone.

Readers might well ask how can the spending gap be so great?

I think there are two answers. Firstly, the AFL has a much more efficient, streamlined administrative structure. Rugby league has a cumbersome hangover from the peace settlement at the end of the Super League war.

But the biggest factor is that the AFL gets around $50 million a year more from its television rights agreements than rugby league does. One estimate puts it as high as $60 million a year.

The AFL expansion plan is not basically about taking on rugby league, or soccer. It is essentially all about lifting the AFL's bargaining power in its forthcoming negotiations over television rights beyond 2011.

What concerns me is that while our bargaining power is going to be stronger because the game is rating well on free to air television, and trouncing the AFL on pay, we may well struggle to narrow the "gap" between what the AFL gets, and what we get, post 2011-2012.

If that happens, the AFL will simply have more spare funds to try and entrench itself in its targeted growth areas.

The biggest impact won't be on our crowds, but on sponsorship.

If the AFL is able to "buy" a substantial viewing audience, and overall presence, in Western Sydney and on the Gold Coast, the sponsorship dollars will follow - dollars that won't be available for rugby league, soccer and other sports.

When it comes to quality of product on television rugby league leaves the AFL for dead.

But that is not how the television deals are going to be settled. They will be based on the pulling power of each code in the market place - and in this case the media market place.

That is what the recruitment of a high profile and widely respected coach is all about - and it is what the extraordinary "spend" the AFL is committed to in Western Sydney and the Gold Coast is all about.

I agree with the club CEO's who have commented that the appointment of Kevin Sheedy is a smart PR move, and is a challenge, but the real challenge is that the club and code he will be promoting have serious dollars to spend - a spend we will struggle to go anywhere near matching.

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