The success of the Giants is easy to measure. Since entering the national competition, membership has trebled to 30,108, a figure that outstrips every Sydney-based NRL club. Commercial sponsorship is in the top third of AFL clubs.
Most importantly, the team is winning.
Of greater significance, although more difficult to quantify, are the benefits the rising Giants have bequeathed to the competition as a whole, including Victorian clubs. AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder says it is no coincidence that since GWS joined the competition, the existential debate about smaller Melbourne clubs has ceased.
“The two new teams are significantly commercially positive for the AFL,’’ Goyder says. “They give our media partners access to bigger population areas and there is no doubt in my mind that the broadcast rights outcome of a few years ago was enhanced materially by having teams on the Gold Coast and Western Sydney.
“That has been to the benefit of the whole industry.”
The AFL estimates the additional weekly game created by the two-club expansion represents $54 million within its annual broadcast right deal. This figure undersells the strategic importance of western Sydney, home to 2.5 million people, having a team of its own.
“There is a western Sydney thing, a patronising attitude of a lot of Sydney to western Sydney is ingrained in Sydney culture, that attitude that anyone living west of ANZAC Bridge has got to be a bogan,’’ says GWS chairman Tony Shepherd, a former president of the Business Council of Australia.
“People in business are now realising this is the fastest growing region in Australia. This is an area not to be ignored.”
For evidence of this, you need only follow the money. At the end of last season, car maker Kia ended its long-standing Essendon sponsorship and tied its brand to the Giants, joining Virgin and Toyo Tires, a national company headquartered near Campbelltown in western Sydney, as the club’s top tier sponsors.
Simon Garlick played for the Sydney Swans, ran the Western Bulldogs and is CEO of sports sponsorship and brand consultancy Bastion EBA. He says western Sydney, with its large population and cultural diversity, is of vital importance to football’s big consumer brands such as NAB, CUB and Toyota.
“It’s entirely conceivable to think that in 20 years, GWS will be a commercial powerhouse in Australian sport,’’ he says.
To the AFL’s broadcast partners, NSW and Queensland offer a glittering prize.
Shane Mattiske, a former NRL senior executive who helped rugby league shape its most recent broadcast deal, explains that when it comes to football on TV, Australia’s southern states are in effect, a saturated market.
“Where there is real growth, for subscription and television audience outcomes, is the NSW and Queensland markets, where 50 per cent of the Australian population resides,’’ says Mattiske.
The 2008 decision to license new teams on the Gold Coast and in western Sydney was one of Colin Carter’s final acts as an AFL commissioner. He is now the president of Geelong, the club that would have played the Giants on Saturday had they gotten past Richmond.
Carter says it is telling that the 16 existing AFL clubs all supported the expansion.
“The fear of all the clubs is that the draft concessions would create monsters which would dominate the competition, which has proven not to be the case,’’ he says. “The strategic imperative was that, if we woke up in 50 years time and found we had 14 of 16 clubs below the Murray and over half of Australia’s population north of the Murray, we would have made a big mistake.”
Carter says the expansion is a generational investment and arguably the greatest risk the AFL has taken since shifting the Swans to Sydney. Yet he argues that the cost to the AFL of maintaining the Giants and the Suns is routinely exaggerated.
“The best single measure of what this is costing the competition would be to ask, how much more are the Giants and the Suns supported each year by the AFL than the most supported clubs in Melbourne, who have been here for 150 years?”
To answer that, it’s not as much as you might think. The Giants last year received total AFL dividends of $22.7 million. This is is less than $4 million more than St Kilda received.
Giants chief executive Dave Matthews says GWS is a long-term project that has made serious inroads in a short time.
“Particularly in Sydney, to capture hearts and minds in such a cluttered market you really need to be winning,’’ Matthews says.
“It’s important in western Sydney that communities trust you and trust you are going to be there and put your roots down and establish a club forever.’’
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.