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Does Queensland care about the AFL finals?

As I explained to Callaghan, those other teams won’t be travelling much, because most of them have been ensconced in south-east Queensland hubs and have been de facto Queenslanders for most of this season.

On the oval, a couple of hours later, Peter “Spida” Everitt, the colourful former St Kilda, Hawthorn and Sydney ruckman, gently exhorted his under-14 Sharks boys team to move the footy quickly. “You’ve got to move on quickly to beat their zone,” said Everitt, who shifted up to the Gold Coast a decade ago and does commentary on Triple M at Lions and Suns games.

Tigers fans outside the Gabba, which will host the AFL grand final this year. Left to right: Paul Jones, Reeve McLennan, Rebecca Keys, Suzie Rowe and daughters Alice, 8, and Sarah 3, and Ryley Linnell.

Tigers fans outside the Gabba, which will host the AFL grand final this year. Left to right: Paul Jones, Reeve McLennan, Rebecca Keys, Suzie Rowe and daughters Alice, 8, and Sarah 3, and Ryley Linnell.Credit:Dan Peled

“Spida”, whose son Boston plays in the under-14s Sharks side, felt that the AFL presence this season had definitely heightened interest in the code. In his travels on this day alone, Everitt said he’d twice been asked, “Who’s going to win the grand final?”

He added: “A lot of people have cottoned on to how good the game is.”

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Wandering around the streets of Broadbeach, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll see an AFL official. But virtually no one recognise the players who’ve stayed on after their seasons ended.

A pair of young players from two Melbourne clubs sat alone at the Burleigh Heads pub last weekend nursing martinis, completely anonymous to those in the spacious, bustling bar; ditto for two other players sipping a beer outside in Cavill Avenue, Surfers Paradise’s miniature answer to Kings Cross, when my colleague Peter Ryan and I drove past.

There seems to be a broad, yet shallow awareness of the AFL’s temporary relocation. At a Geelong v Bulldogs match practice last Sunday, a kid correctly identified the Doggies, while asking, “is that other team Collingwood?”

It’s evident that AFL and footy people occupy one bubble – this includes the Southport Sharks and alike, the Suns and Lions and the smattering of rusted-on fans – and that there’s a vast number of southern Queenslanders vaguely aware of the AFL being here, then a portion of Queenslanders who don’t know anything about it, just as many Melburnians think of Melbourne Storm only as a weather event.

Former Saint Peter "Spida" Everitt with the Southport Sharks' under-14s side.

Former Saint Peter “Spida” Everitt with the Southport Sharks’ under-14s side.

The fact that the Gabba will host the grand final, however, has been prominent in the Gold Coast and especially Brisbane media, where there’s also been hostility to perceived special privileges that the AFL has negotiated with the Queensland Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk.

The AFL’s presence, in that sense, has become a political football here. The state goes to the polls one week after the October 24 AFL grand final and the Liberal-National Party opposition, echoing voices on 4BC and from Labor-averse media commentators, has questioned how AFL people – close to 2000 of them from clubs, including the families and even parents of players and the odd nanny and swimming instructor – have been allowed into this largely COVID-free state, when others with pressing personal needs, such as dying relatives, can’t get in.

The Palaszczuk government believes that this deal with the AFL has pumped badly needed dollars into the tourist-deprived economy (the AFL estimates $60 million spent in Queensland), and privately says that the opposition would have struck the same deal had it been in office.

Probably, the strongest measure of an uplift in AFL interest in the sunshine state is on free-to-air television, where, as one Brisbane Lions official observed, there have been regular stand-alone stories on the Lions and AFL, when they’re usually just bundled into a cursory wrap at the tail-end of the sport news.

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Nine (the owner of this masthead), despite holding NRL rights, has a reporter on the AFL beat in Brisbane, which offsets the recent loss of an AFL-devoted journalist on the influential daily The Courier Mail, following COVID-19 cutbacks.

Crucially, as the official notes, Seven has started broadcasting Lions games – including this Friday night’s final against Richmond – on the main Seven channel, rather than 7mate. Ratings, according to the AFL, are up 32 per cent in Brisbane this year.

Another pointer to raised awareness of the AFL has been the Queensland sporting celebrities who’ve been sending the Lions phoned-in video messages of support for the Lions’ finals campaign. Wally Lewis, a demi-god of rugby league in Queensland, has done a video for the Lions, as have cricket legends Allan Border and Ian Healy, another NRL great Greg Inglis, tennis player John Millman, boxer Jeff Horn and gold medal-winning swimmer Jodie Henry.

The upshot, it seems, is that Brisbanites and Queenslanders, will support their team, as distinct from a relocated code.

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Leigh Matthews, the three-time Lions’ premiership coach and board member who has gone native in Queensland, believes that the success of the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast has a greater impact on the code’s penetration of Queensland hearts and minds than the AFL moving up here for the season and then hosting the grand final.

“What’s happening with the two teams has the biggest effect,” said Matthews.

The back page of The Courier Mail, as Lions insiders acknowledge, remains largely the domain of the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos.

The improvement this year of the downtrodden Suns and the ascent of the Lions to second on the ladder, coupled with the Gabba grand final, have been utterly overshadowed by the Broncos’ disastrous wooden-spoon season, which has seen their coach sacked and spawned dozens of banner headlines.

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“The Broncos being last doesn’t help us,” said a Lions insider, adding that it would be better for the AFL team if the NRL behemoth was ninth.

The AFL’s numbers for participation – especially women, where they cite 331 per cent growth over the past five years, in television, and economic impact – tell a self-promoting tale of an expanding footprint into a state that football forget for a while.

Football, perhaps, is just jolting the memories of most Queenslanders, who had followed it from afar.

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