I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on this subject for much of the 2013 AFL season and finally got around to it now. We are currently entering Round 19 of the season and the GWS Giants are still yet to win a game this season, after winning two games in the 2012 season. Now it is not a surprise to anyone that the Giants have struggled dramatically on the field in their first two seasons. The way the AFL expansion was set up, it has the new teams be awful early on, but with a dearth of young talent and draft picks to develop and be great by year four or five, as we are just starting to see the signs of with the Gold Coast Suns in their third season.
The problem isn’t the lack of success on the field for the Giants, but rather the lack of success off it. Whilst obviously if the Giants were doing better on the field it would then be easier to grow their fan base, the fact that it was made clear to everyone that the on field results wouldn’t be there should have allowed them to establish a decent core base of fans from which to grow. Unfortunately, that core base to get involved from the jump didn’t materialise in large enough numbers.
Now it may sound like it is purely a moment of ‘Captain Hindsight’ but I and pretty much every AFL fan from Sydney I know saw this coming. The fact is, the AFL never should have expanded and created the GWS Giants in the first place, or at least not for several more years. Whilst Western Sydney is a heavily populated area and is filled with sports fans, there was no evidence that the people in that region wanted their own AFL team. The truly hardcore AFL fans were already Sydney Swans fans or fans of Victorian teams and there weren’t many casual fans just waiting to get a team based closer to their home, like there was with the A-League.
Be that as it may, there is a very specific reason the AFL expanded into Western Sydney as early as it did and it isn’t about losing ground to NRL and the Western Sydney Wanderers. The AFL expanded into Western Sydney because they were negotiating a new TV deal and being able to say they had a second team in the biggest TV market, specifically in the most densely populated area of that market, was a huge bargaining chip for the AFL to use to increase the value of the deal. Whether the people in that market actually tune in won’t impact this TV deal, but it might impact the next one if they can’t right the ship.
The idea of having a team in Western Sydney is so much more appealing than the reality of it. But once they made that decision to expand into the market, they needed to execute it correctly to make it at least have a chance.
Unfortunately they seemed to have missed the mark in that way too. In terms of players, whilst their young draft picks are coming along nicely, their recruiting of marquee names was poor. Tom Scully, whilst a young talent, is not nearly the name nor the player that Gary Ablett is or was. Paying Scully to be the face of the organisation from Day One only made sense if he was going to be at All-Australian level from the beginning; otherwise he was just an overpaid and slightly more advanced version of all the kids they were drafting to play with him. If they believed Scully was a star already, they were badly mistaken and if they believed it was wiser to spend the money on a player still developing, it is yet to be proven and seems headed in the wrong direction.
Then they also signed an NRL convert to attract the NRL fans, much like the Gold Coast already did. However the difference is that Folau was never a beloved figure in Western Sydney even though he was born there, plus unlike Karmichael Hunt, he had never played a junior game of AFL. Not to mention the fact that learning a key position is significantly harder than Hunt learning to just attack the ball and his opponent around the ground. The Folau experiment was doomed to fail and whilst he earned good money, he wasted a couple of years of his career that he could have used to dominate the NRL or Super Rugby, as he has done since he switched to play for the NSW Waratahs this year.
Off the field, their promotions failed just as badly. Unlike the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Giants did an awful job endearing themselves to the local community of Western Sydney. I don’t live in that area but I’ve spoken to several sports fans that do and none had any knowledge or relationship with the Giants beyond the standard advertising we saw around the city. If anything, the Giants publically seemed to completely misunderstand the culture of the various people in the area and Kevin Sheedy as coach and figurehead did a truly awful job by being arrogant, dismissing the NRL culture of the area and of course the ethnic background of many in the area. The Giants needed to tap into the community at a grass roots level and if anything they went the other way and alienated many people that could have been won over eventually.
The other problem with the Giants from an AFL standpoint is that the manner in which they did the expansion ended up retarding the ability for struggling, existing clubs like the Melbourne Demons to rebuild. The AFL draft is the main way clubs can rebuild and the Demons have been left in purgatory waiting for the chance to get the draft picks their lack of success has earned them. Sure they made bad decisions along the way, but in the two years they had the number one pick, they selected one bust and one prospect that ditched them for the GWS anyway. If the AFL ever expands again, I think they need to reconsider the way the expansion team builds their squad.
All is not yet lost for the Giants. If they can land a legitimate star like Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin as rumoured to go along with the development of their young players, their on field performances will clearly improve and give the franchise some star power to try to reach the market again. But they need to throw out everything they have done to this point, all but apologise to the people of the area and start from scratch, building relationships within the communities they are trying to reach.
The on field success will come within the next few years and by default that will increase their fan base, but will it be increasing from abysmal to mediocre, or will it be increasing from mediocre to decent? That will come down to how they go about fixing what is clearly a broken model right now.
But if they can get it right, well then they might be Giants.