Wooing Western Sydney: the great arms race

It appears that Western Sydney is growing too fast for its own good, with yet another sporting team announced for the burgeoning, sports-mad region. But as hungry chief executives expand into Sydney’s most lucrative market, they agree to enter an arms race from which there can only be one winner.

The densely populated region has already proven a magnet for new sporting franchises, with AFL and cricket executives planting their seeds in the area with the Greater Western Sydney and Sydney Thunder Big Bash outfits, respectively. And this morning, Football Federation Australia has revealed its decision to include a new Sydney team in next year’s competition – at the likely expense of Gold Coast United.

While the FFA will directly fund the club, the federal government is very complicit in this drive to cash in on Western Sydney. It is understood that Prime Minister Julia Gillard will chip in some A$3 million of taxpayers money to redevelop the Football NSW headquarters at Parklea, and a further $5m to grow soccer in the western suburbs, funding infrastructure and training programs for children. Fox Sports has reported that $1m will specifically go towards growing the women’s game and backing a potential W-League team for the new club.

Western Sydney kids to receive more grassroots programs

Now much like China’s economy and a certain former Big Brother contestant’s mammaries, Sydney’s west is growing at a frightening yet impressive rate. New housing estates are rolled out on a near-daily basis, while teenagers continue to indulge in unprotected sex with alarming nonchalance. And with the population surging like Rick Santorium in an Alabama primary, it stands to reason that execs from all of Australia’s major sporting codes see the region as an answer to all their revenue woes. Demetriou, Buckley, Sutherland, et al, are all lining up to take turns sucking on the proverbial teets of this cash cow. And why wouldn’t they? Nothing is more alluring right now than the dirt brown, needle-ridden pastures west of the Harbour.

Of course,  success is not assured for any of these codes. Like standing next to an attractive woman at a nightclub, location is only half the battle. Despite the glitz and glamour of the Warwick Capper days, the AFL was forced to bail out the Sydney Swans in the early 90s as the team struggled to attract 10,000 fans to a game. The Gold Coast may be beautiful one day and perfect the next, but the Gold Coast United A-League side will get the axe next year and their NRL counterparts are not far behind them, a product of lousy administration and embarassingly low attendance rates.

Capper's exit left the Swans in murky (but less gay) waters

And that’s why each code is attempting to win the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s generation. The grassroots programs that the AFL has – and the FFA will – put in place directly target the youths of Liverpool, Fairfield and Blacktown. But those aforementioned suburbs represent, on paper at least, soccer’s true heartland. Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton and Tim Cahill all hail from Sydney’s west. Thousands of juniors head out each weekend to compete in soccer competitions. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou’s audacious bid for soccer – and rugby league – heartland is exactly that: fucking audacious. But it is this audacity that has made the AFL what it is today: the fastest growing sport in Australia, in terms of fan base.

But does the A-League announcement represent a true fastigium, a tipping point, in terms of how much sport Western Sydney can handle? Are there enough pages in the Daily Telegraph, for example, to cover all these sports in equal measure; enough nightclubs for these newly relocated athletes to go out and party at without putting the public at risk? The answer to both questions is, probably, no. Children, as a rule, commit to one sport early in life – and see it through to the grave. As the late notorious paedophile Robert ‘Dolly’ Dunn once said to a fellow inmate in jail, “getting them early is the key.” At the risk of establishing a paedophilic motif (surely the first time one has used that phrase?), the next decade or so will see a lot of men in suits visiting Western Sydney, thrusting new – and often oddly shaped – balls in the hands of children, telling them to play around and “see how it feels.” But which balls they will gravitate towards is still anyone’s guess.

Beware of men in suits bearing balls

As for adults? Sure, you’ll get a few opportunistic coverts who want to be there from the start, to be “part of history,” to say they were there in a team’s foundation year. But most fully grown men are reluctant to jump on a bandwagon at the best of times, for switching sporting allegiance is like making a snap decision to “turn gay” or vice versa – not usually a decision taken lightly.

At least one code will utterly fail in their bid to expand outside metropolitan Sydney. And by fail, I mean over a certain number of years; clearly Buckley and Demetriou will herald their respective inaugural season as an adulterated success. But which sport will still be flourishing a decade from now, as each code clamours for a greater slice of the pie?

The AFL has the money, the nationwide reach and the will; be assured it will attempt to indoctrinate Western Sydney with the single-minded fervour of even the fiercest Christian missionary.  The A-League has the base to make it happen, but the competition lacks legitimacy following a truly horrible year off the field. Meanwhile, the NRL, as the incumbent, is nervously hanging onto its existing market share, watching the new entrants tussle like Britain and Argentina over the Falklands.

One thing’s for sure: like Hugh Hefner, Andrew Demetriou will die trying to penetrate [Western Sydney].

By Dave Edwards

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