Inside the four-state fight to steal the Grand Final

 

Luke Hodge's ears were ringing.

In Round 22 last year his screams for Brisbane Lions teammate Harris Andrews to move fell on deaf ears.

"(Hodge) came off and said, 'That is one of the loudest noises I've ever heard'," Lions chairman Andrew Wellington said.

"For whatever reason the acoustics at the Gabba are fantastic once you get north of 20,000 people in."

The Lions beat Geelong by one point in front of 35,608 that day, and the Queensland government has promised the AFL a crowd of 30,000 for next month's historic night Grand Final.

Lions coach Chris Fagan reckons a packed Gabba feels like 100,000 at the MCG.

But the dated venue is hardly a jewel in Australia's sporting crown and was seen as the weakness in Queensland's bid to host the Grand Final.

More than two years have lapsed since the government placed a "For sale" sign on the naming rights and still no businesses have stepped forward.

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The biggest game of the year is set for the Gabba. Picture: Getty Images
The biggest game of the year is set for the Gabba. Picture: Getty Images

So, apart from sound acoustics, how did Brisbane's fortress land the Grand Final?

Firstly, and coincidentally, the gap between the Gabba and its competitors will slightly shorten when a $35 million state-funded upgrade is completed next month.

The enhanced food and drink outlets, entertainment precincts and upgraded media and corporate spaces were designed for the ICC's Twenty20 World Cup and will instead be ready for the Grand Final.

But that hardly figured in the AFL Commission's decision as it assessed bids from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

Instead the league wanted to maximise the Grand Final experience, provide a safe environment and secure a financial windfall.

The four proposals satisfied those criteria and so the AFL asked: What does each state have as an outstanding feature?

WA was obvious. The creme de la creme of stadiums.

But WA's stance on hard borders simply made it, well, too hard for the AFL to execute a Grand Final at Perth Stadium.

NSW's pitch fell down because the NRL Grand Final is booked for October 25, the same weekend, and it would be tricky to convert the rectangular ANZ Stadium into a footy oval.

South Australia's proposal was balanced - an excellent stadium with workable health protocols.

But Perth and Adelaide could only commit to crowds of 30,000 ($12 million in ticket sales) despite their bigger grounds and so when the Gabba matched that it shot to the lead.

It's been love at first sight between the AFL and Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and they are still in the honeymoon period.

The warm and fuzzy relationship traces back to a phone call AFL fixture boss Travis Auld placed to Gold Coast chairman Tony Cochrane.

"This really didn't start out as a bid for the Grand Final, it started out as a suggestion from Travis Auld in mid-May that we may have to consider hub life on the Gold Coast," Cochrane said.

"I very quickly had conversations with the mayor of the Gold Coast, Tom Tate, and with Minister Kate Jones and we discussed how we could work with the AFL and the chief health officer for COVID-safe hubs.

"Hub 1 morphed into Hub 2 which morphed into today, with nearly 2000 players, officials and umpires located in Queensland, and mainly on the Gold Coast.

"As we got more confident about hosting more and more clubs the premier raised, 'Should we be considering that these people may be looking for somewhere to play the Grand Final?'

"In early June the premier decided for the whole of the government committee to consider what would be involved if we tried to host not only the Grand Final, but the Brownlow and associated functions."

Fancy that.

Tony Cochrane at Metricon Stadium. Picture: Glenn Hampson
Tony Cochrane at Metricon Stadium. Picture: Glenn Hampson

Last September the AFL Commission rubber-stamped a rescue package of priority draft picks and academy access to save the Suns, and now the Suns were helping save the AFL.

Privately, the AFL has appreciated that around 50 per cent of this season's 153-game journey will be staged in Queensland.

Cochrane framed it a different way.

"Here's a great stat for you - Metricon Stadium this year will host as many games as the MCG does in a normal year (mid-40s)," he said.

"Who would've thought that Gold Coast Suns and Metricon Stadium would play a significant role in saving the AFL season?

"Who would've thought that a year ago, when so many of the Melbourne media were calling for the blood of the Gold Coast Suns and we should be moved to Timbuktu or somewhere?"

But the AFL's decision was more about looking forward rather than reflecting on 2020.

Queensland's bid reportedly rolled in about $5 million cheaper than rival states, although Wellington brushed that discrepancy off as loose change.

"Think about what the broadcast deal is worth annually ($418 million)," he said.

"If it's single million dollars (cheaper) and it has a small positive impact in the long run, and that means you grow engagement of the game in Queensland, which then translates to ratings … you wouldn't have to move that broadcast deal by many percentage points to pay that back tenfold.

"If you take a long-term view then it's pretty easy to make a case that there was more upside in bringing the game to Queensland than to a traditional football state."

In a normal year the AFL recoups $5 million in TV money every 4.36 days - less than one working week.

In the eyes of the AFL the future gains focused more on memberships than TV ratings.

How many more Lions and Suns supporters will sign-up after experiencing the October festival?

The Queensland bid committee, which was chaired by Cochrane, became so eager to ward off other states it pondered pushing the boundaries.

Could they deliver a capacity crowd of 40,000 to blow the other venues away?

What about securing quarantine exemptions for extra journalists to fly up and promote the game?

But Queensland's chief health officer Dr Jeannete Young put her foot down immediately on those suggestions, and so the pitch zeroed in on the legacy the game would leave.

In the last week of August, Cochrane, Wellington, Jones and premier Palaszczuk convened in Brisbane's government office for a 60-minute presentation over Zoom.

Dialled into the call were AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, legal counsel Andrew Dillon and Auld.

They also lodged a 90-page submission, which basically declared: "Where else but Queensland?"

The Gabba will be rocking with 30,000 fans on Grand Final day. Picture: Getty Images
The Gabba will be rocking with 30,000 fans on Grand Final day. Picture: Getty Images

"We wanted to offer the AFL a turnkey bid," Cochrane said.

"We wanted to consider every single thing they would have to consider if it was in Melbourne so that we could give them a document that was really thought out and thorough.

"That document formed the centrepiece of our bid.

"It considered everything from the Gabba through to security through to policing through to streets we'll cut off through to transport through to the health situation.

"The premier did a stunning job of leading the bid, and I thought the whole way through we had a very attentive audience.

"The AFL were really considered and asked a lot of good questions about our proposal and I thought we got a really good hearing."

Palaszczuk hit play on their "Good to go" promotional video, featuring smiley 10-year-old Ryden boasting from the Gabba grass: "We've got a G - right here in Queensland. It's called the Gabba!"

They suggested the Grand Final entertainment takes on a "Queensland flavour" and on Wednesday an email landed in McLachlan's inbox with 10 possible entertainment acts.

"We felt it was really important that as much as you'd choose a venue you'd choose a partner that you could work with," Wellington said.

"The document was more about, 'This is what we can do, but we will work with you to make sure this is what you want to happen'.

"It wasn't, 'This is what you must do' it was, 'We'll be flexible'.

"If you want an afternoon game we'll find a way to make it afternoon. If you want a night game we'll find a way."

This will be the AFL’s first night Grand Final. Picture: Getty Images
This will be the AFL’s first night Grand Final. Picture: Getty Images

Their strategy also tapped into the hearts of Victorians.

Palaszczuk opened and closed her celebratory press conference by sympathising with football's heartland state.

"It wasn't ever seen as a smash and grab and we're going to steal your Grand Final," Cochrane said. "Some of the language from the other states I thought was appalling."

Former Lions coach Leigh Matthews used to scatter Herald Suns around the Gabba so players got a taste of the sharp media scrutiny in Melbourne.

This year Wellington and Cochrane have been blown away by the coverage.

"We've got terrific TV ratings up here, we're quite often winning Thursday and Friday night timeslots up against the NRL," Cochrane said.

"Just the Gold Coast Suns, we've have had a 42 per cent increase in TV viewers."

Before Brisbane's on-field resurgence last year it was widely believed Queensland football was violently sick.

But Wellington said the grassroots have long been growing.

In 2014 about 150 schools took part in the Queensland Schools Cup. Last year about 600 signed up.

"When my son finished university he was working in Toowoomba and playing in the Darling Downs league," Wellington said.

"I went and watched a game in Goondiwindi and they had a women's team there.

"This is rural Queensland - non-traditional AFL state - and they've got a men's and a women's AFL team.

"I went to school in Geraldton (WA) … and from Geraldton up to Northampton and you won't see them playing men's rugby league or rugby union, let alone women's."

Cochrane said Queensland produced 80,000 registered female players this year.

"Here's another stat you mightn't be aware of - we have the second-highest participation of female AFL in the country, only second to Victoria," he said.

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The golden question is how does the AFL capitalise on the momentum as it plants its flag in NRL heartland?

"It's not a silver bullet," Wellington said.

"Some of the critics of the decision have made the point that having the Grand Final here doesn't guarantee growth in Queensland football - and that's right."

AFL talent bosses want the northern states to eventually produce 20 per cent of the draft, up from about 12 per cent.

Last year Richmond drafted Will Martyn, an emergency in Round 14, and Noah Cumberland from Brisbane's academy.

This year the Suns will sign Cairns' Alex Davies, a half-Japanese midfielder rated as a top-10 talent.

The premiership cup will tour regional Queensland and Sherrins should fall from the skies like tropical rain.

Originally published as Inside the four-state fight to steal the Grand Final


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