When the ACT Government announced a 10-year, $23 million deal with GWS to play AFL games at Manuka Oval in late 2010, it came as a surprise.
There was little indication at the time that a long-term deal to play three AFL premiership matches and a pre-season game each year was being negotiated, let alone on the verge of being announced.
In looking into this, I will focus on premiership games played rather than the pre-season as pre-season games have minimal significance.
From 2012 until COVID interrupted proceedings, GWS played three premiership games a season at Manuka. COVID was the main reason why some planned games did not go ahead. As a result, four will be played this year.
The 10-year contract included a number of key performance factors, including an academy program, pre-season games, as well as participation and community programs.
GWS development officers have been plentiful in the community and appear to be doing a great job. The establishment of the Academy and junior development programs will ultimately benefit GWS and the community.
This is the final year of the deal and negotiations are underway for another 10-year contract between the ACT Government and GWS.
It comes at a time when the ACT Government has announced deals with both the Brumbies and the Raiders.
The Raiders’ five-year deal to play home games at Canberra Stadium is worth $13 million and includes assistance in establishing a women’s NRL team, community development and participation programs. Averaging out the deal, it works out at $2.6 million a season.
The Raiders average 12 home games a season at Canberra Stadium. This year it is 11, with one home game played in Wagga Wagga.
The Brumbies deal is worth $3.5 million over two years, with the team playing, on average, seven to eight home games a season, which this year is four less than the Raiders. The Brumbies deal also includes support for the women’s Super W team.
So in terms of premiership matches played in Canberra this season, the Raiders will play 11, the Brumbies seven and GWS four.
There has been reluctance from the Raiders and the Brumbies to publicly criticise the GWS deal because they are also the recipients of government funding.
The ACT Government has been questioned numerous times on the discrepancy in funding. The Raiders and the Brumbies play more games in Canberra, and their players contribute significantly to the local economy.
In response, it has been pointed out that ACT Government provided funding to establish the Brumbies training headquarters and the Raiders Centre of Excellence. In both instances, the government provided around $5 million.
There has been money spent on Canberra Stadium, but the facilities at Manuka have also been improved over the years to cater for both cricket and AFL.
GWS also receives more funding per game than either the Brumbies or the Raiders because the AFL has a greater national reach in terms of television coverage than the other codes.
On that argument, the government has a point. Putting a dollar value on broader exposure isn’t easy, but sport is a significant tourism generator with fans travelling to Canberra and spending time and money in the city.
Part of the equation is the value to the city and the community, the lifestyle and the ability to watch sport live, and AFL fans have as much right as NRL and Super Rugby supporters in Canberra. It’s difficult to quantify, not just in terms of how GWS stacks up alongside the Raiders and the Brumbies, but also in terms of competing demands on government dollars for community activities.
This is why the current negotiations will come under so much public scrutiny.