The year was 2009, and the AFL had announced their intention to add two expansion teams. Fans in Tasmania had every reason to be excited, Hawthorn’s Launceston home, as well as the Saints’ brief foray into York Park gave fans hope that eventually, they would see their state field its own team. However, the AFL chose to set up teams in the Gold Coast and Western Sydney instead, introducing their newest teams in a two-phase approach. This is how the Gold Coast Suns were born. Yet, if you look at the two teams now, there could not be a more contrasting storyline.
Pulling no punches to ensure success
The AFL pulled out all the stops in setting up their first expansion team. The Suns played in the TAC cup in 2009 and the VFL in 2010. They were provided access to 30 Queensland U-17 players, 2 NT U-17 players, and given the first five draft picks in the rookie draft in 2010. They were also given top picks in the national draft.
All this was afforded to them even before their debut, in addition to the extra salary cap space which started at $1M and dropped by $200K each year, ending in 2015. But the question is, was this enough to see a fledgling club attract members in a state with strong rugby affiliations? After all, even with these affiliations, neither the ill-fated Gold Coast Chargers nor the Gold Coast Titans flourished.
Why are the Suns in such a spot of bother?
To see why the Suns are in the woeful state they are, you need to look past the concessions and the salary cap allowances. Is their lack of membership an indication of their lack of success, or is it one of the reasons they've struggled?
In their AFL existence since 2011, their membership has not grown significantly. In fact, they have never been able to recapture their highest membership base of 14,000 from their inaugural year, and are currently sitting at 11,665 members. In contrast, their expansion siblings, GWS have their membership base growing steadily, and are looking healthy at 20,944. The issues don’t end there though. The average attendance over the past 5 years has also dropped.
A lack of routine and consistency
Then there is the issue of the coach. Guy McKenna was hired as their inaugural coach. While he was an astute football brain, it may have served the Suns better to hire a more high-profile coach.
In any case, McKenna seemed to be putting together a decent side that looked likely to challenge for finals if they developed their youth and recruited smartly. In 2014, The Suns failed to make finals for the fourth consecutive season, and McKenna was sacked unceremoniously.
The job of coaching the Suns did not seem to appeal to too many coaches, as several big names were thrown into the mix, only to be taken out moments later. After much deliberation, Rodney Eade accepted the role, and was tasked with the unenviable job of guiding the Suns to their first ever finals campaign.
He looked the most likely to lead them out of the wilderness, but faced injuries and player exits as key obstacles. In the end, even a coach like Eade couldn’t survive non-performance, and found himself sacked in 2017, with 3 rounds to go. Swans' assistant coach and Hawks' cult figure, Stuart Dew, was handed the mantle, and will coach the Suns in 2018.
Issues are more deep-seated and cultural
To say that the Eade issue was poorly handled would be an understatement. The failure of the board to realise that the problems were more deep-seated than the coach has led to knee-jerk reactions and a lot of hot air in the media. The Suns are not helped by the fact that Tony Cochrane absolutely loves attention and will say anything to get it.
He has often made ambitious claims regarding flags and finals. This has added the weight of expectations onto the club players and personnel, especially when the club has never even made the top 8.
The other issue is player retention. The Suns have hemorrhaged a lot of talent over the past few years. Karmichael Hunt was on a lot of money and eventually realised he was not cut out for the task. Gary Ablett has been trying to get out for years now, and succeeded in 2017, heading back to Geelong. High picks like Jaeger O’Meara, Brandon Matera, Harley Bennell, Dion Prestia and Josh Caddy have made a beeline to other more established clubs.
David Swallow and Tom Lynch are often brought up in trade and transfer discussions. To compound their issues, the Suns have not exactly attracted top name players to replace the ones who have left. With the transient nature of their location, they do not look likely to attract quality players, or retain them even if they are picked in the draft.
Where to now?
My argument has always been that Tasmania should’ve been awarded an AFL team before the Gold Coast. While code rivalry may have pushed AFL into this territory, there is a mounting case to demonstrate that the Gold Coast Suns are a failing experiment. Despite the appointment of Dew and the retention of some key personnel, it is hard to see the Suns digging themselves out of this pit in a hurry.
Given the players they have lost over the years, it is hard to see them take a huge leap on the ladder in 2018. Maybe it is time for the AFL to stop sending good money after bad and giving serious thought to that footy team in Tasmania.
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