Since the mid 1980, the formerly all-Victorian VFL competition had undertaken a large expansion program which saw the league expand from being a state-based competition (centred around the inner suburbs of Melbourne) to a national competition. The decision to undertake this expansion was in response to elite national leagues being run by other sporting codes (for example the Australian Rugby League, the National Basketball League, and the National Soccer League), which threatened to undermine interest in football at both a junior, and elite level. The VFL/AFL expansion included new teams from Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, in the addition to the relocation of South Melbourne to Sydney, and saw the league change its name from the VFL to the AFL.
The expansion led to Victoria holding a disproportionately large number of teams relative to the other states. By the mid 1990s, there were 11 teams based in Victoria - 10 of those in the inner suburbs of Melbourne - and concerns were raised about the long term viability (both on the field, and in an economic sense) of some of the 'weaker' Melbourne-based clubs. Members of the AFL Commission (the governing body for the competition) began to worry that, relative to the new interstate clubs and more powerful Victorian-based teams, the weaker Melbourne-based clubs would not have a sufficiently large supporter base to survive in the new national competition. Statistics published in newspapers like the Herald Sun showed that several Melbourne based clubs (including Hawthorn and Melbourne) only had a fraction of the membership base either their interstate, or cross-town rivals. It was suggested by some at the time that the Melbourne market could realistically support no more than six to eight teams.
The AFL, under CEO Ross Oakley, proposed that the preferred outcome for these smaller Melbourne-based clubs would be to merge (or amalgamate) with other smaller teams. According to the AFL at the time, mergers would create super-clubs which would retain at least some of the traditions and history of its former teams; clearly preferable to having both teams eventually financially collapse. Merging with other Melbourne based clubs, rather than relocating interstate, would allow local supporters to continually attending their team's matches. Based on this logic, the AFL undertook an active program of pursuing mergers between Melbourne-based clubs. The AFL began this policy by offering AU$6 million to any newly merged football team (an offer which grew to AU$8 million by mid-1996).
Within Melbourne, discussions about potential mergers were often greeted with deep suspicion and open hostility. While the growth of a national competition from the former VFL has arguably been highly beneficial to the code of Australian rules football overall, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many Melburnians were opposed to reform attempts. The merger debate led to widespread accusations that the league's administrators had grown 'out-of-touch' with the sport's grass-roots supporter base. The league openly discussing the elimination of some Melbourne based clubs through mergers led to widespread anger, and disillusionment, towards the league.
It is perhaps from a combination of these reasons that negotiations would proceed further between Melbourne and Hawthorn than between other potential merger partners.
Some commentators noted that the merged team would more closely resemble Melbourne than Hawthorn, and speculated whether Hawthorn suffered from a weaker bargaining position as a result of its weak financial situation.
In the weeks following Scott's launch of the Operation Payback campaign, a similar anti-merger campaign was launched for the Melbourne Football Club by billionaire businessman Joseph Gutnick. Gutnick, a Melbourne supporter who had accumulated his wealth (and earned the nickname "Diamond" Joe Gutnick) through investments in Western Australian mining, pledged to donate AU$1 million to Melbourne if the merger vote were defeated.
It is important to note, however, that this opposition was not universal: several thousand members (as noted earlier) ended up voting in favor of the merger proposal; including a majority of Melbourne supporters. In some cases, those supporting the merger were equally as passionate as those who opposed it.
The end of the 1996 season saw Melbourne and Hawthorn play each other in the last round of that season. "The Merger Game" as it was called, was a spirited contest, as it was a likely possibility that it would be the last Hawthorn vs. Melbourne contest and, as the result that Melbourne could not make the finals and Hawthorn needed to win the game by any margin to have any chance to contest the 1996 finals series, many fans saw this game as a last chance to see their team play football.
63,196 fans went to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to see Dunstall kick 10 goals and the Hawthorn Hawks win by one point. In a now-famous moment of defiance to both the league and his team's board, Chris Langford (Hawthorn's full back) took off his Hawthorn jumper and proudly held it above his head while leaving the field.
Later in the round, Richmond lost to the North Melbourne by a large margin. This loss ensured that Hawthorn were playing in the finals. Hawthorn would get knocked out by the Sydney Swans, by one goal, in the first week of the 1996 finals, a week after the merger votes.
Both the Hawthorn and Melbourne Football Clubs called extraordinary general meetings - Hawthorn held their meeting at the Camberwell Civic Centre, while Melbourne held its meeting at Dallas Brooks Hall. To the surprise of the respective clubs boards, the meeting halls were filled, with more members and supporters of each team watching proceedings on large monitors outside. Entrepreneurial peddlers set up stalls selling merchandise along the long queues into the respective meeting halls.
The debates about the merger were passionate, with Scott (in a now famous moment) at one point holding up a mock-up of the Melbourne Hawks jumper, and proceeding to rip off a Velcro hawk and yellow V-neck to reveal a Melbourne jumper underneath. Prior to the commencement of the meetings, vocal anti-merger supporters chanted team songs and anti-merger slogans.
While Melbourne members voted 4,679 to 4,229 in favor of the merger, Hawthorn members overwhelming voted against it by a vote of 5241 to 2841 and the proposal was defeated. Large scale resignations followed on both boards as those who had supported the merger fell on their swords; several prominent members of the anti-merger campaigns (including Scott, Brereton, and Gutnick) would take senior executive or board positions at both clubs in the wake of the merger. The two sides continue to play in their original form to this day.
A decade later, merger and relocation talks amongst Victorian clubs continue. In 2007 the AFL pushed for the Kangaroos to move to the Gold Coast as part of another attempted national expansion following the inclusion of Port Adelaide and Fremantle into the league in the late 1990s as well as attempting to increase North's memberships (which were amongst the lowest in the league). The club was offered a lucrative deal, including already established facilities and a stadium to play in on the Gold Coast but James Brayshaw became the figurehead for the club and the proposal was once again turned down. The Kangaroos later reverted back to their old North Melbourne tag and Brayshaw became the club's president.
At the start of the 2008 season Melbourne were once again considered for merger or relocation negotiations after revealing that their membership numbers were amongst the lowest in the league for a long period of time and their financial position was becoming seriously poor. It also did not help that the club lost their first game of the season by 104 points to Hawthorn, who would go on to win the Grand Final that season. Former Melbourne captain Garry Lyon proposed on Footy Classified following the rounds proceedings that Melbourne may very well be the Fitzroy of the modern era in both their inability to perform for extended periods both on and off the field.
In stark contrast Hawthorn, the premier club for 2008, has managed to frow from strength to strength on and off the field. At the conclusion of the 2008 season, Hawthorn is on the verge of becoming the first VFL/AFL club to record a $5m profit and will strive to become the first Victorian club to achieve 50,000 members in season 2009
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