Sport AFL Why the Demons must embrace the Red Sox

Why the Demons must embrace the Red Sox

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In June, Melbourne Football Club president Glen Bartlett announced his grandiose vision of transforming the Dees into the AFL equivalent of the New York Yankees.

Bartlett’s aspirational claim captured my attention for a number of reasons, not least because I was about to travel to New York and Boston to conduct interviews and field research relating to the storied Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Red Sox bounced back from 86 years in the wilderness to re-establish themselves as a powerhouse. Melbourne will need to do something similar. Photo: Getty

During my trip, I reflected on Bartlett’s recent declaration and it dawned on me that he’s looking to the wrong city and team for inspiration.

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There’s no doubt that the Melbourne president’s heart beats true, but he should focus on red not blue: ignore the lure of the navy blue pinstripes synonymous with the Yankees, and instead pursue a relationship with the Boston Red Sox.

Australia’s sporting landscape features nothing even remotely like the New York Yankees – and it never will.

In doing so, he could potentially unearth something special – the kind of thing that leverages off the Melbourne name to help build the club’s brand in the way Bartlett and his board so badly desire.

You have to admire Bartlett’s ambition. And it is easy to understand why he is arguing that Melbourne the club should endeavour to make far better use of its unique status brought about by sharing its name with Melbourne the city.

But the idea of the battling Dees somehow morphing into Melbourne’s version of the iconic Yankees is, quite simply, preposterous.

And it is alarming the club president has so brazenly made such an ill-conceived and misguided claim, which betrays a complete lack of understanding not only of what makes the Yankees such a special organisation but, moreover, what challenges lay ahead for Melbourne.

Australia’s sporting landscape features nothing even remotely like the New York Yankees – and it never will.

In baseball, the Yankees are both the most loved and most hated team. Parallels can be drawn with Collingwood, not Melbourne. But (sorry, Eddie) the similarities end there, because the globally renowned Yankees have been World Series champions a remarkable 27 times while all other rivals’ records pale in comparison (the only other franchise in double digits is the St. Louis Cardinals with 11 World Series titles).

The Yankees enjoy several advantages that simply can’t be replicated in the AFL’s congested heartland Melbourne. When it comes to Major League Baseball, the Big Apple is a two-team-town with the Yankees and the New York Mets. The Dees, meanwhile, must compete against nine other Victorian clubs (at least half of whom are far more popular and financially secure) in a much smaller market of both locals and tourists.

Furthermore, with a 162-game regular reason in MLB the Yankees host at least 81 home games annually at their own stadium in the Bronx. Besides Broadway, taking in a Yankees game is the hottest ticket in town. Many are local fans, of course, but it certainly helps that, as a summer sport, baseball coincides with the peak tourism season. Compare this to the Dees’ nine or 10 home games at the ’G in the middle of a miserable Melbourne winter!

George Steinbrenner’s influence still looms large over the Yankees. Photo: AAP

And, finally, the Yankees, like all other MLB franchises, are privately owned. Melbourne was able to stave off merging with Hawthorn in the 1990s when “Diamond Joe” Gutnick pledged millions of his own dollars to secure the footy club’s future. So, Melbourne has some limited experience of what it’s like to have a wealthy benefactor. But working within a league that prohibits private ownership and enforces a salary cap obviously limits what’s possible in the AFL. Anyhow, Gutnick was no George Steinbrenner.

By the new president’s own admission, the club had developed a “soft culture”. Bartlett is right to set high aims for his club, but must remain realistic or it’s unlikely that much will change at Demonland.

A divisive character, the late George Steinbrenner III was memorably satirised as George Costanza’s boss in numerous Seinfeld episodes. But, four years after his death, he remains affectionately known as “The Boss” within the Yankees organisation such was his influence in revitalising the Bronx Bombers and returning them to a position of utter dominance on and off the field. According to Forbes, in March 2014 the Yankees’ calculated value was US $2.5 billion.

In short, the Dees will never become “the Yankees of Melbourne”.

Last August, Bartlett courageously assumed the leadership of a beleaguered club, its on-field ineptitude matched only by its off-field incompetence amid persistent accusations that “tanking” had occurred. By the new president’s own admission, the club had developed a “soft culture”. Bartlett is right to set high aims for his club, but must remain realistic or it’s unlikely that much will change at Demonland.

Unlike the “Melbourne Yankees” vision, the idea of the Demons cultivating a relationship with the Red Sox actually makes a lot of sense.

Since 1985, Melbourne and Boston have been official sister-cities. Similar in size and “feel,” the two cities share significant ties, especially through education, healthcare and medical research, arts and culture. Boston and Melbourne are sports-mad cities too, so a Dees-Sox bond could further strengthen the association.

They boast similar nicknames, with the Red Sox and Redlegs obviously having the same origins. Boston’s cap and uniform feature the same red and navy blue colour combination that Melbourne wears.

And their histories contain some eerily similar chapters.

Melbourne was a traditional VFL powerhouse and won a remarkable five flags within six seasons from 1955 to 1960 (and was a beaten grand finalist in 1958). After Melbourne won its 12th premiership in 1964 (a record only surpassed by Collingwood’s 13 flags at the time), its talismanic leader Ron Barassi sensationally left to become Carlton’s captain-coach. Melbourne hasn’t won a premiership since Barassi’s defection.

Melbourne haven’t won a flag since Ron Barassi’s defection. Photo: AAP

Boston won the first World Series in 1903, following up with championships in 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918 to be baseball’s first 20th-century dynasty. But in 1919, Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner, sold his star pitcher and slugger George Herman “Babe” Ruth to the rival Yankees – at this time a mediocre franchise yet to win its first World Series.

The Yankees moved Ruth to the outfield so he could concentrate on his batting. He went on to become the greatest slugger of all time, inspiring the Yankees in 1923 to the first of their 27 World Series titles. Meanwhile, the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” saw the Red Sox suffer for 86 years following Ruth’s departure.

But, unlike post-Barassi Melbourne, the Red Sox finally ended their drought by winning the 2004 World Series. With two further championships in 2007 and 2013, Boston is the most successful MLB franchise this century.

All of this unprecedented success has occurred since a change of Red Sox ownership in 2003. Clearly Bartlett and his board could learn much from John W Henry’s dynamic leadership group.

Back in June, when Bartlett announced his Yankees vision, he made it clear that it was a long-term aim.

Earlier this year, Major League Baseball visited Australia for the first time with the 2014 season opened by the LA Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney. It was a spectacular success and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig promised that major league baseball would return Down Under.

Imagine the Yankees and Red Sox playing a competitive series in front of 100,000 spectators at the MCG. It’s the sort of sporting extravaganza that Bartlett’s Demons could play a pro-active role in organising and promoting through the prism of the Melbourne-Boston sister-city relationship.

Coincidentally, the Red Sox and Liverpool FC share the same owners (Fenway Sports Group), so John W Henry and co. are already well aware of Melburnians’ unbridled passion for attending live sport after the MCG was sold out for a pre-season friendly between the Reds and Melbourne Victory.

Turning Melbourne into the Yankees may be a pipe dream, but the real Yankees turning out in Melbourne is a distinct possibility. But in such an event, Melbourne should be backing the rival Red Sox.

Back in June, when Bartlett announced his Yankees vision, he made it clear that it was a long-term aim. He also stated that the club was 2-3 months away from unveiling its new strategy, adding: “You do have to walk then crawl then run and we need to do our homework first.”

Hopefully the Redlegs’ homework has extended to Melbourne’s sister-city and an investigation into how to work with and learn from the “once-cursed” Old Towne Team that is the World Champion.

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