The Melbourne Hawks was a planned Australian Football League (AFL) team that would have consisted of the merger between the Melbourne and Hawthorn Football Clubs at the end of the 1996 season. Out of all the proposed merger combinations in the 1990s, it was seemed as ideal as it was known that Hawthorn had a football team which had success, (8 premierships in the last 25 years) but were in a dire financial situation, as opposed to Melbourne which had a sound financial base but were a club which had not won a premiership for over thirty years.
Since the mid-1980s, the formerly all-Victorian Victorian Football League (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 A$6 million to any newly merged football team (an offer which grew to A$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.
Upon pressure and incentives from the league, and saturation of the dire warnings about the consequences of too many teams based in Melbourne, a number of Melbourne based clubs began investigating and pursuing potential mergers. Some proposals raised in the local media included a possible amalgamation of Footscray and Fitzroy, as well as various combinations of Melbourne, Hawthorn, St Kilda, Footscray, Fitzroy and North Melbourne. Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Geelong and Richmond were generally exempt from these proposals due to their financial success.
Case for a Melbourne and Hawthorn Football planned merger
Of the potential mergers that were speculated about in the media, the one which perhaps seemed to make the most sense was the potential merger between Melbourne and Hawthorn. On the surface, the merger appeared to make sense for a number of reasons:
- Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Hawthorn had fielded exceptional teams which had won the club a succession of grand final appearances (eight in nine years) and premierships (five in nine years). Hawthorn, under then-coach Ken Judge, had also undertaken a youth recruitment campaign which had netted the club a number of promising players, including future Brownlow Medalist Shane Crawford.
- In contrast, Melbourne had not won a premiership in more than three decades, and suffered from relatively weak on-field performance.
- Melbourne was in a relatively strong financial position.
- In contrast, Hawthorn was suffering from mounting debts, and financial losses. It had struggled to obtain and maintain corporate sponsorship, at one point in 1992 not having a corporate sponsor in spite of having won the previous Grand Final.
- Hawthorn had a centralised training facility, administration centre, and social club (on land owned by the social club) at its Glenferrie Oval complex. The team's training facilities had recently been upgraded and were amongst the best in the league.
- Both clubs were perceived to have had a traditionally middle-class supporter base; Melbourne had a historical connection to the Melbourne Cricket Club, while Hawthorn was based in the middle class, inner-eastern suburb of Hawthorn.
- Both clubs, in contrast to the stronger Melbourne-based clubs (like Collingwood, Carlton, or Essendon), and the stronger interstate teams (like Adelaide, or West Coast), had a relatively small membership base.
It is perhaps from a combination of these reasons that negotiations would proceed further between Melbourne and Hawthorn than between other potential merger partners.
The negotiations advanced considerably and settled on a number of key aspects of the proposed team. Speculation about ongoing merger negotiations often appeared in the mainstream media prior to the official announcement, with several key details leaking to the press. Key points agreed upon during negotiations prior to the official announcement included that:
- The new team's name would be "Melbourne" and would use Hawthorn's "Hawks" nickname
- The new team's guernsey would resemble Melbourne's, except feature a gold 'V' and a gold Hawk
- The amalgamated team would use Melbourne's red and blue with Hawthorn's gold
- Hawthorn's Hawk would be the new team's logo
- New club Best and Fairest award to be known as the Crimmins–Truscott Trophy
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.
Don Scott and Operation Payback
In the wake of the official merger announcement, Don Scott (who is a respected former Hawthorn footballer) launched the Operation Payback campaign. Aided by business acumen of former Pacific Dunlop Executive Ian Dicker the campaign, which would be backed by other former Hawthorn footballers including Dermott Brereton and Brian Falconer, was multifaceted and included a number of aims:
- To launch a motion officially opposing the merger proposal, and to present the anti-merger case, at the extraordinary general meeting where Hawthorn members would vote upon the merger proposal;
- To run a fund raising campaign to alleviate Hawthorn's immediate debt problems;
- To secure business support (including potential sponsors and bank overdrafts) for the ongoing survival of Hawthorn;
- To secure the support of prominent past and present footballers for the anti-merger campaign at Hawthorn.
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 former premiership player Brian Dixon, who was aided by millionaire 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 A$1 million to Melbourne if the merger vote was defeated.
Popular backlash to the merger proposal
Following the launch of Operation Payback, and Gutnick's campaign at Melbourne, a vocal backlash to the merger proposal emerged amongst the supporters at both clubs. Banners with slogans including "No Merger" and "Operation Payback" became a common fixture at both Hawthorn training sessions, Hawthorn matches, and at Glenferrie Road. Other signs appeared, including several which decried the system of 'proxy votes' for members unable to attend the anti-merger meeting (it was speculated by some of those who opposed the merger proposal that proxy votes would help the pro-merger cause).
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 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. Prior to the game, an 'anti-merger' rally, led by Scott, was held at Hawthorn's then training ground, Glenferrie Oval.
Later in the round, Richmond lost to the North Melbourne by a large margin. This loss ensured that Hawthorn were playing in the finals. The Finals system at the time meant that Hawthorn, that finished in eighth position had to play the team that finished first, Sydney Swans in Sydney. Hawthorn would lose by 6 points and get knocked out in the first week of the 1996 finals, a week after the merger votes.
|B:||23 Alastair Clarkson||32 Damien Gaspar||15 Paul Hopgood|
|HB:||25 Luke Norman||4 Andrew Obst||17 Brett Lovett|
|C:||12 Todd Viney||7 Darren Kowal||38 Darren O'Brien|
|HF:||36 Andrew Leoncelli||9 David Neitz||18 Craig Nettelbeck|
|F:||11 Jim Stynes||24 Clay Sampson||13 Adem Yze|
|Foll:||34 Dean Irving||16 Andy Lovell||33 Jeff Farmer|
|Int:||37 Andrew Lamprill||21 Steven Febey||20 Matthew Febey|
|B:||5 Andrew Collins||24 Chris Langford||34 Mark Graham|
|HB:||1 Ray Jencke||14 Brendan Krummel||15 Daniel Harford|
|C:||9 Shane Crawford||27 Daniel Chick||11 Darren Kappler|
|HF:||17 Paul Hudson||2 Nick Holland||3 Anthony Condon|
|F:||6 Richard Taylor||19 Jason Dunstall (c)||7 Luke McCabe|
|Foll:||4 Paul Salmon||15 Tony Woods||44 John Platten|
|Int:||12 Stephen Lawrence||18 Darrin Pritchard||33 Craig Treleven|
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 Hawthorn meeting was chaired by former premiership player and lawyer Richard Loveridge. The debates about the merger were passionate, when triple premiership coach Allan Jeans got up to speak on behalf of the merger the crowd shouted him down. Anti-merger coordinator Don 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 (aided by a large bloc of proxy votes and the inability of all interested parties to get inside the hall to vote) voted 4,679 to 4,229 in favour 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 Dicker, 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.
Before the failed merger of Melbourne and Hawthorn, on 4 July 1996, the Fitzroy and Brisbane clubs had been merged by the directive of the AFL commission to take effect as the Brisbane Lions on 1 November 1996. Footscray and North Melbourne also changed their names to the Western Bulldogs and the Kangaroos respectively to attract more fans, having both been considered for mergers in the last two decades.
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 push for 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 to their old North Melbourne tag and Brayshaw became the club's president. The Gold Coast Football Club came into existence anyway and first competed in the AFL in 2011.
The 1997 season was not a happy one for fans of Melbourne and Hawthorn, having fought off the merger the clubs finished last and second last on the ladder. Melbourne later made the finals in 1998 and the Grand final in 2000.
In the months following the 1996 merger vote, prominent businessman Joseph Gutnick became president. He put $3 million of his own money into the club, and sacked Balme as coach midway through the 1997 season. In 1998, under coach Neale Daniher, the club started its rollercoaster ride up and down the ladder. It spent most of 1998 in the top eight only to lose to North Melbourne in the Preliminary Final. In 1999, Melbourne finished in the bottom three. In 2000, Melbourne lost the Grand Final by a rampaging Essendon. The members had expected a new era of success, but in 2001 it was same old story: Melbourne finished 11th. In 2002, although Melbourne again made the finals, Gutnick was voted out by the members.
In 2003, Melbourne plunged into a new crisis, winning only five games for the year and posting a $1 million loss. President Gabriel Szondy resigned and it seemed that Daniher's tenure as coach was under threat. But, continuing the recent trend, in 2004, Melbourne climbed the ladder again, to finish seventh. They made finals again in 2005 and 2006 but 2007 was a poor one for Melbourne; Daniher resigned and Melbourne avoided the wooden spoon and finished 14th.
Dean Bailey was appointed as coach for the 2008 season, but success did not follow. Former Melbourne captain Garry Lyon proposed on Footy Classified, following the round's proceedings, that Melbourne may very well be the Fitzroy of the modern era in their inability to perform for extended periods both on and off the field.
Off the field, the club remained in serious turmoil. In the first sign of troubles in February 2008, CEO Steve Harris resigned. Paul Gardner addressed the media in response to comments from the club's auditors spelling disaster for the club. Gardner reiterated that the club had posted a $97,000 profit at the end of 2007. Despite celebrating the club's birthday with an official mid-season function, shortly afterward chairman Paul Gardner resigned, handing the presidency to former club champion Jim Stynes, who inherited a $4.5 million debt.
Stynes wasted no time attempting to change the club's direction and eliminate debt, introducing a drive called "Debt Demolition", beginning with a call for members to sign up. A 5 August fundraiser raised $1.3 million. The club raised well over $3 million. Despite the reduced debt, in November new club CEO Cameron Schwab declared that it required urgent AFL assistance to continue, requesting additional funding to its special annual distribution. The AFL committed $1 million to the club in 2009, with the MCC matching the AFL contribution. By the midpoint of the 2009 season, things had improved off field for Melbourne. They had secured a record number of members, remerged with the MCC, and knocked off more debt. On field was different; the team selection committee starting picking teams not capable of winning games. Melbourne Football Club tanking scandal.
Midway through the 2010 season, Melbourne chairman Jim Stynes announced that Melbourne had paid off all debts, which, with a record club membership, secured Melbourne's short-term future as a stand-alone club.
Melbourne's 2011 season cumulated with the sacking of coach Dean Bailey. He left the club with 22 wins from 83 games. Mark Neeld was later appointed as senior coach until his sacking; Neeld left the Demons with 5 wins in 33 games coached. The club announced that Sydney premiership coach Paul Roos had signed a two-year deal to coach the Demons for 2014 and 2015.
In stark contrast, Hawthorn, has managed to grow from strength to strength on and off the field. fighting off the merger the barrackers of the club became financial members. Membership jumped from 12,484 to 27,000 in 1997 and has continued to increase every year. One of the proposed advantages of merging was playing on the MCG, Hawthorn moved their home games there in 2000 after the AFL closed Waverley Park.
The Hawks moved from their home base at Glenferrie. They relocated to the old Waverley Park, which was being carved into lucrative real estate by Mirvac. Under the terms of the deal, the oval and immediate surrounds were to remain for sporting purposes. Mirvac needed a club to occupy the oval. Hawthorn paid $1 and, in return, received the freehold on the entire oval and a portion of what is now the administrative buildings.
St Kilda and the Hawks began playing two home games each in Launceston in 2001, predominantly against the non-Victorian clubs, at Aurora Stadium. The Saints left Launceston in 2006, Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett renegotiated the deal in receiving a hefty sponsorship from the Tasmanian government, in an arrangement that earns them close to $3.5 million by playing four home games annually in Launceston.
After a strong showing in 2007 when the club made the finals after a playing list rebuild, the membership climbed to 41,000 in 2008. At the conclusion of the 2008 season, the Hawks were premiers, and became the first VFL/AFL club to record a A$4 million profit. The Hawks have since become the first Victorian club in 2009 to consistently achieve 50,000 members, by 2012 they consistently achieved 60,000 members and in 2015 they had 72,924 members signed. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Hawthorn claimed their 11th, 12th and 13th premierships.
- Ridley, Ian (2002). Urge to Merge. Crown Content. ISBN 1-74095-002-X.
- Seven Network (1999). The 90's: The Decade That Delivered (VHS). Melbourne: Seven Network.
- "Round 1 review". Footy Classified. Season 2. Episode 2. 2008-03-24.
- "Melbourne Demons clear debt"
- Niall, Jake. "Hawthorn and St Kilda: different sides of the equalisation debate". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 8 September 2015.
- Niall, Jake. "Hawthorn and St Kilda: different sides of the equalisation debate". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 8 September 2015.