The Tasmanian government is rallying a powerful group of corporate and sporting heavyweights charged to transition Hawthorn and North Melbourne out of the island state and to establish its own AFL club by 2026.
The AFL is privately endorsing the project, which is being driven by Tasmanian Treasurer Peter Gutwein, who told The Age: "The time is right. It's no longer a matter of if but when. In my view this should occur in the next five to seven years."
League chief Gillon McLachlan has emerged as a cautious advocate for a historic Tasmanian AFL licence, unofficially advising Premier Will Hodgman as his government puts together the charter for the project group with a view to gaining entry into the national competition by 2026.
The AFL advice is that the state would require at least 50,000 members and an initial commitment of $40 million to enter the league.
Tasmania boasts 91,000 members across the 18 AFL clubs and contributes an estimated combined $10 million to the Hawks and the Kangaroos.
While the government remained tight-lipped regarding potential members of the project group it is understood two key players expected to join are former Greater Western Sydney finance boss Paul Erikkson and James Henderson, the executive chairman of Dynamic Sports and Entertainment Group.
Erikkson was recently appointed TasRacing CEO while the Melbourne-based Tasmanian Henderson boasts high-profile clients including Ricky Ponting and AFL coaches Alastair Clarkson and Chris Fagan.
A number of mainland-based corporate bosses with strong Tasmanian links on the government's radar include Coca-Cola Amatil chief Alison Watkins.
With the project team to be paid by the state government and unveiled before the 2019 Tasmanian budget in May and as early as next month, the government is putting the finishing touches to a framework required to establish an AFL team.
That framework includes:
- 50,000 members
- A capital commitment of $40 million
- A unified Tasmanian football community
- AFL-standard venues
- Increasing the Australian rules talent pool from junior ranks through to double-figure representation in the AFL
- Designing a "respectful" exit strategy for Hawthorn and North Melbourne.
Gutwein indicated that the project group would work towards the team playing AFL games in both Hobart and Launceston.
"Our preference is to get a licence as a 19th AFL team in a 19- or 20-team competition," he said.
"But we will leave those decisions to the AFL and the right individuals with the right skills ... There are media deals to be considered as well as the make-up of the national league.
"It's important we can take everyone on this journey with us. Before we get a member or a corporate supporter we must demonstrate we are united and will work to improve out talent pathways.
"Where Hawthorn and North Melbourne are concerned they are our AFL partners and it is crucial we continue to respect those relationships.
"The strength of those relationships beyond 2021 will be tested by how well and with what dignity we can manage those transitions to establish a team of our own."
While Hodgman in the past has declared Tasmania deserved a team ahead of the Gold Coast the new project's strategy will avoid the establishment of a Tasmanian team at the expense of a current or relocated AFL club.
The prevailing view is that Hawthorn would end their two-decade relationship Launceston at the end of 2021 while North Melbourne could continue to play AFL games at Blundstone Arena with the shortfall in Tasmanian fixtures made up by a series of other AFL clubs.
While McLachlan has played no official role as the state readies itself for a prospective licence he has counselled Hodgman and other key players on the key platforms required for a place in the national competition.
McLachlan has not taken a position on the future of Hawthorn and North Melbourne in Tasmania.
Although the Northern Territory is undergoing an AFL feasibility study of its own, McLachlan has refused to be drawn on the AFL's future structure.
The AFL distributions to the GWS and Gold Coast from 2012-16 totalled almost $170 million and still exceed an annual combined total of more than $45 million.
McLachlan, who made his strongest comments to date this week in support of a Tasmanian AFL team, has urged the government to demonstrate unity and numbers behind the bid as well as identifying an individual Tasmanian heavy hitter as a contact point for head office.
Western Bulldogs president Peter Gordon endorsed Tasmania's quest this week as public momentum and federal government support grows for the state to join the AFL.
Late last year Tasmanian-born Richmond CEO Brendon Gale told a meeting of AFL club bosses that if the AFL saw itself as the custodian of the code - and not the dollar - then it owed it to the game to work to establish a Tasmanian team.
The state government has already recently established the Football Tasmania Board chaired by the retiring president of the state's legislative council and former South Melbourne footballer Jim Wilkinson.
The board has been charged with unifying the football factions across Tasmania and improving playing and training conditions at venues across the state.
Wilkinson's board has also vowed to lift participation numbers, which have dropped by 15 per cent over the past decade.
Currently just over 40,000 Australian rules players are registered, with soccer numbers now at 20,000 and growing as that code in Tasmania lobbies for a club in the A-League.
Basketball magnate Larry Kestleman has been a regular presence in Tasmania over the past month with a view to establishing a team in that state.
"Tasmania is part of federation," said Gutwein, "and the opportunities for Tasmanian kids and for all of Tasmania should be exactly the same opportunities enjoyed by Victorians and West Australians and Queenslanders.
"As I've said it's a matter now of when. Not if."