AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou wants the WA Football Commission to hand over the AFL licences of West Coast and Fremantle, giving the AFL control of the WA football industry.
The WAFC strongly opposes Demetriou's plan, which has the potential to create the greatest upheaval in WA football for more than two decades.
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But after two years of lobbying from the AFL heavyweight, who has similar goals for the South Australian system, the WAFC has agreed to discuss ownership structures with the Eagles and Dockers.
"It would be fair to say that he has asked us to talk to the clubs, West Coast and Fremantle, on the best way to go forward," WAFC chairman Frank Cooper said yesterday.
The WAFC has owned Fremantle entirely since the club's inception in 1994, ahead of its debut season in 1995. It assumed control of the Eagles when the WA football system suffered a financial meltdown in 1989 and struck an agreement with remaining Indian Pacific shareholders almost a decade later to complete the purchase of the club.
The clubs have become two of the three financial pillars underpinning the WA football system and development at grassroots and junior level. The third pillar is the WAFC's control of Patersons Stadium.
It is understood the WAFC has challenged Demetriou to show why the handover would be in WA football's best interests and queried what safeguards would be in place for junior and grassroots development. There are also concerns that the Eagles and Dockers, among the AFL's wealthier clubs, could become cash cows for cash-strapped Melbourne clubs as the AFL pursues equalisation policies while facing the financial pressure of funding clubs in frontier markets on the Gold Coast and in western Sydney.
There is also an issue on what, if any, financial compensation would be provided. WA football paid a total of $8 million for its two AFL licences in the 1980s and 1990s. Estimates yesterday put the combined commercial value of the licences at between $30 million and $100 million.
The issue has the potential to become a factor in talks with the WA Government over plans for a new major stadium in Perth. The AFL will be asked to contribute money to the stadium, expected to cost $1 billion, raising the possibility that the ownership structures of the clubs could become a bargaining chip.
WA Sports Minister Terry Waldron opposes changing the ownership structure.
"The State Government supports the principle that WA AFL clubs' financial success should support local community football development," he said. "The State would not support an alternative ownership structure of the AFL licences that erodes this principle."
The AFL would not be drawn on ownership structures and possible stadium contributions from the AFL.
"There has been no recent discussions between the WA Government and the AFL regarding a stadium in WA," a spokesman said. "Also, the commission hasn't had any recent discussions with the WAFC because our commission hasn't yet met this year."
The Weekend West understands that Demetriou pushed the possibility of changing the structure at the AFL's annual conference late last year.
West Coast and Fremantle are yet to take positions on the issue.
West Coast chairman Alan Cransberg said the implications needed to be carefully considered.
"I am aware in my role as a director that the AFL has expressed an interest. I am not sure what discussions have taken place," he said.
"Obviously if there were discussions on the topic, we would be looking after the interests of WA football and of course looking after the interests of West Coast and its supporters within WA.
"One of the things we would need to do is to make sure we understand the implications both from an elite football level but also, just as importantly, from a junior football and football development level because I think the commission has done a very good job in developing football in this State."
Fremantle president Steve Harris said his board hadn't discussed the issue.
"However, we look forward to working with the WAFC to assess any proposal in the future," he said.