$10m poker play

CHRIS LEWIS is a passionate Dockers fan who led the Keep Freo in Freo campaign from the front. He says about 30 diehards asked him to put pen to paper to highlight the latest skulduggery in the footy club’s exit from the port city.

IN January, the Fremantle Dockers asked Fremantle council to pay a whopping $10 million when the club walks away from Fremantle Oval next year.

The much-loved and passionately supported football team that bears our name had initiated one of the most selfish, one-sided community plays ever seen in Australian elite sport.

Never mind that since inception in 1994 the Dockers have lived rent-free at Fremantle Oval.

They pay the city a notional one peppercorn annually on a 50-year lease, for the most historic football ground in WA. They have also enjoyed financial and other benefits courtesy of city ratepayers, including a critical loan guarantee when they were strapped for cash.

This is an opportunistic money grab and given the circumstances no payment should be made as this matter concludes, possibly before Christmas.


Fremantle council spent four years working openly and publicly with the Dockers about a $60m redevelopment of Fremantle Oval to make it one of the nations’ finest sporting and community venues and to set them up for the next 30 years.

Until November 2011 the council had received categoric support from the Dockers for this. Just when they thought agreement was being finalised, the Dockers and Cockburn council announced by press release a $107m plan developed in secrecy to build a sport and leisure facility at Cockburn Central, with the Dockers as centrepiece. This is now under construction.

Flashback to 1995, when without the generous support of the council and business people of Fremantle there wouldn’t have been a “Fremantle” team; it would likely have been a B-grade Eagles located at Subiaco Oval. The Fremantle birthright gave the Dockers a city base bearing their name with rusted on support, character and culture. Elite teams in sporting codes around the world aspire to such branding.

Where do things stand now? Incredibly the Dockers want cash to exit a lease they don’t pay, and for a clubhouse they are leaving behind. They are asking Fremantle council to contribute towards their new base in Cockburn, which is an unconscionable proposition.

They don’t seem to care that Fremantle Oval is to be redeveloped as the home of our two WAFL teams, the Bulldogs and Sharks, with new facilities for them, and for community use. The Dockers building has no role in this future, is in the wrong location and must be demolished.

The Dockers also have conveniently forgotten that materials and building expertise for their clubhouse were originally donated by generous supporters and benefactors. The big public event held to open it and effusively name and thank those who contributed is buried in the past.

Imagine what our own sports broadcaster George Grljusich would say if he were alive to see such corporate skulduggery.

Across the border, Cockburn wants to use the Dockers profile to lift their suburban obscurity to the national stage. It has gambled its entire cash reserves of about $70M on this, plus will pay the annual multi-million-dollar running costs and maintenance of the new sports facility.

Fast forward 10 years when Cockburn’s current councillors and executives have departed and a new team ponders why so much of their city’s capital and annual operations budget is tied up in one facility, with a multi-million-dollar subsidy going to an elite sporting club. By their own estimates the Dockers will then have annual turnover of around $100m and substantial surpluses, none of which will go to the city that hosts them and does not carry the club name.

But these will be Cockburn’s problems. They have made their bed.

Premier Colin Barnett has said publicly the Dockers can’t expect to keep control over Fremantle Oval to the detriment of the community. He should say more, as the government is putting a lot of money into WA football.

Dockers people have told us the initial $10m demand was just an ambit claim to rattle the council, and last week apparently reduced it by about half. But once again no details are public, even though our money at stake. The amount is irrelevant. Council must stick to the intent of the lease and not pay the Dockers one peppercorn.

As Fremantle Dockers members, residents and ratepayers of the City Fremantle we are hurt, confused, annoyed, conflicted and more by this situation. The very fact our team in the national competition is leaving its unique, character, city base and setting up camp 15km away is bad enough. The cash demand is insult to injury.

As a great Aussie once said: “Tell them they’re dreaming”.

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