Although he's a Northern Territorian, Jacob Long, 16, barracks for the Hawthorn Hawks, because his cousin Cyril used to play for them.

Key points:

  • The NT, the ACT and Tasmania are the only Australian jurisdictions without an AFL team
  • The top tier team in the NT currently is NT Thunder, whose men play in the NEAFL and women play in the VFL nationally
  • It's estimated an NT AFL team would cost up to $60 million per year

Prior to 2008 he was an Essendon Bombers fan, when uncle Michael was on the team.

Asked if he would switch allegiances again if the NT fielded an AFL team, Mr Long said he probably would.

"That's where I'm from," he said.

He also thought it would help him follow his famous family members — Cyril Rioli and Michael Long — to "make it" in the top league.

But he couldn't understand why it didn't have one already: "[I'm] not too sure, I reckon we've got the skill," he said.

An ABC reader was also surprised and contacted Curious Darwin for answers.

"Why doesn't the Northern Territory have an AFL team when every other state has at least two?" Russell asked.

Curious Darwin is our series where you send us your questions, vote for your favourite, and we investigate. You can submit a question at the bottom of this story, or vote on our next topic.

While the question isn't quite accurate — as Tasmania and the ACT are also without AFL teams — we've looked into why the NT doesn't have one, and whether it has a chance of getting one soon.

Jacob Long handballs the AFL ball during training

AFL team could cost up to $60 million

When it comes to AFL, the Northern Territory punches above its weight in plenty of ways: per capita more people participate in the sport than anywhere else in the country.

The NT has also produced some of the game's most celebrated players, so naturally, the prospect of the Territory getting its own AFL team has been talked about for decades.

Back in about 1988, former AFLNT board member and secretary Darryl Window took three months off work and secured a NT government grant to investigate taking Territory AFL to the next level.

"The one stumbling block of course was not players — it was money," he said.

The AFLNT's chief executive Stuart Totham put the figure at $40 to $50 million per year, while another AFLNT manager estimated it would cost at least $60 million.

AFL in the Territory:

  • AFL was first played in the NT in 1916
  • It is now its most popular sport
  • It is particularly popular in Indigenous communities, such as the Tiwi Islands
  • Participation in the AFL is higher in the Territory per capita than any other Australian jurisdiction
  • Among its most celebrated players are David Kantilla, Bill Dempsey, Maurice Rioli, Nathan Buckley, Michael Long, Andrew McLeod and Cyril Rioli
  • Many of the Indigenous All-Stars' games are played in the NT

"Close to half is probably AFL-covered and covered through match returns, perhaps," he said.

"Then you've got to find additional income through corporate support and other means."

Given the Territory has a tiny population of just under 250,000, and the fact its largest stadium can only hold about 14,000, it has little chance of matching the ticket revenue and membership base of other AFL clubs — for example, Richmond has more than 100,000 members.

The AFL's recent expansions have been into areas with burgeoning populations, such as the Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.

But attracting corporate dollars is deemed the main hurdle.

Former AFL Northern Territory president Bob Elix believed that would be difficult, even if the Territory's oil, gas and tourism industries were to grow larger and lengthened the list of potential supporters.

Should North Melbourne relocate to NT?

Mr Elix pointed out that while Japanese gas giant Inpex supported Territory AFL programs (to the tune of $760,000 since 2009) it wasn't enough to prop up a team.

"We need to be able to generate our own income, and at the moment that is not a possibility," he said.

Wally Gallio, the AFLNT's manager of talent and pathways, said that while the Territory had some great players, others would have to be recruited and relocated, adding to costs.

Instead of building a team from scratch, Mr Window suggested enticing an existing team to relocate from interstate, such as the North Melbourne Kangaroos.

"No-one will like it being said, but poor old North Melbourne is always the team that is on the chopping block because they can't get enough members," Mr Window said.

Mr Totham believed the current focus should be on creating more opportunities for Territory players.

"If discussion around an AFL team elevates it to some point, fantastic, but we'll remain focussed on those outcomes," he said.

Jacob Long is pictured kicking a football, as the sun sets behind him

Taking NT Thunder to the next level

The top tier Northern Territory team is the NT Thunder, which has competed in the men's North Eastern Australian Football League (NEAFL) since 2009 and the Victorian Football League (VFL) women's competition since 2018.

But Mr Totham said he'd been disappointed with the NEAFL draw structure this year, as it didn't give enough opportunities for the NT players to test themselves against the best talent.

Asked if the NT Thunder should join a different league, he said the idea wasn't on its radar at the moment, but could be considered in the future.

"If there's opportunities to better showcase talent, we'll certainly pursue them," he said.

But Mr Elix was convinced the NT Thunder should instead join the South Australian National Football League (SANFL).

In his eyes it had all the elements the NEAFL was lacking: passion, tribalism, and ownership.

Mr Window has already written letters to the AFL pitching the idea, estimating it would cost from $2 to $5 million.

Michael Long Learning and Leadership Centre

Colleen Gwynne, the NT Children's Commissioner and former Adelaide Crows Women's assistant coach, said the next step should be to have more Territory players on the women's team.

While some suggested entering a Territory team into the AFLW would be easier financially, Ms Gwynne said nurturing young players was more important at this stage.

But as the Federal Opposition has promised $25 million to start a Tasmanian AFL team if it gets elected, she urged the NT Government to ask for a similar commitment for expanding grassroots Territory AFL.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner agreed that "the Northern Territory should get the same deal as Tasmania".

"A Territory AFL team is long overdue and would position the NT as a thriving place to live, visit, and do business," he said.

"I have spoken to the CEO of the AFL Gil McLachlan about the potential of a Territory team, and he is supportive of giving Territory talent a better avenue to play AFL footy while living at home."

Dry season football?

The Territory football season needs to fall in line with the rest of the country in order for it to grow, Mr Window believes.

Currently it's among the only leagues in Australia that runs in the wet summer months, to avoid the hard playing fields during the dry season.

Mr Totham said there had been a lot of talk about the idea — from the potential advantages for talent development, to the impacts of the altered ground availability on other sports.

If the AFLNT was to consider it, he said it would first commission a feasibility report.

A group of kids dive for a football in a puddle on the Tiwi Islands.

How would an AFL team benefit the Territory?

In the NT's Indigenous communities, AFL participation has been found to boost school attendance, improve mental health and lower crime rates.

The premise of the Michael Long Learning and Leadership Centre, set up in 2015, is to educate young people, using AFL as the hook.

Mr Totham said he believed a Territory AFL team would only fuel that social benefit.

"Certainly all the kids in communities aspire to play in the AFL, so the more AFL presence we have in the Territory can only help," he said.

Since inception of the women's league, many more Indigenous girls were joining the game and maximising their training so they could be the best, Ms Gwynne said.

An argument has also been made that the NT — the jurisdiction with highest Aboriginal population in Australia by far — deserves an AFL team given the contribution Aboriginal people have made to the sport.

Jenny Hocking, who is currently writing a book about Tom Wills, considered to be the father of AFL, said there was growing belief that AFL was partly inspired by the Indigenous game of marngrook.

Asked if the social benefit created by an NT AFL team could outweighs some of the costs, Mr Gallio said: "personally, I do think it could."

Mr Totham agreed, saying that on that basis it could perhaps persuade Government funding partners to come onboard.

The pair stand on a football oval

Leaving to chase AFL dreams

A Territory AFL team would also keep talented young players in the region.

Fourteen-year-old St Mary's Football Club player Kobe Hodges will go to boarding school in Melbourne next year, in the hope it will give him a better chance of one day getting drafted to the AFL.

If the Northern Territory could offer him the same opportunities, he said he would have stayed.

And would he stop supporting the Bulldogs and barrack for an NT team if there was one?

"Yeah definitely. It'd be good. A Territory team in the AFL would be pretty cool," he said.

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