Dons debt drive ahead of schedule after crowd surge

Essendon is poised to make a bigger than expected dint in the club’s $9 million debt after breaking membership and attendance records over the first third of the AFL season.

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Essendon has reached its membership target of 65,000, well past its previous membership record of 61,317 set in 2015, an achievement chief executive Xavier Campbell called “an incredible and historic moment for our club”.

“We believe we are heading in the right direction, our team is playing an exciting brand of football, and it’s great to see our members back enjoying their football again,” Campbell said on Wednesday.

But those members are also paying more than lip service to that support, with the Bombers currently averaging home crowds of 66,000, which is more than 9000 ahead of the next best-drawing club, Collingwood.

While a draw featuring the Anzac Day blockbuster against Collingwood and an opening clash with old foe Hawthorn have helped, Essendon have drawn home crowds of 78,000, 87,600, 44,000 and last Saturday night against Geelong, 57,000.

After breaking the 65,000 membership target, the club has planned a series of thank yous and giveaways to its fan base at Sunday’s Etihad Stadium game against West Coast.

Essendon had budgeted for a $1.2 million profit this year after last year’s whopping $9.8 million loss. But the stronger-than-expected support, despite a middling win-loss record of 4-4, has the Bombers hopeful of potentially even doubling that amount.

“Based on our initial budget position, we feel like we’re well-placed to deliver a better profit and pay down of our debt later this year,” Campbell said. “Having such a significant debt hasn’t rested that well with a lot of us, and it’s something we want to ensure we get on top of sooner rather than later.”

The $9.8 million loss last year came as the club counted the legal costs of the supplements scandal, leaving a traditionally well-off club with a debt of more than $9 million.

The loss took in player compensation claims and legal fees of $4.5 million, $1.5 million spent on short-term contracts for players in order to field an AFL team after the suspension of a dozen players by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, $3.1 million of lost revenue and gate takings, and another $806,000 as the club wrote off assets at their old home ground of Windy Hill.

Essendon has determined to rebrand itself in the aftermath of the scandal, and is also paying more than lip service to its attempt to be the most inclusive club in the AFL.

To that end, on Wednesday evening, the club marked IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia and Transphobia) with a “Red and Black Pride Night”, hosted by gay coterie group the Purple Bombers, along with the Essendon Women’s Network and The Long Walk, addressed by former coach Kevin Sheedy, along with former Olympian and Federal MP Nova Peris.

Sunday’s home game will be preceded by an AFL 9s match between the Purple Bombers and their West Coast equivalent.

Essendon players have had awareness training this week, as well as taking to the training track in specially-designed rainbow guernseys to mark the occasion. On Sunday, the side will run out with the Purple Bombers forming a guard of honour. Campbell said the club was proud of the steps it was taking towards embracing equality.

“Sport is a great facilitator of awareness, but also, if you really approach it meaningfully, change,” he said. “We’re not an expert in everything, but we’re in a fortunate position where we can canvas those areas.

“And for us being inclusive means that we’re accessible, and it means that our supporters feel comfortable and safe in supporting our club, no matter their race, religion or background.

“We want to reflect the multicultural society that is Australia now, and when it comes to sexual orientation, we want equality. We’ve been pushing that hard as a football club, and it’s just another part of the inclusiveness to which we are referring.”

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