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Grassroots: What the new AFL boss should stand for

Illustration: Mick Connolly

Illustration: Mick Connolly

The crowds are down. The prices are up. The hotdogs cost as much as Joe Hockey's medicare co-payment. About 30 players are crammed around the ball, but only Jeremy Howe takes speccies. Adam Goodes speaks out against racism and is bagged by people without historical perspective.

ASADA is giving Essendon and the AFL the silent treatment. Richmond wishes Jack Riewoldt had kept silent. The bump is on life support. The Giants will win games, but will they ever win fans? Port Adelaide is managing both.

This is the state of the game that Gillon McLachlan has been bequeathed. No, this is the state of the AFL competition, not ''the game".

For if McLachlan should stand for anything when he formally takes custody of the game, it is this: That the AFL competition ISN'T the sum of all footy, that there's a game played, watched and volunteered for by hundreds and thousands of people in country towns, suburbs and schools. It doesn't have a video review, and the players still play in positions because they aren't hyper-trained athletes.

We used to call it ''footy". Increasingly, it's known as ''AFL'' - partly in recognition of round ball football's inroads, but also because like the formative vacuum company ''Hoover'', or Apple's iPhone, the ''AFL'' brand is so overpowering that it has become the name of the sport at lower levels.

McLachlan has a unique perspective as the incoming AFL chief executive because he didn't play at either the top level, or even SANFL in the pre-national competition era like Wayne Jackson. McLachlan played 200 games for University Blues. Upon his appointment, McLachlan said his Blues were the team he supported first.

We hope that McLachlan stays true to his roots, which, despite the polo-playing pedigree, is of a man who played for a community-based team, remained on the committee and retained an interest in that club. Only a fortnight ago, he went to the opening of the Uni Blues' pavilion.

From what this column hears, McLachlan wants to elevate the importance of grass roots footy and that it will be among his top four or five priorities, along with listening to disillusioned fans and ensuring that the poorer clubs are alive and kicking goals. He has already promoted Grant Williams, who coached him at Uni Blues, from running AFL Victoria to a new position overseeing the state leagues and development in all states.

The challenges facing local footy are no less urgent than those vital AFL issues - such as Travis Cloke's conversion - that are debated, dissected and analysed 24/7 in a much wider media. Arguably, the state of the football pyramid underneath is more important than what is happening at the showcase pointy end, though the two are inextricably linked.

McLachlan, first of all, can change the conversation by talking regularly about country, suburban and junior footy. He can visit these clubs, then talk to Neil Mitchell or Jon Faine about them. Last week, Adam McNichol wrote in these pages about the inability of a once strong Swan Hill club, Tyntynder, to field a thirds team.

The president of the club reckoned kids in Swan Hill were working on weekends, instead of playing footy, so they could buy and pay for their iPhones. It would be interesting to know if these teens who have forsaken footy still consume the game - by watching it on Foxtel, or getting AFL downloads on those phones.

In discussing this year's botched fixture - which has prioritised the television viewer over the eyewitness fan - much has been said about starting times, such as that it's harder to get kids to a 4.40pm game than one at 2.10pm (a time that no longer exists).

But does anyone even raise the impact of all these times - and the fact that you can spend an entire weekend hypnotised by David King scribbling on a whiteboard - on bush footy?

Unfortunately, the AFL is so ubiquitous in terms of its reach that it - unintentionally - can cannibalise the game at lower levels. McLachlan must consider the impact of all that television product on the footy food chain, not just AFL consumers.

In 2012, Peter Jackson, who has since joined the Demons as CEO, did a report on Victorian bush footy that sensibly recommended a decentralisation and the creation of stronger regional bodies, such as in Ballarat and Bendigo, where the game - yep, the sport, not Channel Seven or Fox Footy - is holding its own.

Soccer is a grass roots behemoth, and while Auskick numbers might be fine, Andrew Demetriou's AFL has been far less successful on the mass participation front - discarding Auskick and early juniors - than it has been in making its peak competition the most popular and commercially successful. Soccer - I use the word only to differentiate - claims 1.96 million players (more than footy and two rugbys combined), when indoor players and school players are included. Its 550,000 ''outdoor'' registered players still puts it ahead of ''AFL".

Soccer has four major advantages that McLachlan can do little about. One is that it is easier to play (with a smaller ground), second is that it is non-collision and thus safer. Third, partly as a consequence of safety, it is increasingly played by girls. And, not least, it is the largest global game, suited to an internationalised economy and communications. The A-league's Western Sydney Wanderers have a massive advantage over the Giants because they've grown from a mass participation base.

I know of people who've lost that loving feeling for AFL footy, but who've re-directed their interest to a local team. The broadcaster Francis Leach, for instance, has given up calling AFL games on Saturdays. Instead, he acts as ''runner'' (a description of his role, not speed) for the Daniel Harford-coached St Kevin's in the Amateurs. Leach thinks there's too much AFL emphasis on consumers, too little on community.

Fitzroy people left the AFL when the Royboy carcass was carted off to Brisbane. This was a terrible event, though commonplace in the country leagues, where teams are routinely merged and there are more hyphenated names than at Gillon's polo events.

Teams die in the bush constantly, largely in line with population shifts, in the manner of bank branches. But they also spring up in places where babies boomed a decade ago.

Fitzroy's demise was the saddest casualty of the AFL's modernisation and national evolution. It is of no solace whatsoever to those who followed the Roys to the grave, but the junior club that bears its name today has grown rapidly to have 22 teams, including three girls teams that kicked off this year.

McLachlan's mission isn't simply to prevent ''another Fitzroy". It's to ensure that there are more stories like the Fitzroy juniors.

15 comments so far

  • (Semantic pet hate alert!) Jake, I heartily agree with the sentiment. It doesn't help when Australian Rules organisations call themselves NSWAFL, etc. I have never played AFL (although I'm flattered you ask), but I did play quite a few games of Aussie Rules at a schoolboy level.

    Commenter
    Timbo
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 25, 2014, 1:04PM
    • Good article Mr Niall... Need some more

      Commenter
      rabbitflat
      Location
      Ballarat
      Date and time
      May 25, 2014, 1:35PM
      • Calling the game "AFL" is an ugly Sydneyism that should never have been allowed to take hold.

        Frankly I'm amazed that Australian football's custodians have stood back while soccer has waged a nasty culture war on football's name.

        It seems the AFL has been so eager to become synonymous with Australian rules football that they have led the game to retreat into a corner on the naming front.

        Commenter
        Paul
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        May 25, 2014, 1:53PM
        • Great call! It is almost cringeworthy to call Austrailan rules AFL and it makes me uneasy every time I hear it used.........

          Commenter
          Fnuckle
          Date and time
          May 25, 2014, 10:21PM
      • The damage is done. To many teams diluting the talent pool. They are now chasing "athletes" from overseas to try and compensate. As long as teams do not play each other twice, the games a joke. What chance has struggling clubs got to build a supporter base and attendances when clubs like Collingwood get the best times. Irony is Pies have such a strong Supporter base they would watch them play at 2 am in the morning. Time to split the comp into two Divisions with a relegation system allowing each team to play the other twice. Pay recently retired players to play around Victoria and Aus with struggling clubs country clubs.

        Commenter
        The Games been ruined
        Date and time
        May 25, 2014, 2:04PM
        • Alternatively every team plays every other team once. All games are then important as the 'draw' has very little impact on success.

          Commenter
          Wingn
          Date and time
          May 25, 2014, 3:38PM
      • Soccer should also be called Soccer because that is what we call it in Austalia. It was called Soccer in England and still is in other places. Should we stop calling thongs thongs?

        Commenter
        TB...
        Date and time
        May 25, 2014, 2:46PM
        • 'football' ( the round ball variety ) is rarely referred to as 'soccer' either in England or the rest of the world. The word 'soccer' was a public school (Harrow?) nick name derived from the original name of the game 'Association Football' 'A'ssociation being shortened and corrupted to 'soccer. .in Australia calling the game soccer is an anathema to any self respecting 'football' fan ..

          Commenter
          Seamustasmania
          Location
          Tasmania
          Date and time
          May 25, 2014, 3:19PM
          • I have just come back from watching my sons play senior soccer. Yes, I call it soccer, just like the biggest UK soccer magazine "World Soccer" does. We follow Australian, Spanish and UK Soccer, but we certainly go to more AFL games than A-League. Many people do the same. Why worry about it?

            Commenter
            mullet
            Date and time
            May 25, 2014, 4:02PM
            • Good article, spot on about lack of support for country footy, the backbone of the game and when they loose this, the game will have no spine!

              Commenter
              Gazza
              Location
              Central Victoria
              Date and time
              May 25, 2014, 5:36PM

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              2014 Home and Away

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              RIC 72 vs COL 110 Report Stats
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              PTA 159 vs BRI 46 Report Stats
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              BRI 63 vs RIC 106 Report Stats
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              MEL 78 vs GCF 86 Report Stats
              WBU 91 vs CAR 119 Report Stats
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              GEE 106 vs HAW 87 Report Stats
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              Fri, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
              COL 83 vs ESS 60 Report Stats
              STK 79 vs BRI 82 Report Stats
              FRE 61 vs NTH 74 Report Stats
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              GCF 134 vs GWS 94 Report Stats
              CAR 92 vs WCE 89 Report Stats
              MEL 38 vs SYD 69 Report Stats
              Sun, 27 AprTimes shown AEST
              WBU 83 vs ADE 92 Report Stats
              RIC 52 vs HAW 118 Report Stats
              PTA 107 vs GEE 67 Report Stats
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              Round 7
              Fri, 02 MayTimes shown AEST
              CAR 70 vs COL 104 Report Stats
              Sat, 03 MayTimes shown AEST
              HAW 175 vs STK 30 Report Stats
              GWS 97 vs PTA 132 Report Stats
              ADE 67 vs MEL 70 Report Stats
              BRI 44 vs SYD 123 Stats
              ESS 73 vs WBU 65 Report Stats
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              GEE 81 vs RIC 76 Report Stats
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              Round 8
              Fri, 09 MayTimes shown AEST
              SYD 107 vs HAW 88 Report Stats
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              PTA 94 vs FRE 76 Report Stats
              BRI 57 vs ESS 65 Report Stats
              MEL 83 vs WBU 99 Report Stats
              Sun, 11 MayTimes shown AEST
              WCE 188 vs GWS 77 Report Stats
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              Round 9
              Thu, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
              ADE 76 vs COL 55 Report Stats
              Fri, 16 MayTimes shown AEST
              ESS 64 vs SYD 114 Report Stats
              Sat, 17 MayTimes shown AEST
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              NTH 125 vs BRI 38 Report Stats
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              Round 10
              Fri, 23 MayTimes shown AEST
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              Thu, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
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              MEL 75 vs PTA 95 Report Stats
              BRI 98 vs CAR 91 Report Stats
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              ADE 109 vs GCF 77 Report Stats
              WBU 51 vs FRE 89 Report Stats
              HAW 94 vs GWS 87 Report Stats
              WCE 44 vs NTH 82 Report Stats
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              GEE 107 vs CAR 102 Report Stats
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              HAW 123 vs WCE 79 Report Stats
              PTA 129 vs STK 59 Report Stats
              WBU 87 vs BRI 95 Report Stats
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              CAR 90 vs HAW 118 Report Stats
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              ESS 77 vs MEL 78 Report Stats
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              Round 14
              Fri, 20 JunTimes shown AEST
              RIC 51 vs SYD 62 Report Stats
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              PTA 128 vs WBU 56 Report Stats
              HAW 115 vs COL 86 Report Stats
              GCF 118 vs GEE 78 Report Stats
              FRE 105 vs BRI 22 Report Stats
              ESS 101 vs ADE 92 Report Stats
              Sun, 22 JunTimes shown AEST
              GWS 100 vs CAR 92 Report Stats
              STK 70 vs WCE 103 Report Stats
              MEL 66 vs NTH 107 Report Stats
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              Round 15
              Fri, 27 JunTimes shown AEST
              GEE 89 vs ESS 80 Report Stats
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              HAW 116 vs GCF 63 Report Stats
              STK 73 vs RIC 117 Report Stats
              FRE 88 vs WCE 81 Report Stats
              SYD 106 vs GWS 60 Stats
              BRI 70 vs NTH 66 Report Stats
              Sun, 29 JunTimes shown AEST
              WBU 91 vs MEL 85 Report Stats
              ADE 99 vs PTA 76 Report Stats
              COL 91 vs CAR 76 Report Stats
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              Round 16
              Fri, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
              NTH 108 vs HAW 88 Report Stats
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              RIC 79 vs BRI 54 Stats
              GWS 72 vs ADE 140 Report Stats
              GCF 80 vs COL 75 Report Stats
              MEL 34 vs FRE 97 Report Stats
              PTA 60 vs ESS 62 Report Stats
              Sun, 06 JulTimes shown AEST
              CAR 151 vs STK 66 Report Stats
              WCE 51 vs SYD 79 Report Stats
              GEE 69 vs WBU 56 Report Stats
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              Round 17
              Fri, 11 JulTimes shown AEST
              ADE 92 vs HAW 104 Report Stats
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              MEL 36 vs GEE 102 Report Stats
              NTH 92 vs STK 33 Report Stats
              WBU 94 vs GCF 66 Report Stats
              BRI 64 vs WCE 76 Report Stats
              SYD 122 vs CAR 51 Report Stats
              Sun, 13 JulTimes shown AEST
              RIC 126 vs PTA 106 Report Stats
              ESS 103 vs COL 39 Report Stats
              FRE 136 vs GWS 60 Report Stats
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              Round 18
              Fri, 18 JulTimes shown AEST
              CAR 109 vs NTH 86 Report Stats
              Sat, 19 JulTimes shown AEST
              STK 118 vs FRE 60 Report Stats
              GWS 87 vs GEE 94 Report Stats
              Sun, 20 JulTimes shown AEST
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              WBU 94 vs ESS 101 Report Stats
              Fri, 25 JulTimes shown AEST
              WCE 42 vs RIC 59 Report Stats
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              BRI 110 vs GCF 56 Report Stats
              HAW 104 vs SYD 94 Report Stats
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              COL 82 vs ADE 98 Report Stats
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              Round 19
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              FRE 83 vs CAR 78 Report Stats
              Fri, 01 AugTimes shown AEST
              SYD 79 vs ESS 57 Report Stats
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              ADE 105 vs WCE 136 Report Stats
              RIC 89 vs GWS 62 Report Stats
              GCF 117 vs STK 64 Report Stats
              NTH 79 vs GEE 111 Report Stats
              Sun, 03 AugTimes shown AEST
              MEL 51 vs BRI 74 Stats
              HAW 107 vs WBU 45 Report Stats
              COL 76 vs PTA 70 Report Stats
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              Round 20
              Fri, 08 AugTimes shown AEST
              RIC 95 vs ESS 77 Report Stats
              Sat, 09 AugTimes shown AEST
              GWS 51 vs NTH 126 Report Stats
              CAR 97 vs GCF 58 Report Stats
              HAW 115 vs MEL 65 Report Stats
              PTA 58 vs SYD 84 Report Stats
              GEE 81 vs FRE 79 Report Stats
              Sun, 10 AugTimes shown AEST
              BRI 63 vs ADE 168 Report Stats
              STK 99 vs WBU 122 Report Stats
              WCE 126 vs COL 66 Report Stats
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              Round 21
              Fri, 15 AugTimes shown AEST
              CAR 76 vs GEE 82 Report Stats
              Sat, 16 AugTimes shown AEST
              SYD 127 vs STK 56 Stats
              GCF 47 vs PTA 56 Report Stats
              ESS 77 vs WCE 74 Report Stats
              COL 56 vs BRI 123 Report Stats
              ADE 69 vs RIC 79 Report Stats
              Sun, 17 AugTimes shown AEST
              NTH 111 vs WBU 61 Report Stats
              MEL 34 vs GWS 98 Report Stats
              FRE 110 vs HAW 91 Report Stats
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              Round 22
              Fri, 22 AugTimes shown AEST
              PTA 140 vs CAR 37 Report Stats
              Sat, 23 AugTimes shown AEST
              NTH 101 vs ADE 94 Report Stats
              ESS 108 vs GCF 89 Report Stats
              GWS 67 vs COL 75 Report Stats
              WCE 119 vs MEL 53 Report Stats
              HAW 94 vs GEE 71 Report Stats
              Sun, 24 AugTimes shown AEST
              BRI 48 vs FRE 106 Report Stats
              WBU 67 vs SYD 130 Report Stats
              RIC 98 vs STK 72 Report Stats
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              Round 23
              Fri, 29 AugTimes shown AEST
              COL 56 vs HAW 121 Stats
              Sat, 30 AugTimes shown AEST
              CAR 90 vs ESS 90 Stats
              FRE 105 vs PTA 97 Stats
              SYD 65 vs RIC 68 Stats
              NTH 123 vs MEL 93 Stats
              GEE 143 vs BRI 81 Stats
              Sun, 31 AugTimes shown AEST
              GCF 99 vs WCE 151 Stats
              ADE 141 vs STK 62 Stats
              WBU 109 vs GWS 115 Stats
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              AFL Finals Round 1
              Fri, 05 SepTimes shown AEST
              HAW 104 vs GEE 68 Report Stats
              Sat, 06 SepTimes shown AEST
              SYD 93 vs FRE 69 Stats
              NTH 93 vs ESS 81 Report Stats
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              PTA 132 vs RIC 75 Report Stats
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              AFL Finals Round 2
              Fri, 12 SepTimes shown AEST
              GEE 92 vs NTH 98 Stats
              Sat, 13 SepTimes shown AEST
              FRE 83 vs PTA 105 Stats
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              AFL Finals Round 3
              Fri, 19 SepTimes shown AEST
              SYD 136 vs NTH 65 Report Stats
              Sat, 20 SepTimes shown AEST
              HAW 97 vs PTA 94 Report Stats
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              AFL Finals Round 4
              Sat, 27 SepTimes shown AEST
              SYD 74 vs HAW 137 Report Stats
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              AFL Home and Away
              Overall standings
              Team P W L D % Pts
              Sydney Swans 22 17 5 0 142.88 68
              Hawthorn 22 17 5 0 140.78 68
              Geelong Cats 22 17 5 0 113.77 68
              Fremantle 22 16 6 0 130.40 64
              Port Adelaide 22 14 8 0 129.92 56
              North Melbourne 22 14 8 0 117.04 56
              Essendon 22 12 9 1 106.34 50
              Richmond 22 12 10 0 105.77 48
              View all
               
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