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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.

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

      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.

        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.........

          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.

        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.

          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?

        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 ..

          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?

            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!

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

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              AFL 2015

              Round 1
              Thu, 02 AprTimes shown AEDT
              CAR 78vs RIC 105 Report Stats
              Sat, 04 AprTimes shown AEDT
              MEL 115vs GCF 89 Stats
              SYD 72vs ESS 60 Stats
              BRI 74vs COL 86 Stats
              WBU 97vs WCE 87 Stats
              Sun, 05 AprTimes shown AEST
              STK 78vs GWS 87 Stats
              ADE 140vs NTH 63 Stats
              FRE 75vs PTA 68 Stats
              Mon, 06 AprTimes shown AEST
              HAW 123vs GEE 61 Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 2
              Fri, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
              WCE 131vs CAR 62 Stats
              Sat, 11 AprTimes shown AEST
              RIC 66vs WBU 85 Report Stats
              GWS 101vs MEL 56 Stats
              COL 63vs ADE 90 Report Stats
              GCF 76vs STK 104 Stats
              PTA 44vs SYD 92 Stats
              Sun, 12 AprTimes shown AEST
              GEE 60vs FRE 104 Stats
              ESS 78vs HAW 76 Stats
              NTH 133vs BRI 51 Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 3
              Fri, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
              COL 140vs STK 66 Stats
              Sat, 18 AprTimes shown AEST
              CAR 84vs ESS 105 Stats
              ADE 80vs MEL 55 Stats
              SYD 111vs GWS 90 Report Stats
              NTH 105vs PTA 113 Stats
              BRI 58vs RIC 137 Stats
              Sun, 19 AprTimes shown AEST
              HAW 127vs WBU 57 Stats
              GEE 105vs GCF 96 Stats
              WCE 81vs FRE 111 Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 4
              Fri, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
              RIC 51vs MEL 83 Stats
              Sat, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
              STK 81vs CAR 121 Report Report Stats
              ESS 49vs COL 69 Report Stats
              GWS 119vs GCF 53 Stats
              PTA 99vs HAW 91 Stats
              FRE 74vs SYD 60 Stats
              Sun, 26 AprTimes shown AEST
              BRI 65vs WCE 118 Stats
              GEE 67vs NTH 83 Stats
              WBU 125vs ADE 68 Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 5
              Fri, 01 MayTimes shown AEST
              CAR 45vs COL 120 Stats
              Sat, 02 MayTimes shown AEST
              RIC 76vs GEE 85 Stats
              SYD 73vs WBU 77 Stats
              GCF 118vs BRI 54 Stats
              NTH 70vs HAW 130 Stats
              WCE 120vs GWS 33 Stats
              Sun, 03 MayTimes shown AEST
              MEL 50vs FRE 118 Stats
              STK 80vs ESS 82 Stats
              ADE 91vs PTA 115 Stats
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              Round 6
              Fri, 08 MayTimes shown AEST
              COL 59vs GEE 100 Stats
              Sat, 09 MayTimes shown AEST
              NTH 109vs RIC 74 Stats
              WBU 87vs STK 94 Stats
              GWS 108vs HAW 98 Stats
              GCF 78vs ADE 119 Stats
              MEL 50vs SYD 88 Stats
              FRE 80vs ESS 52 Stats
              Sun, 10 MayTimes shown AEST
              CAR 75vs BRI 84 Report Stats
              PTA 68vs WCE 78 Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 7
              Fri, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
              ESS 82vs NTH 93 Stats
              Sat, 16 MayTimes shown AEST
              ADE 119vs STK 73 Stats
              HAW 155vs MEL 50 Stats
              CAR 57vs GWS 135 Stats
              SYD 120vs GEE 77 Stats
              WCE 135vs GCF 43 Stats
              Sun, 17 MayTimes shown AEST
              WBU 88vs FRE 101 Stats
              RIC 105vs COL 100 Report Stats
              BRI 102vs PTA 65 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 8
              Fri, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
              GEE 140vs CAR 63 Report Stats
              Sat, 23 MayTimes shown AEST
              STK 78vs WCE 131 Report Stats
              GWS 108vs ADE 84 Report Stats
              GCF 63vs COL 132 Report Stats
              HAW 69vs SYD 73 Report Stats
              FRE 115vs NTH 42 Report Stats
              Sun, 24 MayTimes shown AEST
              ESS 136vs BRI 78 Report Stats
              MEL 103vs WBU 64 Report Stats
              PTA 43vs RIC 76 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 9
              Fri, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
              SYD 122vs CAR 62 Report Stats
              Sat, 30 MayTimes shown AEST
              HAW 93vs GCF 40 Report Stats
              MEL 54vs PTA 115 Report Stats
              WBU 113vs GWS 68 Report Stats
              RIC 72vs ESS 59 Report Stats
              ADE 57vs FRE 68 Report Stats
              Sun, 31 MayTimes shown AEST
              BRI 86vs STK 108 Report Stats
              COL 112vs NTH 95 Report Stats
              WCE 120vs GEE 64 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 10
              Fri, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
              FRE 70vs RIC 97 Report Stats
              Sat, 06 JunTimes shown AEST
              CAR 90vs ADE 99 Report Stats
              GCF 41vs SYD 93 Report Stats
              ESS 53vs GEE 122 Report Stats
              PTA 100vs WBU 62 Report Stats
              Sun, 07 JunTimes shown AEST
              GWS 97vs BRI 67 Report Stats
              NTH 85vs WCE 75 Report Stats
              STK 69vs HAW 132 Report Stats
              Mon, 08 JunTimes shown AEST
              MEL 85vs COL 110 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 11
              Fri, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
              PTA 69vs GEE 92 Report Stats
              Sat, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
              GCF 46vs FRE 53 Report Stats
              WCE 96vs ESS 46 Report Stats
              NTH 75vs SYD 91 Report Report Stats
              Sun, 14 JunTimes shown AEST
              COL 119vs GWS 77 Report Stats
              STK 85vs MEL 83 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 12
              Thu, 18 JunTimes shown AEST
              ADE 85vs HAW 114 Report Stats
              Fri, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
              RIC 70vs WCE 90 Report Stats
              Sat, 20 JunTimes shown AEST
              CAR 110vs PTA 106 Report Stats
              GWS 61vs NTH 117 Report Stats
              WBU 146vs BRI 74 Report Stats
              Sun, 21 JunTimes shown AEST
              GEE 89vs MEL 113 Report Stats
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              Round 13
              Thu, 25 JunTimes shown AEST
              FRE 80vs COL 73 Report Stats
              Fri, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
              SYD 77vs RIC 95 Report Stats
              Sat, 27 JunTimes shown AEST
              HAW 114vs ESS 76 Report Stats
              BRI 69vs ADE 82 Report Stats
              STK 56vs WBU 62 Report Stats
              Sun, 28 JunTimes shown AEST
              CAR 103vs GCF 69 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 14
              Thu, 02 JulTimes shown AEST
              SYD 94vs PTA 84 Report Stats
              Fri, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
              COL 91vs HAW 101 Report Stats
              Sat, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
              RIC 78vs GWS 69 Report Stats
              GCF 125vs NTH 70 Report Stats
              WBU 64vs CAR 53 Report Stats
              MEL 60vs WCE 114 Report Stats
              Sun, 05 JulTimes shown AEST
              ESS 52vs STK 162 Stats
              ADE vs GEE 15:20Adelaide Oval
              FRE 84vs BRI 48 Report Stats
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              Round 15
              Thu, 09 JulTimes shown AEST
              PTA 66vs COL 63 Report Stats
              Fri, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
              RIC 71vs CAR 41 Report Stats
              Sat, 11 JulTimes shown AEST
              ESS 69vs MEL 60 Report Stats
              WBU 95vs GCF 73 Report Stats
              NTH 120vs GEE 79 Report Stats
              WCE 147vs ADE 91 Report Stats
              Sun, 12 JulTimes shown AEST
              GWS 84vs STK 49 Report Stats
              HAW 115vs FRE 43 Report Stats
              BRI 49vs SYD 70 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 16
              Fri, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
              NTH 93vs ESS 68 Report Stats
              Sat, 18 JulTimes shown AEST
              GEE 72vs WBU 64 Report Stats
              GCF 79vs GWS 94 Report Stats
              COL 56vs WCE 87 Report Stats
              SYD 57vs HAW 146 Report Stats
              FRE 95vs CAR 53 Report Stats
              Sun, 19 JulTimes shown AEST
              MEL 60vs BRI 36 Report Stats
              PTA 113vs ADE 116 Report Stats
              STK 73vs RIC 89 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 17
              Fri, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
              CAR 35vs HAW 173 Report Stats
              Sat, 25 JulTimes shown AEST
              GWS 42vs GEE 69 Stats
              ADE 125vs GCF 80 Stats
              RIC 78vs FRE 82 Stats
              ESS 116vs PTA 129 Stats
              BRI 38vs NTH 110 Report Stats
              Sun, 26 JulTimes shown AEST
              WBU 104vs COL 86 Report Stats
              MEL 46vs STK 83 Report Stats
              WCE 103vs SYD 51 Report Stats
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              Round 18
              Fri, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
              HAW 53vs RIC 71 Report Stats
              Sat, 01 AugTimes shown AEST
              GEE 113vs BRI 57 Stats
              COL 54vs MEL 91 Report Stats
              SYD 117vs ADE 65 Report Stats
              CAR 54vs NTH 118 Report Stats
              GCF 83vs WCE 83 Report Stats
              Sun, 02 AugTimes shown AEST
              PTA 112vs STK 49 Report Stats
              ESS 40vs WBU 127 Report Stats
              FRE 84vs GWS 63 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 19
              Fri, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
              ADE 88vs RIC 52 Report Stats
              Sat, 08 AugTimes shown AEST
              COL 105vs CAR 87 Report Stats
              WBU 128vs PTA 64 Report Stats
              BRI 100vs GCF 114 Report Stats
              GEE 95vs SYD 63 Report Stats
              WCE 74vs HAW 88 Report Stats
              Sun, 09 AugTimes shown AEST
              MEL 92vs NTH 127 Report Stats
              GWS 93vs ESS 61 Report Stats
              STK 59vs FRE 96 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 20
              Fri, 14 AugTimes shown AEST
              SYD 87vs COL 76 Report Stats
              Sat, 15 AugTimes shown AEST
              ESS 59vs ADE 171 Report Stats
              NTH 120vs STK 83 Report Stats
              PTA 111vs GWS 90 Report Stats
              GEE 85vs HAW 121 Report Stats
              BRI 131vs CAR 67 Report Stats
              Sun, 16 AugTimes shown AEST
              RIC 138vs GCF 55 Report Stats
              WBU 153vs MEL 55 Report Stats
              FRE 80vs WCE 104 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 21
              Fri, 21 AugTimes shown AEST
              HAW 86vs PTA 108 Report Stats
              Sat, 22 AugTimes shown AEST
              COL 56vs RIC 147 Report Stats
              GWS 44vs SYD 133 Report Stats
              GCF 97vs ESS 95 Report Stats
              STK 97vs GEE 97 Report Stats
              ADE 131vs BRI 44 Report Stats
              Sun, 23 AugTimes shown AEST
              NTH 94vs FRE 83 Report Stats
              CAR 78vs MEL 55 Report Stats
              WCE 162vs WBU 85 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 22
              Fri, 28 AugTimes shown AEST
              GEE 62vs COL 110 Report Stats
              Sat, 29 AugTimes shown AEST
              GWS 132vs CAR 51 Report Stats
              HAW 134vs BRI 62 Report Stats
              NTH 73vs WBU 96 Report Stats
              ESS 47vs RIC 74 Report Stats
              GCF 51vs PTA 88 Report Stats
              Sun, 30 AugTimes shown AEST
              ADE 126vs WCE 69 Report Stats
              STK 38vs SYD 135 Report Stats
              FRE 108vs MEL 54 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 23
              Fri, 04 SepTimes shown AEST
              RIC 108vs NTH 67 Report Stats
              Sat, 05 SepTimes shown AEST
              GEE 119vs ADE 80 Report Stats
              BRI 130vs WBU 122 Report Stats
              PTA 122vs FRE 53 Report Stats
              HAW 113vs CAR 56 Report Stats
              SYD 127vs GCF 64 Report Stats
              WCE 125vs STK 30 Report Stats
              Sun, 06 SepTimes shown AEST
              MEL 103vs GWS 77 Report Stats
              COL 92vs ESS 95 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 24
              Fri, 11 SepTimes shown AEST
              WCE 96vs HAW 64 Report Stats
              Sat, 12 SepTimes shown AEST
              FRE 69vs SYD 60 Report Stats
              WBU 102vs ADE 109 Report Stats
              Sun, 13 SepTimes shown AEST
              RIC 88vs NTH 105 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 25
              Fri, 18 SepTimes shown AEST
              HAW 135vs ADE 61 Report Stats
              Sat, 19 SepTimes shown AEST
              SYD 51vs NTH 77 Report Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 26
              Fri, 25 SepTimes shown AEST
              FRE 67vs HAW 94 Report Stats
              Sat, 26 SepTimes shown AEST
              WCE 80vs NTH 55 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              Round 27
              Sat, 03 OctTimes shown AEST
              HAW 107vs WCE 61 Report Stats
              View All Fixtures
              AFL 2015
              Overall standings
              Team P W L D % Pts
              Fremantle 22 17 5 0 118.73 68
              West Coast Eagles 22 16 5 1 148.22 66
              Hawthorn 22 16 6 0 158.40 64
              Sydney Swans 22 16 6 0 127.12 64
              Richmond 22 15 7 0 123.09 60
              Western Bulldogs 22 14 8 0 115.12 56
              Adelaide Crows 21 13 8 0 115.71 54
              North Melbourne 22 13 9 0 106.45 52
              View all

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