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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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