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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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              AFL 2015

              Round 1
              Thu, 02 AprTimes shown AEDT
              CAR 78 vs RIC 105 19:20MCG
              Sat, 04 AprTimes shown AEDT
              MEL 115 vs GCF 89 13:40MCG
              SYD 72 vs ESS 60 16:35ANZ
              BRI 74 vs COL 86 19:20G
              WBU 97 vs WCE 87 19:20ES
              Sun, 05 AprTimes shown AEST
              STK 78 vs GWS 87 13:10ES
              ADE 140 vs NTH 63 15:20Adelaide Oval
              FRE 75 vs PTA 68 18:40Domain Stadium
              Mon, 06 AprTimes shown AEST
              HAW 123 vs GEE 61 15:20MCG
              View All Fixtures
              Round 2
              Fri, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
              WCE 131 vs CAR 62 20:10Domain Stadium
              Sat, 11 AprTimes shown AEST
              RIC 66 vs WBU 85 13:45MCG
              GWS 101 vs MEL 56 14:10SO
              COL 63 vs ADE 90 16:35ES
              GCF 76 vs STK 104 19:20MS
              PTA 44 vs SYD 92 19:40Adelaide Oval
              Sun, 12 AprTimes shown AEST
              GEE 60 vs FRE 104 13:10SS
              ESS 78 vs HAW 76 15:20MCG
              NTH 133 vs BRI 51 16:40ES
              View All Fixtures
              Round 3
              Fri, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
              COL 140 vs STK 66 19:50MCG
              Sat, 18 AprTimes shown AEST
              CAR 84 vs ESS 105 13:45MCG
              ADE 80 vs MEL 55 14:10Adelaide Oval
              SYD 111 vs GWS 90 16:35SCG
              NTH 105 vs PTA 113 19:20ES
              BRI 58 vs RIC 137 19:20G
              Sun, 19 AprTimes shown AEST
              HAW 127 vs WBU 57 13:10AS
              GEE 105 vs GCF 96 15:20SS
              WCE 81 vs FRE 111 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 4
              Fri, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
              RIC 51 vs MEL 83 19:50MCG
              Sat, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
              STK 81 vs CAR 121 11:10NZ
              ESS 49 vs COL 69 14:40MCG
              GWS 119 vs GCF 53 17:40SO
              PTA 99 vs HAW 91 19:40Adelaide Oval
              FRE 74 vs SYD 60 20:45Domain Stadium
              Sun, 26 AprTimes shown AEST
              BRI 65 vs WCE 118 13:10G
              GEE 67 vs NTH 83 15:20SS
              WBU 125 vs ADE 68 16:40ES
              View All Fixtures
              Round 5
              Fri, 01 MayTimes shown AEST
              CAR 45 vs COL 120 19:50MCG
              Sat, 02 MayTimes shown AEST
              RIC 76 vs GEE 85 13:45MCG
              SYD 73 vs WBU 77 14:10SCG
              GCF 118 vs BRI 54 16:35MS
              NTH 70 vs HAW 130 19:20ES
              WCE 120 vs GWS 33 19:40Domain Stadium
              Sun, 03 MayTimes shown AEST
              MEL 50 vs FRE 118 13:10MCG
              STK 80 vs ESS 82 15:20ES
              ADE 91 vs PTA 115 16:40Adelaide Oval
              View All Fixtures
              Round 6
              Fri, 08 MayTimes shown AEST
              COL vs GEE 19:50MCG
              Sat, 09 MayTimes shown AEST
              NTH vs RIC 13:45BA
              WBU vs STK 14:10ES
              GWS vs HAW 16:35Spotless Stadium
              GCF vs ADE 17:10MS
              MEL vs SYD 19:20MCG
              FRE vs ESS 20:10Domain Stadium
              Sun, 10 MayTimes shown AEST
              CAR vs BRI 15:20ES
              PTA vs WCE 16:40Adelaide Oval
              View All Fixtures
              Round 7
              Fri, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
              ESS vs NTH 19:50ES
              Sat, 16 MayTimes shown AEST
              ADE vs STK 13:45Adelaide Oval
              HAW vs MEL 14:10MCG
              CAR vs GWS 16:35ES
              SYD vs GEE 19:20ANZ
              WCE vs GCF 19:40Domain Stadium
              Sun, 17 MayTimes shown AEST
              WBU vs FRE 13:10ES
              RIC vs COL 15:20MCG
              BRI vs PTA 16:40G
              View All Fixtures
              Round 8
              Fri, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
              GEE vs CAR 19:50ES
              Sat, 23 MayTimes shown AEST
              STK vs WCE 13:45ES
              GWS vs ADE 14:10Spotless Stadium
              GCF vs COL 16:35MS
              HAW vs SYD 19:20MCG
              FRE vs NTH 19:40Domain Stadium
              Sun, 24 MayTimes shown AEST
              ESS vs BRI 13:10ES
              MEL vs WBU 15:20MCG
              PTA vs RIC 16:40Adelaide Oval
              View All Fixtures
              Round 9
              Fri, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
              SYD vs CAR 19:50SCG
              Sat, 30 MayTimes shown AEST
              HAW vs GCF 13:45AS
              MEL vs PTA 14:10TIO Traeger Park
              WBU vs GWS 16:35ES
              RIC vs ESS 19:20MCG
              ADE vs FRE 19:40Adelaide Oval
              Sun, 31 MayTimes shown AEST
              BRI vs STK 13:10G
              COL vs NTH 15:20MCG
              WCE vs GEE 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 10
              Fri, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
              FRE vs RIC 20:10Domain Stadium
              Sat, 06 JunTimes shown AEST
              CAR vs ADE 13:40MCG
              GCF vs SYD 16:35MS
              ESS vs GEE 19:20ES
              PTA vs WBU 19:40Adelaide Oval
              Sun, 07 JunTimes shown AEST
              GWS vs BRI 13:10Spotless Stadium
              NTH vs WCE 15:20BA
              STK vs HAW 16:40ES
              Mon, 08 JunTimes shown AEST
              MEL vs COL 15:20MCG
              View All Fixtures
              Round 11
              Fri, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
              PTA vs GEE 19:50Adelaide Oval
              Sat, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
              GCF vs FRE 13:40MS
              WCE vs ESS 16:35Domain Stadium
              NTH vs SYD 19:20ES
              Sun, 14 JunTimes shown AEST
              COL vs GWS 13:10MCG
              STK vs MEL 16:40ES
              View All Fixtures
              Round 12
              Thu, 18 JunTimes shown AEST
              ADE vs HAW 19:50Adelaide Oval
              Fri, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
              RIC vs WCE 19:50MCG
              Sat, 20 JunTimes shown AEST
              CAR vs PTA 13:40MCG
              GWS vs NTH 16:35Spotless Stadium
              WBU vs BRI 19:20ES
              Sun, 21 JunTimes shown AEST
              GEE vs MEL 15:20SS
              View All Fixtures
              Round 13
              Thu, 25 JunTimes shown AEST
              FRE vs COL 20:10Domain Stadium
              Fri, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
              SYD vs RIC 19:50SCG
              Sat, 27 JunTimes shown AEST
              HAW vs ESS 13:40MCG
              BRI vs ADE 16:35G
              STK vs WBU 19:20ES
              Sun, 28 JunTimes shown AEST
              CAR vs GCF 15:20ES
              View All Fixtures
              Round 14
              Thu, 02 JulTimes shown AEST
              SYD vs PTA 19:20SCG
              Fri, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
              COL vs HAW 19:50MCG
              Sat, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
              RIC vs GWS 13:40MCG
              GCF vs NTH 16:35MS
              WBU vs CAR 19:20ES
              MEL vs WCE 19:40TIO
              Sun, 05 JulTimes shown AEST
              ESS vs STK 13:10ES
              ADE vs GEE 15:20Adelaide Oval
              FRE vs BRI 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 15
              Thu, 09 JulTimes shown AEST
              PTA vs COL 19:50Adelaide Oval
              Fri, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
              RIC vs CAR 19:50MCG
              Sat, 11 JulTimes shown AEST
              ESS vs MEL 13:40MCG
              WBU vs GCF 16:35CAZ
              NTH vs GEE 19:20ES
              WCE vs ADE 19:40Domain Stadium
              Sun, 12 JulTimes shown AEST
              GWS vs STK 13:10Spotless Stadium
              HAW vs FRE 15:20AS
              BRI vs SYD 16:40G
              View All Fixtures
              Round 16
              Fri, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
              NTH vs ESS 19:50ES
              Sat, 18 JulTimes shown AEST
              GEE vs WBU 13:45SS
              GCF vs GWS 14:10MS
              COL vs WCE 16:35ES
              SYD vs HAW 19:20ANZ
              FRE vs CAR 19:40Domain Stadium
              Sun, 19 JulTimes shown AEST
              MEL vs BRI 13:10MCG
              PTA vs ADE 15:20Adelaide Oval
              STK vs RIC 16:40ES
              View All Fixtures
              Round 17
              Fri, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
              CAR vs HAW 19:50ES
              Sat, 25 JulTimes shown AEST
              GWS vs GEE 13:45SO
              ADE vs GCF 14:10Adelaide Oval
              RIC vs FRE 16:35MCG
              ESS vs PTA 19:20ES
              BRI vs NTH 19:20G
              Sun, 26 JulTimes shown AEST
              WBU vs COL 13:10ES
              MEL vs STK 15:20MCG
              WCE vs SYD 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 18
              Fri, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
              HAW vs RIC 19:50MCG
              Sat, 01 AugTimes shown AEST
              GEE vs BRI 13:45SS
              COL vs MEL 14:10MCG
              SYD vs ADE 16:35SCG
              CAR vs NTH 19:20ES
              GCF vs WCE 19:20MS
              Sun, 02 AugTimes shown AEST
              PTA vs STK 13:10Adelaide Oval
              ESS vs WBU 15:20ES
              FRE vs GWS 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 19
              Fri, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
              ADE vs RIC 19:50Adelaide Oval
              Sat, 08 AugTimes shown AEST
              COL vs CAR 13:45MCG
              WBU vs PTA 14:10ES
              BRI vs GCF 16:35G
              GEE vs SYD 19:20SS
              WCE vs HAW 19:40Domain Stadium
              Sun, 09 AugTimes shown AEST
              MEL vs NTH 13:10MCG
              GWS vs ESS 15:20Spotless Stadium
              STK vs FRE 16:40ES
              View All Fixtures
              Round 20
              Fri, 14 AugTimes shown AEST
              SYD vs COL 19:50SCG
              Sat, 15 AugTimes shown AEST
              ESS vs ADE 13:45ES
              NTH vs STK 14:10BA
              PTA vs GWS 16:35Adelaide Oval
              GEE vs HAW 19:20MCG
              BRI vs CAR 19:20G
              Sun, 16 AugTimes shown AEST
              RIC vs GCF 13:10MCG
              WBU vs MEL 15:20ES
              FRE vs WCE 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 21
              Fri, 21 AugTimes shown AEST
              HAW vs PTA 19:50ES
              Sat, 22 AugTimes shown AEST
              COL vs RIC 13:45MCG
              GWS vs SYD 14:10Spotless Stadium
              GCF vs ESS 16:35MS
              STK vs GEE 19:20ES
              ADE vs BRI 19:40Adelaide Oval
              Sun, 23 AugTimes shown AEST
              NTH vs FRE 13:10ES
              CAR vs MEL 15:20MCG
              WCE vs WBU 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 22
              Fri, 28 AugTimes shown AEST
              GEE vs COL 19:50MCG
              Sat, 29 AugTimes shown AEST
              GWS vs CAR 13:45Spotless Stadium
              HAW vs BRI 14:10AS
              NTH vs WBU 16:35ES
              ESS vs RIC 19:20MCG
              GCF vs PTA 19:20MS
              Sun, 30 AugTimes shown AEST
              ADE vs WCE 13:10Adelaide Oval
              STK vs SYD 15:20ES
              FRE vs MEL 16:40Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              Round 23
              Fri, 04 SepTimes shown AEST
              COL vs ESS 00:00MCG
              RIC vs NTH 00:00ES
              HAW vs CAR 00:00MCG
              GEE vs ADE 00:00SS
              SYD vs GCF 00:00SCG
              MEL vs GWS 00:00ES
              BRI vs WBU 00:00G
              PTA vs FRE 00:30Adelaide Oval
              WCE vs STK 02:00Domain Stadium
              View All Fixtures
              AFL 2015
              Overall standings
              Team P W L D % Pts
              Fremantle 5 5 0 0 151.10 20
              Collingwood 5 4 1 0 147.53 16
              Western Bulldogs 5 4 1 0 104.75 16
              Hawthorn 5 3 2 0 149.86 12
              West Coast Eagles 5 3 2 0 145.92 12
              Sydney Swans 5 3 2 0 118.26 12
              Adelaide Crows 5 3 2 0 111.40 12
              GWS Giants 5 3 2 0 102.87 12
              View all
               
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