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Monday, January 20 2020 @ 01:24 pm ACDT

Opinion: Crucial moment in the history of Australian Football

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The AFL's head of Game Development, David Matthews, has announced an agreement between AFL South Africa and the North-West Cricket Association which will provide Aussie Rules football with access to cricket ovals, sponsorship and a massive player base. Crucially, in an interview with a Melbourne newspaper, Matthews has tied together many of the threads that are strong topics of debate amongst supporters of international footy. He has clearly put forth the case for significantly increasing funding to South Africa, and the response from the AFL community in the coming months will be vital in determining the future direction of our sport.

worldfootynews.com and this author have been strong advocates of Australian Football spreading its wings and developing overseas. There are different opinions, even within the organisation that brings you this news site, as to the impact of globalisation on the "indigenous" Australian sport. Personally I think that the hardest thing is to maintain a steady position, so there is a distinct possibility that if Aussie Rules does not grow, then it may ultimately shrink. Most supporters of this view are keen to see the Australian Football League increase their assistance to the small amateur international leagues who are striving to develop footy. There have been encouraging signs on that front reported on this website in recent days. Even within that supporter group opinions vary as to whether the AFL has a key role in funding - ranging from seeing it as relatively unimportant through to needing to seed new countries or bankroll major works.

An argument put forward by several within WFN is that the AFL do a reasonable job, that it could do more, but that it is tied by lack of support from grassroots Australian supporters as well as club officials. With several Victorian AFL clubs still requiring million dollar handouts each year, and with poor training facilities at many of those clubs, strong cases can be made for spending more money there. This is a conflict that the AFL Commission faces - it is briefed to look after the code of Australian Football but is empowered by the 16 AFL clubs, the interests of which may not always be compatible with the bigger picture. So when supporters of international footy are strident in their criticism of the AFL, still the major funding source for the game outside of Australia, they should be aware of the challenges involved. It's also worth noting that the AFL has done little to promote what work it does do - could this be that they do not wish to be seen "frittering away" money that could be spent on Melbourne AFL clubs?

Recently the AFL put forth a proposal to raise the distribution to each club by AU$200,000 per year. Over 5 years this is AU$16 million. The club CEOs responded with a demand for ten times that figure. That is AU$160 million over what they already receive, and does not include salary cap increases which the AFL also covers. The battle for how the money will be spent is well and truly on.

There is also debate raging in the footy community as to whether AFL players deserve a greater share of the revenue. A point strongly put by the AFL Players Association is that they are a cornerstone of the game, and do much more than just play - such as school clinics and hospital visits. While true, I have always thought this was part of being good citizens and putting something back into a community that gives them a wonderful lifestyle. There is no doubt that the players deserve an increase, but when it was announced that talks with the AFL had been extended, the media went into a frenzy, seemingly hoping for a player strike in 2007. This has been flamed by comments from star players such as Brisbane's Jonathan Brown, as reported in The Age in Brown backs talk of strike in pre-season. The television deal the AFL struck with the television networks may be worth AU$750 million over 5 years, but the queue for that money is getting longer.

Also in Melbourne's The Age, in an interview with Stephen Rielly titled Africa cricket link is AFL's big pitch, the AFL's General Manager of Game Development, Dave Matthews, has taken a major stride forward on the issue of international funding. In the last few years AFL South Africa has been having good success introducing the game, particularly at junior level. Most of the funding has come from Victorian lotteries institution Tattersall's (which is involved in lotteries in South Africa), along with local support from agencies in South Africa's North West Province, such as SCORE (a teachers' outreach program) and the North West Academy of Sport. In 2005 the AFL increased funding to around AU$100,000 including paying for four local employees in South Africa, such as Mtutu Hlomela, the quality player (I can vouch for that having played against him) who is the new South African coach and will spend much of his time in player development. This funding is the envy of other countries and will help speed the game's growth there, but it doesn't fast track the sport as much as a more substantial contribution could.

With the Australian dollar strong in the South African market, a significant boost in spending could see a genuine explosion in the numbers embracing the game. For several years the AFL has had their toe in the water of international footy, and have been seeing what does and does not work. There have been setbacks and disappointments for both them and the volunteers overseas who give so much to the game - sometimes that disappointment is no doubt with each. While some countries will be disappointed with a focus on one nation, there is logic to it - to see dramatic growth to prove that Aussie Rules can be a genuinely large sport outside Australia. Of course one fervently hopes that other countries are not completely neglected, and recent announcements suggest the AFL will not turn their back on these programs.

The agreement between AFL South Africa and the North-West Cricket Association is potentially very significant. Around the world attempts to introduce footy often struggle to get beyond "park" level because of a lack of grounds. Enclosed fields significantly add to the atmosphere and quality of the game, and draw in sponsorship and crowds. The deal is believed to give footy "access" to 50,000 players. What this means is not yet clear, but could give the game a dramatic boost. The article suggests "the two sports will share office space and training facilities. They can enter into joint commercial deals to share sponsorship and income from signs at grounds and even co-host AFL exhibition games in South Africa in the future".

So with plenty of good news football stories coming out of South Africa recently, the AFL has clearly decided that if they are to take the international adventure a step further then the African country will be their focus. Before this can happen the domestic front must also support the concept. Most Australian readers of WFN will be on-side, as are many footy fans and administrators across Australia. But there remain plenty who are not, and who are interested in the survival of their club first and foremost. Some can be persuaded that the longer term health of their team will be better secured by the increased health of the game overseas. With so much debate over the impact of Australian soccer success, there seems to be a common view that Australian sports need an international dimension, but many dismiss Australian Football's chances, thus thinking there is no point trying. Perhaps in the next decade this is true, but sustained assistance to a country such as South Africa will in the short term provide talented players with a pathway to the AFL, and in the long term a genuine international opponent could emerge. And there is no doubt that Africa is a prime candidate for growth of sport - something not missed by FIFA who will be staging the next soccer World Cup in South Africa.

What is needed now is vision and leadership, and the spirit to have a go. My impression has been that the AFL has been gathering momentum in this cause in recent times - not in response to criticism or complaints, but through good people persuading them about their quality programs. They gained a great deal of confidence from the rapid improvements demonstrated at the 2005 International Cup. The rise of soccer may also have stirred the minds of people in power - though clearly not simply in the past few weeks, as these programs have been developed over time. However none of this will go forward in a meaningful way without the support of clubs, players and supporters in Australia. The new television deal sees tens of millions of additional dollars directed to the AFL. As discussed, players, clubs and grassroots footy have been queuing up for big increases. All deserve a share, and at grassroots level (i.e. at local amateur and lower league club level), a case can be made that money generated in Australia should go to helping the lower levels in Australia, where 99% of footy is played. The need is strong for more support to these clubs, across metropolitan and country Oz, including for women's football, for example Girls miss out on AFL cash. But hopefully a long term vision for the game is not lost.

Crucially the AFL has successfully positioned itself such that it can make a good case that the game is being looked after locally, at least in the larger states. New South Wales and Queensland already receive millions to develop footy, and Melbourne's AFL clubs are now being given additional money to upgrade their aging facilities. Although there is more to be done, this demonstration that the Victorian AFL clubs are being looked after will hopefully go a long way to satisfying any concerns that could arise from Matthews' call for a more substantial investment in South Africa. Though clearly there is still more to be done below AFL level.

Regarding South Africa, in The Age story Matthews says "There's no doubt that with an enormous population, cricket grounds everywhere, a favourable exchange rate and local government investment that the AFL has an opportunity that it should explore further". He pays credit to the trailblazers such as Brian Dixon, and notes "the AFL itself hasn't had to put significant money in so far because of the amount of local investment but certainly there will be a debate over the next month or so about how much more we put in". Crucially he has now publically made a case to seriously consider embarking on an international adventure - not a small effort inevitably doomed to failure, but a true push to give the game a chance. "As long as we're investing substantially and appropriately in our domestic position, why wouldn't we also invest, on a relatively small scale, in an international opportunity? I would think that fans of Australian football, from club presidents to volunteers, would like nothing more than to see another country embrace the game as the South Africans are".

In my view this is possibly one of the most important moments in the history of our great game. In the middle of the 19th century many forms of football existed but in 1858 a set of rules were put forth to formalise our sport, and matches were soon played by them (though it would be several years before many clubs adopted this particular version). This act sent the game on its own unique path. It changed dramatically over decades, with influences from all over Australia as the new and evolving rules were embraced in several other states. Clubs have risen and fallen, leagues have split and merged, but the game has evolved to always maintain the spectacle for the huge crowds that have turned out to watch it. Popular changes in one area often flowed to others. This fluidity is often forgotten by those who think the sport as they grew up with it was the traditional version that has been somehow tampered with (which isn't to say that I personally embrace all the changes that have occurred).

The second momentus change for Australian Football was the emergence of the AFL. For better or for worse the Victorian Football League's consumption of football talent from around the country set the game on a dangerous path that could have seen it destroyed - some in Melbourne may never know just how damaged the sport was becoming in its other traditional heartlands, whilst at the same time the VFL and some of its clubs were increasingly in debt. The VFL was clearly evolving but into what was not clear. History shows the AFL emerged, with plenty of aches and pains, some of which continue. There is no doubt though that the decline of footy outside Victoria was reversed, several Melbourne clubs were saved (though not all) and the change into a national competition resulted in the large sums of money in the game today. This has allowed the push into Queensland and New South Wales that is further changing the footy landscape. In 5 to 10 years Queensland will probably be considered a football power in the same vein as Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. I have a feeling State of Origin may return in 2008 and if so it will be interesting to see if Queensland is deemed ready to stand alone against the other powers.

Will Aussie Rules take the logical next step to develop an international dimension? The AFL has briefed the clubs and the Players Association about its plans for significant grassroots investment and a fighting fund for the future. Amongst that there have been suggestions of other projects. The interview with David Matthews suggests that international development is now part of their vision. Will the clubs, players and public allow the sport to attempt to continue to grow? The clubs and players have both said they support the AFL's plan. They have also demanded major increases in their allocation. Are these wishes compatible, or will Australian Football's future be stymied? It may be that I'm reading too much into recent events, or it may be that over the next few months the clubs and players will reach agreement with the AFL, and where they draw the line will decide the game's international fate. I hope the vision of most of our readers is allowed to be realised.

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