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AFL funding decisions crucial in 2007

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Funding for Australian Football is always a contentious subject, with literally thousands of clubs across Australia and the world fighting for a "piece of the pie", either directly or through support for their league. This applies to AFL clubs, state leagues, amateurs, country and other grass-roots programs. This is equally true of international interests, but for supporters of the game's spread, it can be argued that overseas concerns should in some cases surpass that of Aussie regions, primarily base on an argument of potential. That case may not stand up so well according to many Australian clubs, especially with an already heavy focus on Queensland and New South Wales and not so much to other states.

It's in that context that funding is decided. In 2006 the AFL put several new systems in place to deal with the game internationally. A lot of the programs sound encouraging and are based on logical arguments. There have also been significant announcements regarding footy in South Africa. On the other hand there have been quiet grumbles of dissatisfaction and concerns that the African gains could come at the expense of other nations. We look at all these issues and talk to some of the leagues about their funding in 2006 and hopes for 2007.

In the lead up to the massive television rights deal kicking in this year, 2006 saw demands being made for more money by AFL clubs and AFL players, but also right down to grass-roots levels. Amongst all that it would not seem unreasonable for international leagues to also ask for an increase. It became more pressing when some leagues had actually suffered cuts. So how does that sit with stories such as AFL International Development plans, AFL's Next Generation - international component and AFL encourages international apprentices, which have been welcome news regarding the AFL's commitment to the game?

First we'll examine the issue of whether leagues can rightfully expect AFL funding. With so many demands across the footy spectrum, can international leagues expect a cut of the AFL's Game Development budget? There are literally thousands of Australians doing grass-roots work growing the game across the country and receiving very little support - it has long been acknowledged that volunteers are the life blood of the game. So how can people doing similar work internationally expect assistance? The answer would seem to lie in potential. We'd like to see everyone helped out - across Australia and the world. But there is never going to be enough money for that, so the AFL must balance the demands from within Australia with the potential of overseas regions. South Africa has obviously caught their attention, with the Aussie dollar going further, quickly rising junior numbers, a strong voice from Brian Dixon and support from Tattersals and the local SCORE program. A couple of negatives are the 2010 soccer World Cup being held there, and the great difficulties the country faces with HIV/AIDS. This raises the question of whether the AFL is risking putting many of its eggs in one basket, though I should stress that South Africa, despite being terribly affected by the disease, is continuing forward as nation, still riding the energy unleashed in the post-apartheid years. A country like the United States has a different potential - the huge market has so many more people with much higher incomes than developing countries and the future lure of TV revenue. On the down side it is a difficult market to enter, and the Aussie dollar runs out very fast.

These are just two examples of very different regions wanting support. Both have potential far greater than small regions in Australia, but a balance must be maintained. Though as one worker in this field told us, getting the game off the ground in some countries where it is unknown is often much more difficult than in Australia, and maybe that justifies additional support. But longer term any area must aim to stand on its own, as leagues do in Australia. The USAFL's President Rob Oliver explained to WFN that USFooty is comfortable with the concept that each program has to prove that they deserve funding. Although he is in there to fight for everything his organisation can get, they know they have to develop their own revenue streams and demonstrate bang for the AFL's buck. While they work on that, they continue to focus on producing a quality annual Nationals program and supporting Denis Ryan's excellent USFooty Kids program, which has exposed thousands of American children to Aussie Rules. Oliver cites his old local Aussie club, the Caulfield Bears Junior FC, who struggle along on a small budget, running juniors for Australian kids. They would love financial support, and since the vast majority of AFL money is generated within Australia, Oliver notes that to some extent overseas leagues are living off someone else's money. Again, the potential for future gain becomes the key issue, and whether that potential would be realised without major support. In the US, Oliver says 2006 saw around 2000 active players, their highest standard Nationals Division One yet, and plenty of growth ahead as USFooty enters just its 10th season, but they know they have to keep raising the bar.

So why were there cuts to some programs in 2006? AFL Canada President Mike McFarlane was certainly disappointed to see his junior program suffer a one third cut in AFL funding, especially since it had well organised and growing junior numbers playing regular games, so would appear to satisfy the AFL's criteria. The Danish AFL also suffered a big fall which endangered some of their junior work which is focussed on Farum around Copenhagen. This was interpreted by some as a consequence of Denmark's late withdrawal from the 2005 International Cup after having earlier committed to it. The word is that the DAFL had to battle hard to maintain any funding at all last year. Perhaps such a penalty is understandable given that many call for greater AFL support for the showcase tournament, yet when it was more widely advertised in 2005 with a detailed program, it was suddenly invalid with Denmark's withdrawal and the even later no-show of Nauru. Whether the cut was indeed a penalty or not, leagues will need to show a level of professionalism if they are to receive ongoing support.

Another interesting but difficult case was the British league. The BARFL had previously received direct funding but this ceased in 2006, with different reasons claimed as to why. BARFL President Remon Gazal told us that the change was more to do with new systems being used by the AFL, with an emphasis on agreements to help leagues support themselves. Gazal explained that the British bid was separated into seniors and juniors. "In the senior arena, the BARFL asked for commercial involvement in the AFL Challenge Cup as its support package instead of cash and received it and hopefully will continue to receive it thereafter. We are very happy with this support". The issue of juniors is somewhat more complicated as the BARFL saw themselves as endorsing the juniors work of Aussie Rules UK, which worked with several BARFL clubs, and both ARUK and the BARFL appeared to have some sort of arrangement in place. AFL sources we spoke to at the time agreed the ARUK program was a good one, and at one stage there were plans to send 1000 Auskick footballs to England. The AFL explained that ARUK had been told that if they wanted AFL support they should apply for funding through the AFL's United Kingdom affiliate, the BARFL, but that did not occur. Furthermore, ARUK's Brian Clarke denies there was any juniors arrangement with the BARFL and told WFN that "ARUK did not submit a funding application to the AFL and won't be submitting one. We don't want or need a cent from the AFL". We'll steer clear of drawing conclusions from any of that - clearly the issue of the way forward on juniors is complicated, but the BARFL did wish to make it clear they were happy with their recent commercial arrangements with the AFL. For his part, Clarke sees other revenue sources as vital, stating "There are literally millions of dollars/pounds/euros etc. out there to help grow the game - you just have to know where to look. Relying on AFL funding as a major source of income is (a) major mistake". That would be at least one thing that all parties would agree on, including the AFL, who have said before that countries must aim to be self-sufficient.

New Zealand is another country where the issues are slightly cloudy. It has had very strong school programs for many years, and three to four separate adult leagues. With its proximity to Australia and close economic ties and plenty of cross-country population flows, it would seem perfect for more support. But funding to the NZAFL was already amongst the highest, and when Rob Malone took over as General Manager, he knew the AFL wanted an increase in professionalism and for them to find funding streams of their own over the following three years. Some of this was achieved and at the 2005 International Cup the Kiwis were a classy outfit on and off the field. But finding enough funding and converting school numbers to club players has remained elusive in the Rugby stronghold. Malone has now moved on and a big question mark hangs over footy in the country with no replacement appointed as yet and funding not yet revealed.

With the AFL funding year running from the start of November to the end of October, we're really talking about funding for a period that has already commenced in 2006, but the bulk of which lies ahead this year. Papua New Guinea's program perhaps throws some doubt on the claims that support will be based on the strength of good programs. With booming junior numbers, strong adult leagues, a quality elite pathway leading through AFL Queensland, a very high population growth rate in the country (expected to rise from 5 million to 10 million in the next few decades) and strong social programs linking being a football athlete to health issues such as HIV awareness, AFL PNG was very hopeful of a significant increase in 2006. AFL PNG hoped for additional funding to assist in the significant additional costs of appointing for the first time a full time AFL AVI National Operations Manager who started in September. As it turns out AFL PNG's funding for 2006/2007 was held at the same level as 2005/06. Given some of the difficulties faced by the previously mentioned countries, perhaps that was a relative bonus. However they remain hopeful that with their programs so close to yielding genuine AFL draftable talent (we'd suggest more so than any other country), something extra might be found early this year.

Having said all that and things sounding a bit grim, this article isn't intended as an AFL bashing exercise. As noted at the start of this article, their support for the game internationally has shown many very promising signs in recent years, and there are a great many competing demands for what is mostly football money generated within Australia. Furthermore the concerns discussed here mostly referred to 2005/06 funding. Kevin Sheehan is now in charge of an expanding program and the changes to the AFL's approach to the game internationally were only announced mid-year and many of the changes are expected to be phased in over the next year. Hence 2007 is seen by us as the crucial moment for the game internationally. It has largely grown through volunteers and will continue to do so. But if things are to accelerate then the AFL needs to come through on the plans it laid out in 2006. This may well be about to happen, and the footy world will watch closely.

One international administrator put it this way "I guess the message from those involved in seeking funding should be that the AFL needs to be clear in its requirements, objectives and priorities for international footy overall and for each country and then funding should consequentially reward performance in achieving those objectives etc. That way AFL funding is not a handout, but an investment in AFL objectives and a reward for delivering on AFL priorities".

So if funding will come down to the strength of individual bids, the other big question is whether the international leagues will simply be fighting harder for the same money, or will the overall budget increase if the quality of programs improves? USFooty's Rob Oliver suspects yes, and he for one is a believer that the AFL is on the right track, paying far more attention to the international leagues over the past two to three years. In our interview with the AFL's Dave Matthews back in September 2006 Matthews said "The international budget for 2007 will represent a serious increase on 2006. Allocations to specific work will be based on the quality of the plans we are collaborating on with each country".

So despite a lean 2006 and some transitionary changes, there is promise for the new year. In real terms, with programs such as support for international juniors to attend the next Australian Institute of Sport AFL draft camp (a move very popular amongst some international league administrators), the South Africa tours (under 19s to Australia and Australia's juniors probably heading there), and indirect support for PNG through AFL Queensland, then clearly the overall budget will grow. But we would also like to see the direct funding swell a bit too, so that other nations not so advanced as to benefit from things like the AIS camp are still bidding for a reasonable amount of support - countries such as Indonesia with their junior programs and Germany with its young league still trying to establish itself. With an ever increasing number of nations getting involved in our great game, let's hope there will be room for some positive assistance for all in 2007 - it could see the game's most exciting push forward yet.

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