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Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer

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Dozing off watching an agonisingly slow session of Australia v Pakistan Test cricket, one wonders (although some of the best cricket still comes from Test matches) where would cricket be today without the money, participation and new fans brought to the game since the 1970s World Series Cricket revolution championed the one-day match format.

In an increasingly time and space poor world, most team games have their smaller or shortened versions which encourage wider participation and are used to promote those sports in new markets. In comparison Australian Football, the big game on a big field, has been slow to embrace smaller formats.

Other sports do the small version big time

T20 in cricket now looks set to revolutionise the old game, going further in attracting new participants and fans than 1 day cricket a generation ago. Cricket also has a widely played indoor version (primarily recreationally) and has used 8-a-side on small ovals in South-East Asia. Rugby 7’s has taken a simpler version of the 15-a-side game of complex rules to dozens of countries beyond its traditional domain. Soccer has several smaller versions – outdoor 5-a-side, indoor 5-a-side, beach soccer…with world cups playable in some of these formats. Basketball a 3 on 3 version, Rugby League has the very popular “touch footy” format as well as a 9’s version sometimes used in international development, Gaelic football has an increasingly popular annual 7’s tournament, American Football has a non-contact “flag football” version, and the list could go on…

Australian Football is the biggest sport in size terms

In terms of size Australian Football is a big game: 36 big men fly high and roam far and wide on the world’s largest football field. The game is appreciated best from the stands, even widescreen TV fails to capture the full scale of play. Whilst the full size version due to its spectacle will always be the elite form of the game, half-size versions like “9-a-side” and “RecFooty” (pictured) are increasingly making their mark. Perhaps the most important aspects of half-size versions are: the relative ease to form a team, the fitting onto smaller grounds and the double ball time for play time that participants get in a high aerobic format. These factors increase the potential to gain and maintain high participation rates.

This article argues that much more could be done to go small for big gains

Apart from Auskick, the AFL has been slow to act

The AFL was a very late entrant into the social sports market with “RecFooty”, an 8-a-side non-contact format where only the 3 forwards can score thus increasing teamwork and female participants get 9 points instead of 6 for a goal. Despite relatively little promotion RecFooty has done well in some places like Queensland.

Fortunately for Australian Football participation rates, the AFL did go small for the smallest participants with the successful Auskick format where young children are kept active and nobody sits freezing in a pocket on a large oval bored or wishing the ball would come their way, involves 8-a-side games during half-time at AFL and state league matches.

9's could reinvigorate school footy

But there is a hiatus between Auskick’s success and junior football which has ceded ground to other sports at schools. There was no footy available for my children at primary school and although I could have taken my son to a local amateur club, it was far easier and more enjoyable for him to play basketball and soccer with his classmates. Basketball and soccer may have tapped into the “safer” sport mentality in primary schools, but I think their greater advantage was the smaller number of participants and smaller sized playing areas which allows primary schools to form teams of classmates in each year and kids got a lot more of the play, are easier to coach and transport teams to games. They also allowed us parents to socialise within our school community and watch the kids play from the familiarity of the small home school playing field.

Twenty years ago at the time that primary school footy disappeared as an option for our children, a friend was involved in organising a 9-a-side senior football competition in the Adelaide hills in the off-season. It occured to me that 9's made more sense for junior footy in schools and I actually wrote to the AFL about the need for a 9-a-side version in primary schools and got a reply saying it was a reasonable idea but they didn’t want to undermine the 18-a-side game.

The problem still exists, when I coached my son’s high school footy team virtually all the lads had not played footy at primary school as the game became virtually extinct in South Australian primary schools through the 1990s. Making “9’s” the main game in primary school could reintroduce Australian Football in a version where kids play with classmates in short but action filled formats on small primary school fields, and even leave time for the more keen students to go and play for the local amateur club in an 18-a-side game that weekend.

International examples

Overseas where cricket and certainly AFL style ovals are in short supply, 9-a-side versions have found a place. Two competitions stand out:

  1. “Metro footy” in the USAFL allows for teams to play more regularly in their home cities using Soccer/Rugby/American Football pitches, with the 16 or 18-a-side games happening less frequently between cities.
  2. The EU-Cup of Australian Football has grown strongly in a few short years as start up national leagues more easily find the players, resources and manageable logistics to send a team. 15 sides including Andora, Iceland and Italy competed in Croatia this year.

Think small size for a bigger future

The AFL increasingly shows great innovation and organisation in game development, it has rightly clamped down on head high contact and made the game safer albeit somewhat “softer”, but in a time and space poor world it could do more with the potential inherent in half-sized versions of the game and it could do more in promotion of RecFooty. Some suggestions:

  1. Several AFL clubs have links with netball clubs and most country towns in southern Australia have strong links between their footy and netball clubs. Mixed netball is also very popular, whilst RecFooty is relatively new. A celebrity RecFooty tournament of AFL players and elite netballers could certainly highlight the sport and perhaps champion state amateur RecFooty teams could be offered the chance to compete or be curtain-raiser games with the elite.
  2. Full contact 9’s could be promoted by AFL clubs in a lightening carnival. This may do more for promotion than the pre-season cup. It would certainly promote 9’s as a valid form of the game for schools and for country towns in danger of losing their football club when failing to field an 18-a-side team.
  3. 9’s competitions as curtain-raisers to full sized games could help many clubs, metropolitan as well as country. Clubs with surplus players give them a competitive game, clubs struggling for survival at least get to compete.
  4. 9’s would help with start up clubs in “expansion” states of Qld and NSW.
  5. Move the International Cup from 3 yearly to a 4 yearly interval and add a 9’s International Cup as a 4 yearly tournament spaced 2 years from the full sized IC’s. Many more countries could compete. The logistics of sending a squad of 12 to 15 versus a squad of 25 to 30 are far easier.
  6. Also 9’s international tournaments played at lightening pace in shorter time formats and fitting two games onto an Oval at a time or using smaller soccer/rugby pitches (perhaps even the new Swan St Stadium in Melbourne) could gain the sort of appeal that Rugby 7’s has. They would be easier to stage overseas where full size ovals often don’t exist, certainly ones with stadiums.
  7. Finally if ever in the distant future Aussie Rules were to be a Commonwealth Games or even Olympic sport (even as an exhibition sport like Rugby got in with 7's) it would probably only be in a format like 9’s.
What is needed is to take these shorter smaller versions of the big game of Australian Football to the next level in boosting participation – in the same way Rugby 7’s, T20 cricket, “Touch Footy” Rugby League, and indoor soccer have and are doing for those sports – complementing rather than undermining the full sized formats of those sports.
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Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer | 12 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Christopher P. Adams, Ph.D. on Wednesday, December 30 2009 @ 07:17 am ACDT

As, I've mentioned before in this forum, I was blown away by the fact that junior footy in Australia is 18-a-side. In the US junior soccer is begins with 4v4 games on very small fields and then the fields slowly increase with the number of players as the players get older until full size fields and 11v11 for the 15 year olds. Small sided games give players a lot more opportunity to be part of the play - get more "touches" as they say in soccer.

Carna Revos!


Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: TimSmith on Wednesday, December 30 2009 @ 10:26 pm ACDT

From a UK perspective, playing 9v9 on rugby pitches has revolutionised the sport outside of London.

In London, there are enough Australians & friends to sustain an 18-a-side league, however outside in the regional areas there are neither the number of people, nor the spaces available for pitches required, whereas every town and city has a myriad of rugby pitches, and the numbers mean you only need probably a minimum of 15 players to sustain a team over a season. We have not forgotten the larger version of the game which is often played region v. region, but it is the 9v9 which is the week in week out bread and butter of the league.


Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Brett Northey on Thursday, December 31 2009 @ 12:07 am ACDT

Over the last 10 years 9-a-side or similar seems to be the only way US clubs have been able to progress, giving local games rather than a long road trip every second match. But it doesn't seem to have blossomed in the way I hoped - we were seeing 4 team local 9s like the Arizona AFL and Golden Gate AFL, and other cities now have similar, but very few have grown beyond 4 teams as far as I know, though I don't get a chance to follow the US too closely these days.

So the UK seems to have evolved quite differently, with it still being separate cities doing 9s, not multiple teams in one city league. Is it because there's more cities close by in the UK, or distances greater in the US so forcing to look local. With the old UK Regional League they used reduced numbers games a lot of the time too, but the shift to ARUK I guess formalised it as the full focus, 9s and Rugby fields, which would be less daunting for someone thinking about setting up a new club.

It'll be interesting to see if the rate of new teams keeps up after the recent sudden personnel change at Sport England. Has critical mass been achieved for sustainability? The answer is probably yes, especially given some of the people involved, in which case it will be interesting in say 5 or 10 years to see if the regions divide into smaller and smaller areas (i.e. more leagues, each over a smaller geographic area), until you virtually have local leagues in a city or a nearby cluster of cities, so then resembling local footy in Australia, except 9s.

And similarly in the US, will their 1 city metro leagues ultimately spawn individual clubs that are independent competing in a league of 8 clubs not teams from within 1 big club.

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN

Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Christopher P. Adams, Ph.D. on Thursday, December 31 2009 @ 01:00 am ACDT

There is no particular attachment to 9v9 in the metro competitions. Actually, I think most leagues would prefer to be 18v18 and to the extent it is possible, they have moved in that direction. So the number of participants has increased but the number of teams has remained relatively steady. The different versions of Rec footy have stayed pretty closely with 9v9 and it seems to work well.

Carna Revos!


Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: TimSmith on Thursday, December 31 2009 @ 01:18 am ACDT


It is probably because the distances between cities in the US are so huge that they are forced to create inter-city competitions.

In the UK, like you say cities are closer together, for example in the Central England league last season the teams were all within around 2.5 hours of eachother. However, this is still a bit too far and work is being done to localise it further. The issue is in each city outside of London there isn't the demand right there right then to have more than 1 team, aussie rules is so low profile and only available on pay-TV ESPN.

These last few years of rapid team creation I believe will set up a skeleton structure for Aussie Rules in the UK. Some areas are already very strong with 2 or 3 clubs within a small radius, some completely empty meaning team creation here is nearly impossible. I expect some teams on the periphery of regions to dwindle and fall out, but theres enough strong teams now in the regions to keep competition going.

If its really going to blossom into every region of the UK, the sport needs terrestrial TV coverage of AFL, and national media coverage of large local events, for example the Northern, Central, Southern, Welsh, Scottish & London grand finals (eg reports in national newspapers, BBC Sport website etc). We need to expand the game beyond the australian expats and have it predominantly British players, and this is starting to happen. However all this needs work and with the shake-up at Sport England hopefully this progress won't be knocked back a step or two.

Tim Smith
President, University of Birmingham Sharks

Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Mozzie_Ben on Thursday, December 31 2009 @ 08:08 am ACDT

Soccer moved to smaller sized games for one reason only. It results in better skilled players. A lot of money was spent by FIFA on this, and smaller games allow players to have more touches, which results in higher skill levels. It's not just the number of players, it is also the size of the pitch that allows this to happen.

I think smaller sized games (in both players and pitch size) can only be a benefit to the game, anywhere in the world. It allows players more opportunities to get touches on the ball (not all of us can be in the middle, racking up the touches), and makes it easier for clubs to field a team if they don't need a full 18.

Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Rod Shaw on Thursday, December 31 2009 @ 09:20 am ACDT

I reckon it is the best way to go even when numbers are there. It is about the ability to get touches on the ball. My kids do auskick and the older one also played U10's last year. Firstly the mini games played in Auskick allow the kids to get hold of the ball more often and to learn to make decisions when in possession, Disposal, decision making and game awareness- the big three! Conversely my older feller was often in games that were 22 a side which was nowhere near as good although the coaching team moved the kids around to allow them experience in a variety of positions. Nine a side relates really well to perhaps my favaourite drill when teaching the Kiwis (and theirs' too). Handball footy- enclosed space, quick decision making, opportunity for lots of possession, involvement in lots of plays with the pill never too far from the position they are nominally playing. A game able to be played in a very limited space but allowing for much of the contact, decison making and skills used in a larger format. Mini games, perhaps in the nine a side format is the best way to go in developing the game in any undeveloped market place


Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Peter Parry on Saturday, January 02 2010 @ 09:06 am ACDT

Thanks for the positive comments to the article. I was just reading the USA section of "country snapshots" and there was a bit more said on Metrofooty - in particular how the 9's version was able to be played pre-match or half-time at American football and Major League Soccer matches - as a promotion. This clearly illustrates the promotional power of a 9's version in a world full of smaller rectangular stadiums.

Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Stephen Alomes on Saturday, January 02 2010 @ 01:05 pm ACDT

Two things.

1. In Australia most of us played pick up matches after school or at lunchtime, sometimes with created goals and sometimes with some rule variations- in the era of Majak, the African rookie at North Melbourne, I can report having seen mainly African kids play in the nearby government housing flats, appropriately perhaps using gum trees as one of the goals

2. Rugby 7s, which the IRB is now telecasting in Europe, has begun to rate highly in part because it is faster and more skills are on display than regular rugby. To the non-rugby aficionado regular rugby, particularly the mysteries of what in the hell happens in the scrum, is boring and hard to watch. Perhaps, like 7s different versions of our game introduce the skills and increase the appeal for the newcomer.

What is interesting is that this debate has legs, as the journos say, both internationally and in Aus. Hope the powers that be are listening.


Stephen Alomes

Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: krabby_me on Sunday, January 17 2010 @ 01:59 pm ACDT
I was doing some research on this. And found this.

It seems the AFL developed this in 2008 and so it has not yet had time to filter through to all the schools yet.
Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Aaron Richard on Sunday, January 17 2010 @ 06:29 pm ACDT

Wow - I hadn't seen that. I think a lot of people in international footy will see that as a big step forward.

Opinion: Half sized versions of Australian Football have much to offer
Authored by: Peter Parry on Tuesday, January 19 2010 @ 03:15 pm ACDT

Thanks Krabby, I hadn't seen that link. Clearly the AFL HAS thought 9-a-side and small versions through for juniors and the document is very readable and easily applicable by coaches.

BUT - the problem then is marketing and organisation of the concept - it seems to just be a buried policy document hidden deep in the AFL website.

This therefore comes back to the suggestions I made at end of my article - mainly about ways the AFL could raise the profile of 9's and RecFooty. If AFL clubs play even just a one day tournament once a year - in conjunction with a concerted organised plan for reintroducing footy into primary schools as 9-a-side - then this would make it a "cool" game to play and could massively boost participation rates for all those kids who played Auskick but then went on to other primary school sports.

Otherwise it's just a policy document - can't say gathering dust anymore - but hidden from view in the depths of the AFL's massive website.