What Happens When A Football Club Dies?

Monday, October 21 2019 @ 10:31 pm ACDT

Contributed by: Wesley Hull

Sometimes clubs die. That is an inevitability, just like businesses closing their doors. Economics, geography, changing populations, competition and even climate can conspire to cause clubs to gradually fade away until a humane solution is proposed. Put them down. Occasionally the decision is more dramatic, but more often than not, it is a slow death.

Sometimes clubs call their own end. Other times, the pressure comes from leagues, business connections or other powers calling shots. However, it doesn’t really matter where the call comes from. Once the club is finished, a hole is left behind.

On occasions, communities find ways to fill that hole and move on. Often, however, that hole cannot adequately be plugged and the communities that surround that club suffer.

This isn’t a case of evil overlords exerting power over underlings. It is purely based on the economics of whether a club is or can be viable. If it can, then all stakeholders pitch in and find a way to survive. If not, clubs recede quietly into history.

Last year, ABC News released a story that looked closely at this dilemma. The article (See: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-0...me/9829346 explored how clubs are finding ways to survive, but based the argument firmly against the initial threats.

According to the article, “population decline in rural areas over several decades has led to widespread mergers and closures of clubs and leagues. As the eternal struggle for players, volunteers, and money continues, administrators are looking at whether new measures are needed to preserve and re-energise the local game.”

The key premise here is that success (in this case the survival of the club involved) is most likely to occur when all parties - clubs, leagues, administrators – come together and find common ground.

According to the ABC story, Victorian clubs and leagues are increasingly looking towards divisions of talent within leagues – the old elevation/relegation idea applied to socio-economics.

In South Australia, The Advertiser reported that clubs across the state were increasingly looking at clubs merging, despite this being a hated idea.

“Merger was once a dirty word in country football — but faced with the harsh reality of joining forces with old enemies or folding entirely, football clubs are leading the way in helping keep South Australia’s regions alive.”

The key point here is that clubs can and should be given support to find ways, be creative, seek solutions and stave off the horrid idea of folding altogether.

The Age newspaper in Melbourne reported in 2018 that “country football is a dying giant of Australian folklore. Dozens of towns in western Victoria are struggling to preserve their sporting clubs, which, since the decline of the church, are standing as the last institutions between a community’s living identity, and history.”

(See story: https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/c...4zgac.html )

The newspaper cited the journey of the Edenhope-Aspley club in western Victoria, already a merged entity that faces a further merger. The past club president stated that he “fears the broader implications of losing the club. These are areas of relative isolation, where suicide rates among people aged 15-25 are 50 per cent higher than in urban areas.”

This example takes the community impact to a relatively extreme level, yet it is an example of how important clubs can be to community. Carolyn Middleton, current president of Edenhope-Aspley, believes clubs offer “just that sense of belonging somewhere, and once you start merging and going to other communities you lose all that.”

Clubs look to solve problems themselves for the most part, but sometimes leagues force their hand. ABC News reported last year that the Smythesdale Bulldogs, near Ballarat in central Victoria, is a club without a league. Without a win for 83 games between 2011 and 2015, and a record 429-point loss mixed in there, the club was abandoned by its own league, and other nearby leagues rejected the club’s application to change leagues.

(See story: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-1...e/10619168 )

This extreme set of decisions highlights the plight of clubs that struggle to find their own solutions. However, there are success stories.

The Whitehorse Leader newspaper reported in 2016 of the plight of the Nunawading Lions - on the back of a season that saw record 404 and 350-point defeats in reserve grade and seniors in a season where the closest result was 174 points. (See Nunawading Lions' Courage Under Fire) The club was on its knees and genuinely faced folding. However, the club refused to bow and found ways to get players back. Earlier this year, the club snapped a 1386-day winless streak. Importantly, the league involved backed the club – albeit with a very watchful eye.

A club that could have been abandoned was allowed to find ways to survive. Imagine being in the change rooms after that win.

Pyramid Power is a club in the AFL Cairns competition in Far North Queensland. Success isn’t its barometer – they won their maiden reserve grade premiership last year. They have already tasted success at a senior age level after just three seasons.

It does, however, have challenges – notably a lack of off-field support – which has placed it in the crosshairs of a league that isn’t wholly confident that the club can rectify its shortfalls.

Nevertheless, the league might be well advised to have faith, offer viable support and consider impacts on community before casting the club on a journey towards history. Even a few years without on-field success whilst the club rebuilds its support base is preferable to losing a club for good. Sometimes, as suggested in this story, clubs are more resilient that they appear, and so are communities. Pyramid Power, like the Nunawading Lions, Edenhope-Aspley and other struggling clubs, need support rather than decisions that might spell their demise.

Leagues are often painted as demonic and heartless when tough decisions are made. However, the reality is that they must make business decisions to survive themselves – often tough decisions. But, when making those decisions, community cannot be left out of the equation.

Communities, their adults, their children, their history and their future need opportunities. Killing off sports clubs – footy clubs – is never in the interest of those affected communities.

It never has been and never will be.

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