Bounce of the ball

Bounce of the ball

‘Australia’s game’: the AFL in a period of radical change

AAP/Mick Tsikas

Last week’s prestigious National Press Club address was delivered by the Australian Football League’s CEO, Gillon McLachlan, on the topic of “Australia’s game in a global environment”. This was an opportunity for the new AFL leader to convey his vision – and that of the AFL Commission – to a national audience.

The timing of McLachlan’s speech was impeccable. One day earlier the AFL had announced a record A$2.508 billion broadcast deal with the Seven Network, Foxtel and Telstra, covering free-to-air, subscription television, and digital delivery respectively.

At that press conference the leaders of Australian media were present, but so too – rather extraordinarily – was Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corporation. Sport is a foundational element of News Corp’s global strategy to secure subscribers, whether through products with an international profile, such as Britain’s EPL, or those that resonate within national contexts, such as America’s NFL.

Murdoch, who was anticipating broadcast deals with both the AFL and NRL while in Australia, had been engaged by the former and left dangling by the latter. This undoubtedly shaped his loaded comments at the press conference:

We’ve always preferred Aussie rules and we’ve always believed this is the premium code in Australia.

As is well known, News Corp set up its own rugby league competition in the 1990s, a move that split that sport and incurred major losses for the company.

In the wake of the AFL’s new broadcast deal, McLachlan was obviously in a position of strength. Yet while his speech indicated confidence, there was little hubris. As McLachlan acknowledged, there are unprecedented challenges for the AFL in a period of “radical change”.

During the 1980s a national competition was forged, and the success of that venture is reflected in the scale of the new broadcast agreement. However, sports around the world now operate in both local and global environments. This is particularly so in an era where consumers can watch sport played in their own country or abroad, whether by television or digital platforms. A challenge for the AFL, and any locally produced sport, is to engage a dedicated, domestic support base.

The AFL is uniquely positioned as a sport with no relevance abroad, but steeped in “Australia’s story”. It has a history connected to the colonial and Aboriginal past and, whichever claims of “invention” are accepted, “Aussie Rules” is as indelibly connected to this nation as baseball is to America and Association football is to England.

As McLachlan acknowledged, Australian football is by no means tangible or relevant to many in a demographically fluid Australian society, featuring a regular influx of migrants who – it is reasonable to presume – have little experience with the nuances of Australian culture let alone its so-called “national sport”:

We have been part of Australia’s story as Australia’s game. But we can’t take this for granted. As Australia’s story gets bigger and more diverse, so must we. The face of our game does need to change.

In the 1950s, migrants were called “New Australians”; there was an expectation they would assimilate into wider society – in part by being introduced to local staples like Aussie Rules, rugby league and cricket. Today, multiculturalism is the dominant social policy, and sports that do not recognise this risk irrelevance.

Rather than “expecting” newcomers to embrace the Australian sporting menu, the challenge is to attract their attention. Soccer is brilliantly placed to do so as it is such a well-known global game, though so-called “Eurosnobs” avoid the A-League and focus squarely on elite teams abroad.

Ultimately, then, McLachlan’s speech is relevant to all sport organisations in Australia.

But what does his call to “adapt” and “engage” diverse communities look like? This was clearly a work in progress. But there were a couple of positives. In another case of fortuitous timing, McLachlan noted:

Last night, at the 2015 Australian Migration and Settlement Awards, the AFL’s Multicultural program was awarded the Sports Leadership Award for our work across many communities – connecting young people to sport and activity. And our Head of Community at the GWS Giants, Ali Faraj was named Case Worker of the year for his contribution to the work in western Sydney.

From a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and Indigenous policy perspective, two proposals were announced. First, a zoning system whereby regions would be “assigned to each club and … empowered and funded to develop talent and recruit in indigenous or multicultural communities”.

In terms of elite pathways, “talent developed in those zones would be available to clubs through a priority draft bidding system”, with “investment in these new Multicultural and Indigenous Academies … supported by resources from the AFL”.

While talent scouts have for many years roamed the nation for Indigenous footballers, this is the first time that the AFL has conceived a systematic approach to the engagement of CALD athletes. By allocating zones, each AFL team has a responsibility to work with community-level associations and clubs to promote CALD/Indigenous participation and to reap benefits of talent development.

Finally, during question time, McLachlan responded to an inquiry about his position on the prospect of a national AFL women’s league. He was bullish, suggesting that a competition of six teams could be in place as early as 2017, linked to particular AFL clubs:

It has to happen … only a question of when.

Television ratings for a recent exhibition match between women’s teams representing Melbourne and Western Bulldogs teams exceeded expectations –outdoing a men’s match played the day before. The $2.5 billion media deal allows the AFL to resource programs that encourage women and CALD communities to engage in the sport.

While the AFL clearly wants to improve participation rates (it lags behind soccer for both sexes and netball for women), there is a welcome – even if somewhat late – determination to connect with groups that are often overlooked in male-dominated, “Aussie” sport. If the ‘face’ of football is to change and adapt, then women and CALD communities must be front and centre of the new paradigm.