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Whichever way you look at it, Australian rules football makes a clear difference for the better in people’s lives. AAP/Joe Castro

Back to the future: has the AFL lost its community?

Sport, we’re told, lies at the heart of what it means to be Australian. But what in reality does this mean? The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the role and place of sport in Australian life.

Tasmania’s northwest coast city of Burnie has long suffered high unemployment. In 2015, however, residents were shocked to find that unemployment among young people in Burnie had topped the nation: 21% of young men aged between 15 and 25 were neither employed nor studying. Just under half of all young people did not finish high school. And between 2011 and 2015, the number of Newstart recipients had grown by 40%.

Hard hit by the shrinking manufacturing sector, youth unemployment in the region was forecast to swell even further in the years ahead, to 33%. For young Burnie residents, the future looked bleak indeed.

Alarmed by these findings, the leadership of Australian rules football in Tasmania surveyed Burnie AFL players. They wanted to know how many of its players were unemployed and not studying.

They feared the worst. With Burnie football players in the bullseye of the most at-risk demographic – men under the age of 30, some from the lowest socioeconomic ranks – football officials were worried about their own.

What they found surprised even them. Club officials reported that not one of their players was unemployed. All were either employed or in full-time education. The employment (or studying) rate for AFL players in a city with the nation’s highest unemployment rate was 100%.

Asked to explain this remarkable disparity between young footballers and the rest of the community, club officials pointed to two simple factors.

First, young men who play football gain vital skills that make them employable. They show up on time, every time; they’ve learned how to work in teams; they understand that hard work and self-discipline lead to improvement; they are confident; they can cope with pressure; and they are fit and healthy – they don’t allow alcohol, junk food or drugs to overtake their lives.

Second, they are part of a social network that supports them. When faced with a risk of losing their job, someone from the club would connect these young people to someone else looking for reliable and capable young employees. Club members could recommend the young player for employment and, because of the footballers’ basic skills, be confident in doing so. The club officials don’t get paid to help; they just do it, because they care and they know it’s the right thing to do.

This result is repeated across Tasmania and across the country. Young people who participate actively in organised sport perform far better than their peers, not just in athletic pursuits, but in life. They are less likely to be out of a job, less likely to smoke, less likely to abuse drugs, less likely to be obese and more likely to succeed in school and beyond.

Whichever way you look at it, football (and no doubt other organised sports) makes a clear difference for the better in people’s lives.

A widening distance

But that is not the end of the matter. Football also makes a clear difference to communities.

A study of the decline of Victorian country towns discovered that the single most dangerous development for a town in trouble – that is, the most strongly correlated predictor of its demise – was not loss of the school, or local bank, or post office, bad as these were, but loss of the local football team.

When towns lost the ability to finance, support and field a local team, they were almost always on the slipperiest slide to extinction. And the converse is also true – a thriving local football club was one of the best predictors of other measures of community vigour, including demographic stability, health and education statistics.

With the decline of other non-government social and community institutions, these findings are particularly important. Churches do their best, but nowadays can only sporadically reach the most at-risk young people. Welfare organisations, similarly, do their best, but are often forced into either an oversight role or a merely palliative one.

Community progress associations have mostly atrophied into insignificance. Political parties are nowadays only remotely connected with communities. Government bodies are often even less effective, especially with the most at-risk young men. Schools, government welfare agencies, police and the justice system frequently confront young people only as authority figures. Too often they fail to inspire or seem relevant.

In many communities, including Indigenous communities, literally the only organisations that can reach at-risk young people and integrate them into a lifestyle based on aspiration, self-discipline and achievement are community sports clubs.

The scale of organised AFL football, in particular, remains impressive. In Tasmania, for example, an estimated 100,000 people are actively involved in the game, whether as players, umpires, officials, bus drivers, jumper washers, committee members, sponsors or other volunteers. In the past, up to half of the Tasmanian population was involved.

Taken together, these figures make the AFL by far the largest non-government organisation in the state. It is bigger than the all the active attendees at churches, bigger than all political parties combined, and perhaps even larger than government. Across Australia, an estimated 1,247,610 people are actively part of Australian football.

The health of a community’s overwhelmingly largest and most influential organisation ought to be of vital concern. The principal reason the AFL should actively invest in nurturing young players and their communities is because it can, and probably no other organisation has that ability. Because it can, it has a moral obligation to do so.

But rather than vigorously reinforcing its role and responsibility in the community, the AFL is increasingly turning away. The 18 elite AFL clubs are no longer directly immersed in any specific district or regionally defined community; with AFL talent programs now centrally based, they don’t rely on these communities for new players or for the lion’s share of their financial support.

Conversely, they do little to support the irreplaceable role of local clubs in nurturing young people and making communities coherent – unless an external agency pays them to do so. The attitude of most AFL clubs appears to be:

Ask not what the AFL can do for the community, but what the community can do for the AFL.

A major focus of the AFL itself is attracting government money – to itself.

In reality, the ever-deeper “corporatisation” of elite-level Australian rules football – its obsession with money, its “hollowing out” at the top level, and its widening distance from local communities – has begun to undermine the AFL’s ability and even its willingness, like that of the churches and community associations before it, to perform the vital functions identified above in the lives of young people and communities.

Behind the superficially reassuring numbers, AFL football is shrivelling in the communities that created and nurtured it. It’s time the AFL, as the nation’s leading and only native sport, rethought and reconfigured its relationship with the community that supports it.

No doubt senior AFL officials will hotly dispute assertions of decline. Their public relations departments will produce reams of statistics reassuring the public that more money than ever before is passing through the “AFL economy”, “more children than ever before” participate, AFL clubs have more members, more watch on television and more attend games than ever before.

But, in their hearts, everyone associated with the AFL knows the decline in the community is real. The statistics are buttressed by ever-laxer definitions: a child attends a football clinic and is counted as a “participant”; clubs offer ever-cheaper “teaser” memberships to bolster numbers; and attendance and viewership of the elite level is flatlining and, in any case, is part of what is sapping the energy from community football.

AFL football is shrivelling in the communities that created and nurtured it. Tom Reynolds

The signs of regress

Behind these statistics, signs of decline at the community level can be observed everywhere.

Just attend a state league or local game – in decades past, thousands did so. Today, the stands are mostly empty, save for a handful of the players’ relatives, friends and dedicated club organisers.

Local clubs, even in the most football-crazy regions such as Tasmania, are struggling to stay alive. Schools no longer offer, or sometimes even allow, pupils to play Australian football. Mothers urge their offspring to choose a “less dangerous” alternative, like soccer.

With the number of high-school-age children playing Australian football diminishing, elite clubs are increasingly forced to rely for new talent on athletes converted in their teens from other codes, especially soccer and basketball, or from overseas.

New players do not come from talent developed in the clubs’ home bases, but from an amorphous national draft, intended to “equalise” the competition. The result is that clubs face no incentive to support and develop the game among youngsters in a community that is “theirs”. Talent development is financed by centralised grants handed down from AFL headquarters in Melbourne. The flow of talent is hollowing out.

Far from being the “nation’s game”, as it loudly trumpets, Australian football, in terms of mass support and participation, is confined to only three of six states: Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

The traditional AFL state of Tasmania watches, but is barred from participating in its own right – as is the Northern Territory.

The “expansion states” of Queensland and NSW “participate”, in the sense that elite-level clubs are located in their cities, but the public in those regions is largely uninterested. The AFL has made little real progress in winning hearts and minds in NSW and Queensland.

It was amusing but sad, for example, to hear the response of one prominent Sydney-based AFL player when asked by a Melbourne-based football show what it felt like to be recognised in the street.

I live in Sydney, mate. No-one here recognises you. And if they do, you can be pretty sure they’re originally from Melbourne.

While the AFL continues to dominate television ratings, soccer arguably now has a better claim to be “Australia’s game”. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost twice as many young people play soccer as Australian football (419,600 for soccer versus 268,700 for AFL).

And, interestingly, soccer has pursued an entirely different growth path. It has built its strength from the bottom up, out of local community and children’s clubs, towards the top level.

The AFL, by contrast, has attempted to grow “top down”, by first installing elite clubs in hither-to uninterested regions, then attempting to fill out support at local and community levels. It hasn’t worked.

AFL clubs in places like western Sydney and the Gold Coast resemble moon bases, parachuted in, protected by glass domes and supplied with oxygen from afar. They are largely isolated from, and ignored by, their surrounding environment and community.

AFL clubs, particularly in the Victorian heartland, have been deracinated. They no longer belong to a specific geographically defined community.

While historical associations linger, Collingwood is today not rooted in the suburb of Collingwood, nor Carlton in the suburb of Carlton, or Richmond in Richmond, Essendon in Essendon, Hawthorn in Hawthorn, or North Melbourne in North Melbourne. Geelong is an exception.

These clubs are now spoken of as “brands” or “franchises”. Indeed, the jargon of the corporate world is progressively replacing the language of community. Teams no longer play a “style” or “type” of football, but a “brand” of football; regions are no longer “communities”, but “markets”; players are now told they are in the “entertainment business”; it’s no longer even a “game” but a “product”.

AFL football is today more festooned with corporate advertising and sponsorships than perhaps any other code in the world, with the possible exception of car racing. Player jumpers are plastered with multiple logos, every season sees more corporate slogans and advertisements, they rotate perpetually around the field in eye-catching and distracting neon, players are required to be seen with “sports drinks” they don’t drink, junk food they don’t eat and gambling companies they don’t bet with.

Anything goes, so long as it sucks in more cash.

But football is not really an industry, and the AFL is not really a business. There are no shareholders, no requirement to make a profit, and therefore no real discipline from the marketplace.

At one level, the AFL’s mimicry of the corporate world is harmless play-acting, akin to government bureaucrats who also increasingly employ ugly jargon from the business world. But, at another level, “corporatisation” without shareholder or market discipline is the worst of possible worlds.

AFL officials pay themselves as if they were running a real business, but they are accountable only to a self-appointed commission recommended by the officials themselves and nominally “ratified” by the 18 member clubs (and, in a general way, to public opinion).

The result is that the AFL bureaucracy can absorb with impunity an enormous proportion of the code’s resources, centralise control in itself and indulge in obviously pointless but expensive extravagances like showpiece games in far-flung cities such as Dublin and Shanghai.

But much worse than this is that they make decisions on flawed, business-sounding bases. And it’s in doing this that the AFL moves ever further away from the community that ultimately sustains it.

Almost twice as many young people now play soccer as Australian football. AAP/Dan Peled

Why isn’t Tasmania allowed a team?

Consider the perennial issue of an AFL team for Tasmania. Why is a foundation Australian football state like Tasmania not permitted to field its own AFL team?

Everyone with inside information on the game understands that it’s not because Tasmania lacks the talent to be competitive (the number of Tasmanians playing in the AFL easily equates to a team), or that it could not financially sustain a team.

If an estimate of the necessary support base is obtained by dividing the population of Melbourne – 4,442,918 – by the number of teams located there – nine – the result is 493,657, or less than the population of Tasmania. In any case, the majority of the required money is provided by the clubs’ share of sponsorship and TV rights.

The reason Tasmania is not allowed a team is that Tasmania is considered a “captive” not a “growth” market. There’s no incremental income for the code to be gained in Tasmania.

Tasmanians already watch and contribute to the AFL as much as they are likely to. Indeed, under current arrangements in which the Tasmanian government subsidises out-of-state teams to play in Tasmania a few times a year, Tasmanians contribute considerably more per capita than any other state.

Tasmania now endures the situation in which two interstate teams (Hawthorn four games, North Melbourne three) play each year in Tasmania. Compounding the problem, it was revealed this year that Tasmania’s players in the new women’s competition will be “allocated” to western Sydney, in spite of a manifest lack of any affinity between the two regions.

But, as in other regions, more children in Tasmania now group up playing soccer rather than Australian football, and the AFL relies on them switching in their teens. When soccer decides to locate a top-level team in Tasmania, thus providing a pathway to elite sport that doesn’t necessitate leaving the state, loyalties will probably migrate, and Tasmania faces the risk it will cease to be an AFL state.

The motivation for the AFL’s approach is the logic of the fake market over the logic of community. Were the AFL genuinely committed to its community base, it would find a way to locate a Tasmanian team in Tasmania. But under the spurious logic of the market, it has no incentive to do so.

Tasmania hosts four Hawthorn AFL games per year. AAP/Rob Blakers

Reconnecting with its community

If declining youth participation, abrogation of the responsibility to support local communities, stagnation and failure to grow the game in new regions, hollowing out of the talent flow, and increasingly successful competition from soccer are all recognised problems, how can the AFL reconnect with its community and rebuild its foundations?

The first step is to recognise that these apparently disparate challenges have a common root cause: increasing distance from the community. The next is to actively seek ways to reconnect.

The key is to reforge the direct links between clubs and a specific community. This would involve allocating each club a geographically specific “zone”, for which it would have responsibility in community and game development, and from which it would recruit players and gain resources.

The AFL has recently released a plan to connect with regions for multicultural and Indigenous talent development. What’s needed is re-establishment of the symbiotic bond between club and community.

For certain clubs, the “zone” would be obvious: the Geelong region to the Geelong club, for example. For others, it would require some division, for example northern and South Australia being divided between the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide, or Western Australia between West Coast and Fremantle.

For the heartland Melbourne clubs (half of all AFL clubs remain in Melbourne, in spite of the fact that the city represents only one-fifth of Australia’s population), the task would be more challenging. But the reality is that football lovers barrack for clubs and players, not for the AFL.

Interestingly, every club official I spoke with favoured the zone concept, but no-one at AFL headquarters did.

Reforging links would also require serious integration of women into the game, on field and off. The AFL has largely failed in this. While 1,08,100 women and girls play soccer (one-quarter of the total soccer players), only 27,900 women and girls play AFL (just under one-tenth).

Yet women are more often than men the irreplaceable pillars of community organisations. Women make up at least half of AFL supporters and are a cornerstone of many local clubs. Not so, however, at the elite level.

While the AFL frequently invokes the necessity of gender equity, within its own sphere it has made little progress. The proposed women’s league has so far displayed little vitality, and few within the AFL professional bureaucracy take it seriously. Many want simply to hand off responsibility (especially financial responsibility) to the clubs.

Similarly, only one of the 18 AFL club presidents is female; all 18 AFL club chief executives are male. These figures are widely known, but one could be forgiven the impression that reversing this anomaly is a secondary priority.

Not so well known is that over recent years, every AFL state and territory chief executive has been replaced, and yet none of these senior community-football-focused positions has been filled by a female.

The most vital step, however, would be to shift the AFL’s culture away from that of a fake “corporation” and back towards that of a “community’ organisation.

This process needn’t imply any de-professionalisation or reliance on amateurs. Many of the world’s highest-performance organisations are neither government nor for-profit corporations; they are "not for profits”. In simple economic terms, a non-profit organisation retains its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission, rather than distributing its surplus income to the organisation’s shareholders (or equivalents) as profit or dividends.

A for-profit business conducts activities to make a profit, and it adjusts those activities – adding, deleting, augmenting them – in order to maximise its profit.

A not-for-profit organisation, by contrast, raises money, including profit, in order to undertake a specified set of activities. The cart and the horse are in the opposite order. A not-for-profit adjusts how it raises money in order to be able to more effectively serve its goals.

In reality, this is what the AFL already is. The problem is that it too often pretends to be a for-profit corporation. Not-for-profits include many service organisations, but also some of the world’s outstanding achievers. Much of the US higher education system, including the world’s best teaching and research organisations – organisations that lead the world in breakthrough technologies and science – consists of highly professional not-for-profits.

Similarly, many of the best healthcare organisations, including the world’s best hospitals, are not-for-profits.

If it is to meet its multiple challenges, the AFL needs to retain and reinforce its professionalism, including its ability to raise considerable sums of money, but needs to evolve its culture back towards its original mission and the communities it grew out of.

You can read others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition here.

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