Almanac Footy: The AFL’s ‘missionary’ work

 

Each Sunday, I pass a tiny primary school oval in Albion when I drive to visit my mum. During summer, there’s always a scratch game of cricket going on, played by Indian immigrants, and in winter, a scratch game of footy, played by Vietnamese kids. It so gladdens my heart to see these Vietnamese teenagers integrating in this way, that in that moment, I feel an urge to detour to Sunshine plaza, pick up a brand new Sherrin, swing back and holler, ‘Hey fellas … [torp the Sherrin deep into the oval] … enjoy!’ I told my mate Craig about this and he quipped, ‘Do that Zit, and the school will be swarming with police sirens.’ Craig, of course, was musing that the Sherrin gesture might be misconstrued as a little too ‘boiled lollies for kiddies’ and though that’s preposterous, you just can’t be too sure about people’s perceptions nowadays, so I’ve since shelved the idea.

 

Good-humored as he was in that case and usually is, Craig is not so whenever I applaud the AFL’s expansion teams in the northern states. “That’s [email protected]#*^g bullshit,” he’ll bark when I entertain that GWS are doing missionary work for the code. It’s a response that not only doesn’t invite a counterargument, it signals that if there is a counterargument, the friendship will be ended, embassy’s closed and Serbian grade retribution will be metered out on my ass. Fortunately, I have the good sense to back off from a combustible situation when I encounter one and for the sake of the friendship, our embassy’s and the preservation of my ass, any kernels of a rebuttal I may have are summarily shelved alongside that nurturing Sherrin for them Vietnamese kids.

 

Craig’s outrage over my missionary work notion, industrious as it’s been, is not the only factor keeping my shelves well stocked, too: my old work colleague, Steve Jones, has me mothballing rebuttals as well. Steve is a Fitzroy supporter and having lost his club in the ’97 merger, has a raw nerve about any positive spin on the AFL’s zeal to expand. Like Craig, Steve sees it coming at the expense of the foundation clubs in Victoria and when I lay my notion on him, he’s at me like Marcellus Wallace’s, pipe-hittin’ African-Americans (and sometimes I feel he pictures me costumed as ‘The Gimp’ when doing so!)

 

Mercifully, most of my mates, and the other people in my circles, are a little less intolerant of my take. Sure they’re insistent that GWS are much less about the good of the code and way more about Andrew Demetriou and co greedily meeting bonus targets, but at least I don’t feel myself ducking for cover the way I do with Steve and Craig.

 

When I’m not feeling I’m in mortal danger, I’ll argue that just about every sport with a prime time ratings win under its belt is coveting the AFL’s heartland so it has no alternative but to push back. “This is nature”, I’ll go on to say. “Just like animals and plants, sport’s will always look to expand their range. For the AFL not to would be to defy nature. Indeed, failing to do so would be at its own peril.”

 

I’ll feel real pleased with myself after this, thinking I’d just crushed their opposition to GWS with a hammer blow to the solar plexus. More often than not, I’ll even bask in my moment, thinking, I’m getting more and more Yoda like every day; shit, is there no limit to my powers of wisdom?  But every so often, every once in a while, someone will push back and say, “That’s [email protected]#*^g bullshit.”

 

Of course, it is [email protected]#*^g bullshit. At least the ‘at its own peril’ thing is. Aussie Rules is in no danger of withering on the vine should it fail to grow. The suits at AFL house could have never looked to expand up north and it’d still be every bit the biggest game in town. Even a deranged degree of insularity wouldn’t change that.

 

I only came to this realization recently. It wasn’t an epiphany or anything. At least it didn’t seem like an epiphany? They’re supposed to feel like an awakening. This felt more like seeing through a con. That tiresome argument. ‘We’ll lose the best athletes to other sports if we fail to grow’ started to ring hollow. I mean, would the likes of Dusty Martin really have been lost to league if we didn’t have the extra TV rights dollars generated by the Queensland and NSW teams? “Not bloody likely!,” I can hear Jerry Seinfeld quote in the worst cockney accent you’ll come across. For one thing, most of that money gets pumped back into the northern states to prop up their fledgling teams, so it hardly swells the overall salary caps. But even if I’m wrong and there’s a good chunk left over to pay glamour players, say, 20 to 30% more than they would have got if we didn’t have GWS and The Suns, was that the reason a Dusty or Buddy stuck with Aussie Rules? I mean, if it’s really all about money, wouldn’t we be haemorrhaging all of our best athletes to the riches of European soccer or to the mega-paying sports in the U.S? (or in the case of Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson, the WWF?!)

 

Even though it didn’t make a lick of difference to the real health of the AFL’s heartland (i.e the amount of kids growing up with Footy, sticking with it because of love, not money), I’m happy to concede, however, that establishing teams in Sydney and Brisbane always had merit. There were clearly enough Aussie Rules loving ‘expats’ in these Rugby league towns to make that viable. And so it has proved. The Swans and Lions have both carved out a niche at their respective new homes and for the foreseeable future, look like they will keep afloat. Indeed, it’s even fair to say that they have prospered and that their fan base is now made up of converts as well. But what has all this growth translated to? Well, it’s a mixed bag.

 

Of the many great players yielded from the northern states since South went to Sydney (excluding players from the Riverina, Broken Hill and ACT, as these regions were already part of the heartland), most cannot be attributed to a conversion. Superstars, Michael Voss, Jason Akemanis and Nick Reiwoldt were already into-Footy before their families moved to Queensland (just before their teens.) Emerging champion, Charlie Cameron dabbled a little bit with AFL while growing up in Brisbane, but only focused on it after his family moved to Perth (at age 16.) Melbourne born rising stars Harris Andrews and Eric Hipwood both grew up as ‘Banana-benders’, but their footy loving families were never gonna stand for them playing League (Hipwood’s Saints crazy parents even got married in the Moorabbin grandstand!) And then there’s the exceptional players born in the growth states whose parents are from Melbourne. It’s a long list! Lenny Hayes’s dad took him to Swans games, Mark and Jarrad McVeigh’s dad played 45 games in the VFA, Mal Michael’s dad played for Ormond, Dayne Zorko’s Slovenian born dad first settled in Melbourne, Jarrod Harbrow’s dad is from Shepparton (and Jarrod moved back there when 16) and Dayne Beams and Marcus Ashcroft, though often celebrated as Queenslanders, are actually Victorians (their families moved north before they’d reached a school age.)

 

And what of the lesser lights?

 

Callum Mills’s granddad played in the WAFL, Lewis Roberts-Thomson’s dad for Sandringham and David Armitage’s AFL ‘lovin father steered him nurturingly (sic) towards a Sherrin. Need more examples to satisfy you there’s a trend? Okay: David Hales was born in Tassie and Ben Hudson in Fitzroy, while Brad Miller’s dad played for South, Tom Green’s granddad is a Richmond great and Brisbane raised Ben Keays is so ‘kicks, marks and handballs’, he has 3 generations of VFL footballers in his DNA (and I could go on and on, but haven’t I already?)

 

Of the players that count as converts (and thus, the true yield of the missionary work), the standouts are Kieran Jack and Isaac Heeney. Jack’s conversion is the AFL’s greatest coup, of course. Proselytizing the son of a Rugby League great was like pulling off an ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ heist, and I dare say, would have had the suits at AFL house rejoicing the way the Vatican would if they’d ordained a descendant of the Ayatollah Khomeini! Isaac Heeney was equally a triumph for Aussie Rules. He is the first player recruited from the Hunter region and his bleached-blonde-surfie looks were the perfect poster boy advertisement for Footy in bleached-blonde-friendly Sydney. Marquee types Kurt Tippett and Charlie Dixon are also converts, though, the truth is, basketball was their first love and they only tried their luck with AFL late in their teens. Other notable players include Greg Stafford, Mark ‘The Fridge’ Roberts and Mitch Hahn. I understand they all found Aussie Rules without any pressure from their parents. And then there’s the best of the current crop: Dane Rampe, Aliir Aliir, Jarrad Witts, Tom Hickey, Jack Bowes and Errol Gulden. Again, I understand they didn’t have parents who dragged them kicking and screaming to the SCG or Gabba, when they’d have rather have been hanging out with their mates at Panthers stadium or Lang Park.

 

So, yeah, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a big victory to have recruited so many players from the ‘heathen’ states, but on the other hand, the Victorian lineage of most tempers the notion of vigorous growth. Indeed, based on these results, it’s fair to say that the best thing footy has got going for it up north is not its bewitching appeal, it’s the many Victorians who’ve relocated up there to escape Melbourne’s shithouse weather! Soberingly, Aussie Rules isn’t expanding as rapidly as it likes to make out. It’s more a case that the establishment of teams in regions with a sizable Victorian diaspora has helped to keep their interest in Footy on life support, and therefore, bump up the growth numbers where they settled artificially.

 

But still there’s growth. And when you consider how poorly the NRL has fared on this matter, it’s super impressive.

 

For all of Melbourne Storm’s incredible, incredible success, it has resulted in only 700 registered players currently in Victoria. Worse, only 200 of those 700 are juniors. That’s right, only 200 kids play organized Rugby League in Victoria. That is the true return on League’s 20+ year investment in Victoria: exciting 200 kids to cauliflower a schoolmates ears! Moreover, you would expect that a great many of those kids aren’t playing League because they’ve been inspired by Storm’s incredible achievements, but because they’ve been pressured to do so by their League loving ex-Sydneysider/Queenslander/Pacific Islander parents. Undoubtedly that would be factor, so it’s even less than 200. In the meantime, the AFL has absolutely mopped the floor with the NRL on participation. If you believe the AFL’s marketing dept, hundreds of thousands play footy in the northern states, but more reliable sources have it around 50,000 in Queensland (men and women) and in the tens of thousands in NSW. It’s an impressive set of metrics no matter who you believe, but again, it would be tempered by the ex-Victorian component in the numbers, you’d feel.

 

Storm’s abysmal failure to gain traction with kids in its hometown has an even more damning granular detail, too: of the 6 Victorian born players who have gone on to play in the NRL, only 1 player came through Melbourne’s junior comps. The other 5 left Victoria at a young age (and I understand only one of them played in a junior comp before leaving) so, yeah, that’s it: one born and bred Victorian. One! And when you temper that metric the way I have when evaluating Aussie Rules true growth, it’s zip, because it hardly counts as a conversion when the players parents emigrated to Victoria from League loving Tonga.

 

League’s Victorian junior comps have actually done a little better than developing 1 player for the NRL. A handful of players who settled in Victoria with their families at a young age have progressed through the feeder systems. Some had already played junior League in the places they were born and some had not, but there aren’t any celebrated instances of a family moving to Victoria specifically because of a love of Aussie Rules, only to be disappointed by one of their kids, who spurned their parents hopes, and said, “Screw Gary Ablett, I wanna play League!”

 

The Storm and its partners trumpet that they spent 23 million promoting and developing the game in Victoria between 2005 and 2012 (and heaven knows how much more since then), while the AFL has pumped hundreds of millions into doing the same in the east side of the ‘Barrasi Line’ you’d venture, and what has been the return on their investments? A small and underwhelming crop of converts for the AFL and nothing, nada, zilch for League. But, of course, that’s just being cynical, because conversions are just one aspect of growth. The Suns, Giants and Storm have created hundreds of jobs for players, coaches and support staff. That’s growth too. As is maintaining the interest of fans who have moved to a state where their code previously didn’t have a presence. If not for the Brisbane Bears, Michael Voss and Nick Reiwoldt may very well have been lost to another sport, so it’s reasonable to factor the retention of interest as a component of growth as well. As it also is when considering the development of the McVeigh brothers and their like. If not for being able to take their Sydney born and bred kids to watch the Swans, ex-Melbournian dads might struggle to foster their interest in AFL, so having a presence in that case translates to the retention of intergenerational growth, does it not?

 

The AFL crows that participation, memberships and TV ratings are all going through the roof in Queensland and New South Wales, so maybe it is premature to dismiss Footy’s capacity to win over rusted-on fans of other sports. Maybe it takes 50 years to do so? Maybe it takes a 100? The world’s slowest growing tree is Canada’s ‘White Cedar’, which grows 4 inches every 155 years, and perhaps the AFL’s expansion lines up with the rings of that tree’s trunk? Who knows? But maybe it will never happen? Maybe Footy will always remain a niche sport in Australia’s north-east, having a presence for the sole purpose of servicing ex-Victorians? I feel all the indicators point to the latter outcome.

 

I’ll continue to applaud GWS. Part of their raison d’etre is to stem the lost ground in Canberra to the Brumbies and Raiders, and that’s worthy of my approval. But I won’t make the mistake again of applauding them for the notion that they are doing missionary work. For one, that would be misspent energy, because I’m certain they will fail. But it’s more the case that I have now have mixed feelings about wanting them to succeed. While I want the traditional support for Footy stabilized in the ACT, I don’t want to encroach into League’s territory. ‘The Golden Rule’ has suddenly sprung to mind for me on this matter. I mean, if it would horrify me to walk into ‘Young and Jackson’ on a Friday night and see everyone huddled around the screens watching the Storm (and it would!), then shouldn’t I have empathy for a League loving Sydneysider experiencing the same horror if the Giants dominated all the pub screens in Penrith? Like, I don’t want my sports culture eroded, so shouldn’t I do to others what I would have them do to me?

 

But as troubled as I now am philosophically about Footy and League’s turf war, I’m way more concerned about the damage it’s doing back home. When I’d drunk the AFL’s Kool-Aid, I believed that striving to win over Western Sydney would make footy stronger. But I’ve since observed that it has made it weaker. My mates, the people in my circles, the vast majority of callers I come across on talkback radio, resent GWS. They complain that the AFL hyperextends itself in favoring them and it’s hard to argue otherwise when you have Gil McLachlan stating publicly that he hopes Stephen Coniglio stays a Giant. As a one-time supporter of expansion, I reconciled myself with these perceptions of inequality because of my ‘code over club’ position. But I now ask myself, “Is it good for the code if you piss off the majority of fans in the heartland to service a few expats and a trickle of new converts?” The answer to that, of course, is that it isn’t. Indeed, the disillusionment it causes makes it downright detrimental.

 

Craig, Steve and my other mates won’t be suffering my naiveté any longer. They won’t hear, “Sacrifices have to be made for the good of the code.” They won’t be stupefied by, “The next Gary Ablett could come from Penrith.” They won’t ever again have to laugh off, “Toby is misunderstood.” But if GWS’s presence in the ACT rescues the interest in footy of the next Alex Jesaulenko, well, I’ll be privately jubilant. Hell, it might even inspire me to torp a hastily purchased Sherrin deep into that school oval in Albion. Even if I do risk coming off a little bit like Mr Stinky.

 

 

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About Punxsutawney Pete

Punxsutawney Pete see's a shadow: twelve more months of winter

Comments

  1. Jarrod_L says

    Wow Pete, I was with you until I wasn’t…but it’s good to see more chat about the topic regardless.

    I think you can see the equation through an AFL or a footy lens – the spreading of the AFL gospel through specific clubs (GWS and Gold Coast) in a ‘populate or perish’ type argument is obviously flawed (though there are certainly hefty conversations ongoing behind the scenes about that…from both the AFL and NRL) but perhaps they’re not the messiahs, just footy clubs (who provide resources, jobs etc) and sharing the love of footy is rarely a bad thing in my book.

    Having lived in Queensland for 10 of my most formative years, I also really enjoy rugby league. The way I see it, the end game shouldn’t be more dogmatic conversions, but a broader appreciation for the agnostic ‘codes football.’

    In addition to that, I was waiting for a mention of the status of women’s footy, particularly in Queensland – the fact that the whole ‘rules’ v ‘league’ divide of the Barassi Line is upended by the Sunshine State (part of the ‘Big 3’ women’s footy states with Victoria and WA) is fascinating and I think quite worthy of exploring more.

    That said, I did really enjoy the read!

  2. Roseville Rocket says

    Interesting piece Pete.

    However, the data shows that in 2022 there are the following numbers of players on AFL lists from the so-called minnow States::

    NSW – 52
    QLD – 25
    TAS – 24

    For NSW this is the most number of players ever.
    The Giants have the most from NSW with 12, marginally ahead of the Swans with 11.
    They also now have more than 30000 members.

    BTW, Brad Miller’s father, Neville was recruited to South Melbourne under zoning from Wagga.
    For those of us that have been missionaries on the front for over 40 years these numbers gladden our hearts.

  3. Paul Spinks says

    Interesting analysis, PP:

    As you suggest, it’s natural for any being or plant to want to expand its territory. So, remaining stagnant probably wasn’t an option for the AFL, especially If you examine the latest census figures and see the populations of NSW and Queensland, and the rapid growth in the latter. But after failing once in the Gold Coast, to try again reminds one of insanity definitions, and you make a reasonable point that Sydney and Brisbane were sufficient exposure.

    The ACT is a kind of manufactured entity as well. Which possibly implies that what we become rooted to or see as permanent is what we grow up with.

    Apparently, in the early days of Aussie Rules it was quite popular in Sydney but, if I remember rightly, that the code was seen as coming from Melbourne stymied its growth.

    I used to think that soccer was probably the greatest threat to Aussie Rules, but soccer’s main obstacle here could be that the main game is in far-away lands that will always consume our talent.

    But, if what we’re talking about is survival then the greatest current threat to the AFL is arguably within, though younger generations may disagree, in the guise of rule changes and negative coaching tactics – it certainly has me flicking off the telly, anyway!

  4. Eyeballs and pockets. Eyeballs and pockets. That’s what matters in the long run. Interesting analysis PZ in your customary colourful style. I don’t think where the players come from particularly matters. We all pat ourselves on the back as (southern) Australians & commend Aussie Rules as the world’s greatest game. Certainly used to be true from a spectator perspective until $, “professionalism”, fitness, technology and the dead hand of the master coach put its dead hand on the scales in the last 20 years.
    But it will always be an indigenous sport with no appeal beyond our shores (too hard to learn if you don’t start young and too space consuming beyond a wide brown land). With nowhere external to grow player (and executive) salaries are dependent on sponsors, gambling, TV, streaming, Web3etc. AFL had to try and become the dominant code in the northern states – not for players and fans in stands – but for the last drop of exploitable commercial revenue from NSW and Queensland.
    Would the game be any poorer if that failed commercially? Arguably not in the short to medium term as kids will aspire to be the next Buddy or Dusty. But in the long term our sporting appetites (like our product and entertainment appetites) are fed from overseas. It won’t be long until our cricketers spend most of their time in India growing wealthy on IPL and the international franchises that will spread from it. BBL is already a poor cousin and growing poorer. Basketball and soccer offer far more diverse and lucrative career paths for both men and women. And you don’t have to worry about concussion and crippling joint injuries.
    Sharks have to keep swimming or die. Just look at Greg Norman and the Saudis hostile takeover of professional golf. Money doesn’t talk – it swears.

  5. Ta Pete. The AFL in 2022 is nothing like the VFL I grew up with from the late ’60s.

    I think we have to stop seeing it as a sport. It’s big business, tying in very neatly to Adorno’s concept of the culture industry. Actually contemporary sport beyond its grass roots level is premised on being corporate. Money speaks all languages.

    I’m now happy seeing successful sides in Brisbane, Sydney. I still can not get over the corporate BS these are continuations of original VFL sides that have crossed the Barassi line. Sydney is not South Melbourne, Brisbane is not Fitzroy. Let’s celebrate their successes in their own right, not pretending they’re long dead teams.

    Capitalism is a system that has to grow to survive. Once growth stops it’s kaput. Like when a shark stops swimming ‘it’s all over, red rover’. Football as part of the culture industry had to expand. Sunday football, etc, meaning the demise of the VFA, various country and metropolitan leagues: they’re collateral. Move Melbourne sides interstate, recycle their culture, history all part of the expansion for the required $. Natural base for a team(s) in small places like Canberra, Tasmania , why bother? Play the token games there, but create sides for population centres like the Gold Coast, also the West of Sydney. Hey, no one really cares about footy there but creative marketing, the ability to spend a buck to make a buck, whilst being able to cover your losses, that’s the Australian cultural industry.

    Peter I will never take the Suns, Giants as serious sides, as there was not an organic basis for their existence, they were set up simply to make money for the AFL and its corporate coterie. Who knows where footy goes as the smaller competitions, leagues are swamped. It will not go away it’s too much part of our life, more importantly there’s so much money to go.

    The missionary zeal will continue as long as the AFL exist in our culture industry. Watching the footy as a way of enjoying ourselves is an established part of our compensatory consumerist lifestyles. But how far can footy really expand is debatable.

    Glen!

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Enjoyed the read Pete. I thought at the time and still think Gold Coast and GWS were the right areas to expand to (Tasmania should have been done in the 1980’s). GWS seem to be tracking better, but could they have done it without Canberra/ACT? Did Canberra deserve it’s own team instead? Would the strong Southport club been a better option than the start up Suns? The AFL trumped this expansion as taking a generation to fully cut through. It may be way longer than that. But if you’re in a strong position, why not aim high and set no limits.

    Very interesting the poor playing numbers of Rugby League in Melbourne. Are numbers, especially junior numbers, any better for Rugby Union in Vic? Suspect they might be taking in the various private schools?

  7. A cracking read, PP. Just loved it.

  8. roger lowrey says

    Great read Pete.

    I am in awe of your research skills. I mean the information about Eric Hipwood’s parents getting married in the Moorabbin Grandstand must have been a long way down the rabbit burrow.

    But then again, which burrow as it seems you delved down quite a few!

    RDL

  9. fantastic article Pete.

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