Boundary Writer: Graeme Hugo and the science of football recruiting zones

There was probably a time in South Australia when buying a home not only involved checking out what schools and amenities were nearby, but also what local footy club your kids would be zoned to. Interest in the local league may have waned over the past two decades, but I thought Almanackers might be interested in a bit of the history about how the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) recruitment zones came to be and how they have evolved over the years. On a personal level, this story also touches on the work of my late uncle Graeme – a demographer and a passionate football man who passed away a year ago this week.

Though my uncle’s contributions to academia and government are well documented, not much has been written about his involvement of more than 15 years with the SANFL. There was probably no greater joy for him than to work with the SANFL’s Boundaries Commission – the perfect nexus of demography and football.

Victorian readers might be surprised that zoning is still used here. The Victorian Football League introduced zoning in 1915, but as its clubs transitioned to the Australian Football League it was gradually phased out. Many articles I’ve come across have VFL zoning ending in the early 1980s after two landmark court cases found the system was a restraint of trade, but this detailed paper from Monash University points out that country and metropolitan zoning did not completely end until 1986 and 1991 respectively. The AFL Draft is now the mechanism for fairly distributing new talent (mostly, but there’s not enough room to expand on that here).

Graeme’s involvement with the SANFL Boundaries Commission began in 1996 when the League approached the University of Adelaide Geography Department for assistance. James Inglis, an honours student of Graeme’s, set upon researching the history of the SANFL zoning system. This history is not easily available, with the best known accounts available in the hard-to-find book The South Australian Football Story (1983) by Bernard Whimpress.

The history of the SANFL recruiting boundaries begins in 1897, when the league was known as the South Australian Football Association (SAFA). After 20 years of domination by three clubs – Norwood, South Adelaide and Port Adelaide – the SAFA decided to implement recruiting zones for the metropolitan area in an attempt to make the competition fairer. These recruiting zones were based on electoral districts and were assumed to have about the same number of people in each. Regional areas of South Australia were not zoned until 1972 and were drawn up to align with District Councils.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the major fault with these zoning methods was realised. While each zone may have had a similar number of people overall, this didn’t necessarily translate to equal numbers of people likely to play league football – males aged under 20. This resulted in the formation of the Boundaries Commission in 1982 that then created a new set of boundaries based around this cohort.

The Inglis thesis sought to review the existing boundaries, identify criteria for developing new boundaries, and develop a methodology acceptable to the nine SANFL clubs. Not only did it consider the factors of age and gender, but also socio-economic factors that may impact participation rates. It also introduced the consideration of secondary school catchment zones and communities of interest – a core area that should always remain within a club’s zone.

Following this study Graeme and his colleagues were involved in the subsequent reviews of the recruitment boundaries, which operated on a 5-year cycle to align with the release of Census data. The only exception to this was in 2014, when the Boundaries Commission was required to redistribute all of Port Adelaide’s traditional recruiting zones. This was brought about by Port Adelaide’s desire to field a standalone AFL reserves team in the SANFL, in alignment with Adelaide Crows.

The changes saw the Magpies’ traditional heartlands like the Eyre Peninsula go to North Adelaide and Norwood, and the LeFevre Peninsula to Woodville-West Torrens. An Advertiser article at the time indicates that the remaining eight SANFL clubs impacted by the changes were satisfied with the overall carve-up.

I’ve included maps of these latest recruiting boundaries for metropolitan and regional South Australia below, prepared by the University of Adelaide. The technicalities of how a junior player is designated to be in a recruiting zone is documented in great detail by the SANFL, but in a nutshell, it’s based on the usual residential address of the player at age 14. There are mechanisms in place to allow the transfer of players between clubs, and to address situations were a player has not been listed by their zoned club.



As you would expect, the home ground of each club is within its zone, but they are not necessarily centrally located. This is a result of the clubs themselves never being equally distributed over metropolitan Adelaide (with an obvious void in the north-east), and a desire to create single-continuous zones (another point of difference from the VFL zones which were scattered across Melbourne). Norwood Oval sits just a kilometre inside the southern boundary of its zone but it takes in the vast suburbs to the north-east. On paper Sturt takes in a massive area of metropolitan Adelaide, but most of this is the less populated Adelaide Hills region.

The Adelaide Oval is on Roosters land (which might explain why Barrie Robran was the first football statue erected there) and kids growing up near the bases of both AFL clubs will be Eagles. If you attend the Almanac book launch each year, it’s hosted in the South Parklands, which is Double-Blues territory.

The areas around Henley High School have become particularly sought after, and form a junction point for the Glenelg, West Adelaide and Woodville-West Torrens recruiting zones. The public school’s football program has generated 24 AFL players since 2000, including Brian Lake, Brodie Smith and Jared Polec.

Graeme was a life-long Port Adelaide supporter, and somewhat ironically, the redistribution of the Magpies recruitment zones was his final contribution to the Boundaries Commission. In his more than 15 years of service, Graeme brought with him all of his expertise as a demographer combined with a significant knowledge of and interest in the competition. He was able to bring another layer of sophistication and integrity to the process by utilising the University’s academic and technical expertise to make the boundaries process more efficient and accurate. Although he was a passionate Port Adelaide supporter, he approached this work like anything else he did – without bias and with a sense of fairness.

At the time of Graeme’s passing this fitting tribute was published in The Age, and I though this excerpt was particularly appropriate:

Ironically, for such a peripatetic, ardent student and writer in migration studies, Graeme remained, for all his life, a loyal Adelaide resident. This continuity was said to be due partly to his deep, even in some eyes “tragic” commitment to the Port Adelaide AFL team.

Thank you to the following people for their input – Danielle Taylor, Jarrod Lange, Dion McAffre & James Inglis.

Graeme’s colleagues at The University of Adelaide continue to be involved with the Boundaries Commission, with the next review to take place after 2016 Census data becomes available.

About Mike Hugo

Occasional contributor, illustrator of Footy Places and other things (see my web store below).


  1. good on Graeme hugo and james inglis as the mighty double blues got baggy but cant understand how they recruited davies from geranium.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Great piece Mike, it will endure for a long time.

    Glad to know that your uncle Graeme wasn’t the one responsible for giving away Salisbury to the Magpies all those years ago.

    How have WWT gone with the APY lands part of their zone?

    Has there been any controversy about the boundaries? Apart from the Eyre Peninsula, the country zones still seem to fit my memory of the ‘traditional’ zones (Westies the Riverland, Glenelg the South East, Centrals the Barossa etc)

    But those Uni boffins need to be reminded that it is Central District (no ‘s’) or as KG called them, ‘Senneldissick’

  3. Dave Brown says

    Great piece Mike and a great contribution made to SA footy by your uncle… especially for a Port Adelaide supporter. Happy to see my house remains right in the middle of Norwood’s zone (may or may not have consulted the map before making an offer). From a Norwood fan’s perspective while it’s great to pick up most of the Eyre Peninsula that was such a rich zone for Port Adelaide it’s also sad to see most of the hills go to Sturt. Many of Norwood’s current period of success come from the hills – Georgiou, Jefferies, Dawe and Kirwan to name a few. Top stuff.

  4. Nank – I assume Davies was picked up just before zoning for regional SA was introduced.

    Thanks Swish – it’s interesting the involvement of your alma mater happens to coincide with nine Bulldogs premierships.

    Thanks Dave – I think Norwood is one of those clubs that’s known for developing players wherever they come from. And surely a Port supporter could’ve done more to stop your side winning three in a row!

  5. What a great article Mike. It was very interesting to read as I was aware of the boundaries for SANFL and how they are divided between the clubs but not aware of the history behind it. And to have your Uncle involved in this is a great honor.
    I grew up in the Riverland and many of the great footballers went on to play for Westies and the AFL and many Riverlanders were Westies fans but no me I was and always will be a Port Adelaide supporter through and through!!! :-)

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