The (off) season of money: changing times and changing meanings in grass roots footy

This is the season, for Cricket, for drinking, for our Christmases to become more and more American. And, if you’re a footy club treasurer, or new coach, to stress hard and work it.

It is the season of money.

Serious money.

Players from all clubs, at all levels of the game are chasing the dollar. It shits me. It will see the death of many clubs, and leagues. Money is ripping the heart out of grass roots footy. The wrong attitude, the wrong culture, is ripping the heart out of footy.

I’m no scientist, but here are my feelings.

VFL Grand Finals, like Australians, used to be laconic, without fanfare. We were famous for it. Where as the Yanks dolled up their Superbowls like bloated X-mas trees decorated with Liberace’s vomit, so much so the sport became irrelevant, we would sing some stupid song only a few of us knew the words to, then get on with the footy. And, oh, it was grouse. And, oh, it was mighty!

Aussie Rules Football at its toughest, most desperate, best skilled. You ripper!

Now there are glitter machines, cheese and cracker hype and tinsel, before and after. So much smoke being blown up so many arses. Shit bands, opera, every player made immortal, turned into a giant by the media. Stupid movie voice-over men narrating over slow motion footage as if they’re constipated. And we’ve fallen for it.

Everybody wants to be a winner.

Not a player, or a soldier for your club. A winner.

Look at the photos of Premiership teams and how they’ve changed over the years. Hands held towards the camera in thanks have been replaced by a single finger. No.1, baby! The same thing we used to laugh at the Yanks over.

Down in the lower levels, more and more players are chasing victory. It starts in Juniors. When I was coaching kids in the bush, there was an absolute jet that wanted to play for a team in town that had won 7 flags in a row. All the kids did. They came from everywhere to be a part of it. That team had maybe ten local boys in it. And each of the other clubs had one or two of that team’s boys that ‘weren’t good enough’.

I convinced him that if he won a flag there it would mean absolutely nothing. That with us he could make a difference. And he did, and I’m forever grateful.

But the headset of parents and their children that find doing that okay baffles me. And sets patterns. The kids grow to be men, and think footy is about winning, rather than character. They chase success, leaping from team to team, showing no loyalty. The struggling teams never get to have their shot at the natural cycle, falling further and further down this slippery slope to nowhere.
The flip side of this obsession with victory is failure. The bottom teams aren’t “not good enough” anymore, they’re “Pathetic”, “Disgraceful”, “A blight of the game.” Just took at the AFL, just listen to the commentary. Any team in the lower four is talked about as if they are scum, as if they are insulting, if not out-and-out offending, the viewer. Maybe, sometimes, the other teams are simply better. That’s the essence of competition. And the more teams you have, the further the gap between top and bottom.
The other problem, the bigger one, is the dollar. As the AFL has, rightly, increased the wages of those players involved, players down in the amateur levels are asking more and more o sign up. A good player can earn $700 a game, even at the lowest level. $900, $1,000, easy. They whore themselves to the highest bidder, and in ways, I don’t blame them. $20,000 cash a year, for sport, (no tax), would go a mighty way for a young bloke building his first house, buying a flash ute, whatever.
But grassroots football just doesn’t have that sort of money. Do these blokes know how hard it is to raise? How many old duffs give up their weekends to sell raffle tickets, how many committee members have to suck and grovel to sponsors? How many teams, desperate for the success I’ve mentioned, throw the club into debt, destroy it for future generations, to afford them?
The committees often feel bound to go after these arseholes. With everybody wanting success these days other players surge towards a club, or jump ship, depending on the whims of a few highly paid players. The committee feel if they are going to survive, too keep their core players, they have to offer the big bickies to the mercenaries. But then the local boys, with just as much ability, get their noses out of joint. They feel under appreciated, and want money to stay. And if they don’t get it, they leave, chasing dollars they think they are due elsewhere.
When a team buys all these players, and still don’t win the big one, the deck of cards comes down, and they are rooted for decades. The old duffs and committee people burnt out from going so far above and beyond what should be expected of them for “nothing”.

So the trick becomes to build your team through your juniors. But, unless you’re lucky and/or extremely well managed, they’re off chasing victory at other clubs, or at your club even though they live in another region, learning how to not be loyal.
The dollar.
I’ve been privy to our club’s efforts to recruit this year. Yes, we’ve tried to get a top up player or two, but the prices they’re asking are just ridiculous. Mostly, though, we’ve been trying to get the kids back. Good players and not. Have the club feeling like a community again, reforge loyalty. I’m proud of our coach, he’s young, local and knows what matters.
One of the ex players wanted the most stupid amount of money. So did another, then another. So much more than they were worth. But a few city clubs have that sort of money.
The coach went to a local kid who had left the club because he was only a bench player in the twos. I love the kid. Everybody did. God, he was hopeless. He ruined every drill he partook in. Dropped everything, even handballs, slowed it all down, kicked off the side of his boot. Out on the oval he wouldn’t tackle, or get the ball, it was like playing with 17. But he was of us and ours. We never gave him anything but encouragement.
“Come back,” the coach said.
“Fifty dollars per game,” the kid told him.

This shit is ripping the heart out of grassroots football. Clubs are folding over it. But most of all, it’s warping what’s good about the game. Community, belonging, participation, loyalty.
I would not be a good coach at this time of year. We don’t have a lot of money, and my honesty would make a lot of enemies.


  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Old dog to say I agree with you is a massive understatement . I am heavily involved in
    Ad Uni fc and we opt to not pay give me a club with culture and character over the stupidity of just chasing a premiership any day . I remember a article in , Inside sport where they asked a group of people what the most important thing was the guys invariably said winning the flag while the ladies said to break even financially pref a bit in front so in this case I am definitely a Sheila !
    Well written thanks Matt !

  2. Matt

    Sad but true. Whilst not money based, I know an U14 side in Melbourne who has actively recruited or gone after star players from other clubs to join them at U13 and 14 level, with the lure of playing in flags. They are a very talented side who would go close to winning anyway (having won last two years at U12 and then 13 level), but it is setting up quite a gap between them and the rest in the league. I know of at least 5 boys spoken to about leaving their own clubs for this one, and some already have, including one potential star who was playing in a lower division, who has moved for the reward of playing top grade football with a starring club.

    Not really what junior footy was established for, but on the other hand, at 13-14 years old, these kids can see AFL as a career, and being noticed in a flag winning side aids their chances.

    Still, it’s sad. No indication there’s financial inducement, but I suppose playing with your mates happens either at U10 level then disappears until you are past it and then returns for the older stagers


  3. Hear hear Matt. Nice work. Spot on.

  4. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Spot on Matt, I’ve had similar feelings for the last few years. I still use the word ‘grouse’, but no longer in a footy context, where it originated after first watching Billy Picken.
    The $$$ has always been part of sports culture, but now the emphasis and meaning on its importance far outweighs any concepts of community, topos or loyalty to people.

  5. thanks everyone. it is a bit heartbreaking for sure.

    mal, your volunteer work is legendary in s.a. and known of outside its boarders too

  6. Was speaking to a mate who is coaching for the first time. We agreed that as tempting as a $700 a game player is, especially if you’re close to a flag, he will be in it for the wrong reason, and probably not stay. Better to get 8 kids coming out of juniors, and give them $50-$85 each per game.Appreciation money. On average, three or so will drift away fro your club no matter what, but as the rest get older and better, you’ll have got their loyalty for a song!

  7. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Old dog greatly appreciated I have always believed money is the root of all evil in amateur sport my views are heavily influenced by my mentor and ,1 of the greatest people I have ever met in , Fred Bloch and it is certainly my intention to keep the Greys the past players group of , Ad UniFC the worlds greatest fc to keep growing
    If you don’t pay cliques don’t start and everyone is equal which I strongly beleive in

  8. Bloody heartbreaking this shit!
    The result of a great on field football club was always blooding your juniors with a passion to succeed at the senior level for the same club and the feeling of the ultimate success truly meant something due to these factors. I experienced this and is an awesome feeling to play in senior success with u/12s mates many times. However I did find out when I went to a higher rated league for nothing and experienced the grat players rather than great team, it brought us unstuck in times when you need to dig in. Money is the root of all evil, after these successful periods I then coached and was amazed of the $$$ being payed out to town blow ins who hadn’t proved a thing on or off the field. I then set about trying to support the local travelling uni students and apprentice tradies whose mums n dads were trainers canteen workers goal umpires etc. to keep the club flowing and strong at its core. But I struggled to keep these blokes due to many outside factors and $$$ offerings that couldn’t and shouldn’t of been matched. Also committee members who didn’t see fit to support these local lads over a chance better league player.
    Parents of players started to ask why my son wasn’t getting an amount of $$ after one good game, if another recruited player had a bad performance I guarantee you would hear about it from 2 or 3 club sponsors, yet these same sponsors are the ones that push and push to not play local kids and get out of towers for fast success.

    The way I see it is like this;
    Get the right people in the right places, and usually these are the people that the ultimate goal is to keep the club healthy. These guys then Teach these new u/12s all about the roots of their club. Teach them to love the jumper,club and people around the place. These kids will attract the right people that you want around your club it will snowball. You can’t win it every year but you can feel proud of who you play for and what you stand for year in and year out. Then you will understand what it’s like to earn success rather than a full wallet and an empty career.

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Well said Matt. In the last year of my club (South Purrumbete) in 1999 the only paid player was the captain/coach. We were mostly uncompetitive. No player with any ability wanted to play for us when our opponents could offer decent coin. Country footy has been a hard sell for me ever since.

  10. TMdaXJbxzzxek3Pv1X-4cfAhfE9IM6xo_2mrIZKuAcw. says

    Having just become Treasurer of our local club, I’m scared now. I thought it was just about making sure what came in, went out, or at least went somewhere it could be used later.

    Thankfully on the Sunshine Coast we don’t have enough money to be paying players in the junior leagues. And our club is geographically separate from surrounding areas so able to generate community vibes. That being said, there are on e or two kids who play with other teams. Although that is more to do with playing with their mates, where they started playing or they have moved suburbs. At least you would hope so in the U10s where the scores aren’t kept…

  11. Mark Duffett says

    This hits several nails on the head, but I particularly liked the riff on the ‘winning is everything’ culture that is increasingly permeating the game (“Whatever it takes”, anyone?). I still love Centrals to bits, and especially their streak of flags over the last decade, but their adopted ‘This Club exists to win Premierships’ credo still doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t like the message it sends, which Matt articulates elegantly here.

  12. Hi Perma and Zurbs,
    In 1989 at Apolloo Bay $200 was on offer every week for the best afield bloody Colin Perkins won it every week as well as the best and fairest for the league.
    As an average player I must admit I did appreciate the $20 a win per player that was introduced the following season, whilst acknowledging though that Colin definitely earned his keep and thoroughly deserved his renumeration as best afield for the majority of the season.
    There was some hard times throughout the early 90’s for an unemployed surfer/footballer trying to survive and a $20 note was always helpful remembering rent was $90 a week then.


  13. Budgie, if they paid in rusty nail you would be footy’s first true millionaire!

    And Perma, there was no two ways about it, you always wore your heart stapled to your sleeve and expected nothing more-or-less from your boys than the same.

    Luke, I remember South! Yeah, those score-lines must have been a slog. A number of Otway’s truest played for you in the year we were in recess.

    Cheers, Mark. Fellow Tasswegian?

  14. Mark Duffett says

    No worries Matt, always a pleasure to read your stuff. Don’t know if you’d call me naturalised yet as I’m only in my second decade of discontinuous residence (in the other half of the state to you, I suspect). Expat South Australian (hence the reference to Central District FC, my first love).

  15. Remember playing in a country league outside Ballarat. Best on ground got a slab, and 99 times out of a hundred it was shared between the team. What did ABBA say ” money, money, money, its a rich mans world”.

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