Challenges developing Australian Rules football in a non-AFL town

How do you attract followers to a sport that is not liked let alone loved? Tough going as the AFL and Greater Western Sydney Giants (GWS) have found out.

It is well known that the west of Sydney is a melting-pot for the football many Australians still call soccer. It also has a strong popularity for Rugby League, considered a blue collar sport; a label that many living in those areas would give themselves.

The AFL took a risk. They set up camp with a new totally new team in the heart of Sydney’s west, the most culturally diverse area in the biggest city in Australia.

Why would they do that if they are threatened by the sleeping giant that is football?

The answer is the same as the question I am asking. It is the people’s game, the world game unlike the NRL that is predominantly played in NSW and QLD.

Kevin Sheedy, head coach of GWS AFL team has got himself in hot water over comments he made whilst discussing the challenges he faces comparing his team with the Western Sydney Wanderers (WSW) A-League football team in attracting supporters.

His comment towards the Wanderers included “have a recruiting officer called the immigration department” and has sparked a social media frenzy and opened a racism debate.

His comments were shameful. He knows himself he went too far – this is not the same as yesterday when you could defame football; put it down and step on it as if it were a game for non-Australians or aliens – as how it was once perceived.

The late Johnny Warren wrote ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofter’s’ – his autobiography as what it was like or what it was considered to play or follow football and he fought for the game till his death. Those days are gone!

Sheedy was trying to defend why his team had only attracted 5830 spectators to his team’s 135 point home loss to the Adelaide Crows, so why even take the conversation down that road?

Both teams are both targeting the same geographic locale but WSW has already won success only one year since inception and a fan group over 10,000 and wider supporter base of more than 20,000 with the potential of hundreds of thousands.

Sheedy himself has been known to have done work in indigenous communities and has helped players of Aboriginal or Torres Strait origin realise their potential as professional athletes. The man might be blunt, but not racist. He is however pro-AFL and anti-football.

It would be wrong to defend the comments he made or why he made them. They are not warranted or wanted in today’s society or near sport, where there is a big effort being made to keep racism out.

The reality is that many residents of western Sydney suburbs are first or second generation Australians, migrants that have integrated to life here. Sport is an outlet to them and they are passionate but they are not easily swayed to this ‘new’ sport, the one played in Victoria.

Having lived in Sydney I see what they mean. Aside from football it simply is a “League” town that has no time for the AFL. Almost everyone in Sydney backs an NRL team. It is not an AFL town!

It seems that the NRL who’s seasons clash considerably with the AFL’s are not the main threat.

Particularly in the west there are entire federations of football teams such as the Canterbury League or the South Coast League (in Wollongong), and proud clubs that make up the Premier League in Football NSW, Some of these established clubs once played in the old National Soccer League (NSL) and include Sydney Olympic, Marconi, Sydney United and APIA Leichhardt to name a few – all teams with strong local support.

The already established Sydney Swans have battled since the 1980’s getting a supporter base, and they include South Melbourne supporters who live in Sydney. Many that grace the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch the Swans play home games are Victorian, South Australian or Western Australian expats, not from New South. There are exceptions and the Swans brand has had a 30-year head start.

It’s actually not a bad game. In-fact the entertainment level is very high. At times it is barbaric, but the level of athleticism is extreme and admirable.

Sharing stories with taxi-drivers on AFL game day I would ask them “many people at the Swans game?”, or “have you taken people there?” for them to respond “who are the Swans?” or “no, I hate that game”, or “the game doesn’t make sense, I don’t understand it”.

So it is clear that Sydneysiders either don’t want to know about Aussie Rules or it is too complicated. They need to be exposed to it but will not give it the time of day even if it gets media coverage. So how do you get noticed?

Attracting the grass roots might be their best bet, but this is a long term plan. Getting kids playing the game and keeping them there will create a fan base but we are talking a 10 or more year plan.

Success is easy enough way to get people to take notice. Getting thumped every week by 100 points is not ideal. If you know the sport then you understand that a rookie list with a few experienced players is a medium term plan. This team will be good, but realistically could take 5 years.

So that brings us to making strategic alliances with football in the community and as a brand. This can happen now, and it can be fruitful.

GWS and WSW can co-exist and if the clubs and codes allow it, share ideas that go beyond the playing field. The end goal for both games is the same – to score more goals than the opposition, but athleticism, fitness, match preparation, recovery, nutrition, fan support, making alliances and friendships are all there for everyone to grasp.

The AFL hates to fail, so why go down that road?

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