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Ten reasons for poor international AFL growth

Roar Guru
9th December, 2008
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9941 Reads

Hawthorn's Stuart Dew and St Kilda's Robert Harvey in action during the AFL 2nd Preliminary Final between the Hawthorn Hawks and the St Kilda Saints at the MCG.

Faster, higher, stronger. If you don’t recognize it, it is the official motto of the modern Olympic games. But it also describes football perfectly.

The game of AFL football is played at a far faster rate than in previous generations. Players are always striving for that Jesulenko mark, and players are being modeled into muscular athletes that make players of the eighties seem puny.

Football is a game that has everything going for it. But interestingly, it is also the football code which has the smallest global reach.

This article attempts to examine reasons why football has failed to make a large impact outside Australian shores, while other sports have.

Reason 1: It has too many aspects to it
AFL does encompass all three aspects of the Olympic motto (Faster, Higher, Stronger). Are all three of these too many to have in one sport? None of the other sports encompass all three to the extent that AFL does, as identified briefly below (each code given a score out of 10 for each part):

– American Football: Faster (F) 7, Stronger (S) 9, Higher (H) 7
– Association Football: F 7, S 3, H 4
– Football: F 8, S 8, H 9
– Gaelic Football: F 8, S 4, H 5
– Rugby League: F 5, S 9, H 6
– Rugby Union: F 4, S 9, H 7

You can read the identification yourself, or perform your own, but in any analysis it is clear that football does have a large amount of each aspect in it.

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Apart from that analysis we can look at the skills used in the different sports and how hard it would be
to learn, watch or use the skills.

The basic skills of AFL are marking, kicking and tackling. They are hard to learn, easy to master, but near impossible to perfect.

As a sport to pick up and start playing, it lurks about halfway between football and union.

The following list ranks the codes from easiest to hardest in playing straight away at a basic level.

1. Soccer
2. Gaelic
3. Rugby League
4. Football
5. American Football
6. Rugby Union

At its most basic level AFL is a very simple game to pick up and learn. Possibly the unique nature of kicking the ball is an obstacle towards people picking up the game and learning it.

The game does have an extraordinary amount of rules. However, again, at a basic level, it is very easy to learn.

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After briefly discussing this reason, we can safely say that it has no large effect on preventing the spread of AFL, and if anything the nature of the game should be a catalyst for growth.

Reason 2: Australias comparative low emigration (and high immigration)
Australia is a country where people immigrate too, not emigrate from. As a result there are not high numbers of people spreading the game around the world. American Football has a similar situation, but its large population, economic and political status in the world means that the sport has many other opportunities to grow.

Rugby union and football, both started in Britain, have had the benefit of high emigration numbers in order to grow their respective codes, with the latter taking the most advantage of the situation.

As time goes on, AFL will grow as people emigrate and travel around the world spreading the sport. This reason has had a large influence on the poor comparative growth of the sport overseas.

Australias high immigration levels mean that there is always people coming into the country who have not been exposed to AFL. A large number of these people, if exposed to AFL in the right way, will go back to their previous countries for holidays and spread the game.

Reason 3: Australia is not a cultural hub.
Australia was originally a colony of Britain, and currently the head of state is still the Queen. Britain has colonized many countries, impressing their culture, and with that their sports, upon the natives. This has happened in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia with rugby union, and cricket. It has happened in India and Sri Lanka with cricket.

AFL has had similar chances with smaller countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Nauru, but the population of these countries means they cannot compete with Australia.

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Reason 4: Australia is not an economic hub
While Australia is a first world country, it does not have the money like the United States and England to splash around. This along with the population of the country means that there is not a large amount of money flowing into AFL, which then means that the AFL is not able to spend a lot of money growing the game overseas.

Reason 5: Australia is physically isolated from the rest of the world
“Girt by sea” is a part of Australia’s national anthem. The statement above is very true if the centre of the world is Europe or America. Europe and America are often seen as the centre of the world, and Australia is viewed as the “land Down Under.”

While Australia may be surrounded by sea, planes can still travel easily to countries like New Zealand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Football should concentrate its growth on Asia, an area which largely does not yet have an entrenched AFL code.

This reason is the reason for the poor growth of AFL in the past, but in the modern day should not be large obstacle.

However, it still is a small obstacle. People are not able to travel from Germany or the USA for a day trip, and watch a game of football. They are able to travel from Hanoi to Brisbane for a day trip.

Reason 6: World War I
Prior to the Great War, AFL was played in many countries such as South Africa, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. BWorld War I came along and took most of the Australian expats and eradicated the game in those areas.

If World War I had not occurred, the sport would no doubt be played in respectable numbers in all of these countries.

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Reason 7: Perceived violent nature of the sport
Aussie rules is often known as No Rules Football, overseas. With only one umpire, and a field full of well built and strong men, the state leagues often had a problem with behind the play incidents. This combined with the strong physical nature of the game combined to create a sport that became violent as teams became more aware of tactics.

The introduction of many new rules by the AFL, including more field umpires and video technology, has meant that the game has lost a lot of the violent nature. However, many people have not seen a game of AFL since the introduction of the new rules, and they spread the word that the game is violent.

Reason 8: Football is not popular in Sydney
Sydney is often the incorrect answer to the trivia question, “What is the Capital of Australia?.” This is because when internationals think of Australia, they automatically associate it with Sydney.

AFL is not the most popular sport in Sydney.

Because of this, people coming to Australia often do not hear about AFL. The AFL is changing this scenario through the growth of AFL in Sydney, which could soon yield a second team.

Reason 9: Poor decisions
The AFL was started from an expanded VFL and has become the world governing body for AFL. Because of a continual association with the Victoria, and the fact that there are 10 Victorian AFL teams, the AFL is continually criticized by Victorians for trying to grow the game outside of Victoria.

It would have been much better for AFL if the SANFL, WAFL and VFL, and possibly the TFL and NTFL had each put teams towards a National Football League. This would have prevented Victorians holding the game back.

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Reason 10: Community minded
AFL, throughout its 150 year history, has been mostly community focused. Because of this, the people in control of the game have not really focused on growing the game outside its traditional areas. It was only with the persuasion of Allen Aylett that the game was grown into the traditional rugby league areas of NSW and QLD.

In recent years it has been the fans, and expats, pushing the AFL to provide funding to grow the game overseas. The AFL has been pushing the growth of the game in NSW and QLD, and also is heavily involved in the community. The AFL helps football to be the leader in areas such as Aboriginal rights, disadvantaged people, and health and well-being.

This focus has meant that AFL has improved through its history, and the people who love it, love it more.

AFL has gotten better, and as a result, it will be much easier to spread the game overseas.

However, the game could have sacrificed some of this community mindedness in earlier years and focused on international development. The game would be improved by a much larger range of supporters and followers as a result.

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