One thing sometimes forgotten when discussing big issues in the AFL, is that football exists, much like our world in the marble bag at the end of Men in Black, as a very small part of a much wider world.
Far more Australians don’t play or follow Australian Rules football than those who do. It’s one of the main reasons AFL has so many themed rounds, to try and enmesh and associate the game through the minds of as many Australians as possible, including non-traditional audiences.
The powers that be in the boardroom at AFL House recognise relevance will be an ongoing battle in coming decades, and they’re always seeking to ensure Australian Rules football doesn’t go the way sports like tennis went and cricket is heading – a sport for the pampered, cherry-picked elite, without much mass appeal beyond a brief display period each year.
There have been attempts to make the game more accessible via AFLX, AFL 9’s and most importantly, to the youngest generation via Auskick.
One of the things that interests me is the enduring relevance of AFL as we move into the future, and how we can best safeguard the game from falling victim to generational indifference, as so many other pastimes and hobbies have succumbed.
Now granted, the AFL isn’t exactly stonemasonry or philately, but as the body charged with safeguarding the game, they’ve been shoring things up regardless, with a lot of investment into youth programs and suburban ground redevelopments, along with the aforementioned Auskick program.
Some posters on The Roar are fond of talking about millennial culture and point the finger at it for a lot of the cultural problems within the AFL playing ranks. At heart, what millennial culture is creating, is a generation of children who are aware of the wider world at a much earlier age than what we or our parents were.
Access to information is making mental adults out of children far before they come physical adults.
In this crowded, hyper-paced world within a child’s head, Australian Rules football, with its emphasis on traditional physical skills and mental adroitness, is trying to elbow its way to the forefront of mind against much more alluring hobbies to be found online or in the real world, that certainly don’t require as much effort or commitment, and perhaps don’t have such a punishing learning curve.
Additionally, despite the emphasis on everyone participating it’s inevitable that as children age they will begin to give the game away or shift their attention, particularly if football has not proven to be a sport they have taken to or developed skills in, relative to the children around them of a similar age.
Kids are coming along in droves – participation levels at school are on the up while the same is true for Auskick. The dovetailing into the school curriculum and guaranteed access to kids in the immediate before or after of primary school hours means that won’t change. But are they going to stay interested once they leave school and grow up?
Or will they, like so many high school musicians, let their football gather dust and eventually disappear into the distant past and faded memory of a high school senior certificate?
I mean, the program is only run for kids aged 5-12, 40 minutes a week and lasts about two months – and yes their parents are involved a bit – but if you look at the photos on the website it’s basically acting as a goalpost for their kid, or setting up some cones during the halftime break at an AFL game. No shame in that, but it does seem more than a bit token-ish.
Thing is, in trying to execute their strategy for growth of the game, I think the AFL has dropped the ball in another area. Let me digress for a moment.
You know what makes films by Pixar and Disney so clever? Because they manage to work jokes and references in for the adults too. They know although their market is kids, mum or dad or both is going to be sitting in that cinema for 90 minutes as well, and they want to make it fun for them too. Ultimately they’re the one paying the bills and making the decision to bring the kids to the movies. Judging from how their films have done, it’s good commercial sense too.
I mentioned millennial culture earlier – what is also being created, is a sort of elongated lifespan, where traditional timeframes for when in your life a person should be expected to commence certain chapters, has been thrown out the window.
Knowledge is coming earlier, maturity is coming later, and one of the things often coming to the forefront of mind for adults in their late 20s and early 30s is the realisation that their teenage physique and metabolism isn’t protecting them anymore – and they’re slowly turning to flab.
This has perhaps come at a time when they’ve become increasingly time poor due to juggling kids, work, relationships – and it’s also true that a lot of adults who are overweight talk about not struggling to find time for a regular exercise routine.
This is where Australian Rules football is abdicating its responsibilities as Australia’s true indigenous code because all the game offers an adult in Australia these days, with no prior experience of playing football who perhaps would like to get fitter, is the chance to watch other adults play, or watch your kid play.
What I’m saying is, the AFL is missing an opportunity to increase involvement for one of their biggest audiences – parents – those same parents bringing those droves of kids to the school and Saturday sports days.
Why isn’t the AFL running programs to get adults to pick up and learn the game for the first time?
At the moment, there are masters competitions all over Australia, where players aged over 35 and over 45 go round the traps and have a great time.
Most are ex-veterans who still can deliver a ball lace out and still have all the skill and guile, but there are a few brand new players who have decided to jump in the deep end and pick the game up for the first time – like myself, up to about six games now, and about 20 training sessions.
In my experience, it can be a bit intimidating. I mean, it must be, because I could count on one hand the number of guys playing for the first time at 35 I’ve met in the side.
I assume once you get past 25, there’s very few coming into lower grades playing first time too – again, this is based on conversations at masters with people who started at 35 and they all said the common factor was the appeal of learning in an age group where they knew at least everyone was starting from the same handicap, even if it’s only age-related.
They knew it’d be a bit slower, a bit more forgiving, and certainly less physically confronting. Learning to kick an AFL football when you’ve grown up kicking league footies comes with a punishing learning curve for people to climb over.
The lack of 360-degree awareness is hard to overcome. I know too, my innate physical fitness and height has given me an advantage over the average 35-year-old in terms of their BMI and stats, so I certainly am not saying everyone should go out and do it.
Perhaps most of all – it’s intimidating jumping into a contact sport for the first time, particularly if you haven’t played one before – and increasingly in Australia where most kids are playing football (soccer) as juniors, this will be true in coming decades. This is the reality of the world we live in now.
The AFL has been trying to tweak the product and draw eyeballs by changing up how the best 800 adults in Australia play the game, but for a lot of people, I doubt very much subtle changes to the policing of the area around the mark are going to get much cut through. Something more visible is required.
So therefore, I propose that the AFL look to fund, and set up an initiative whereby adults aged between 30 and 40 can take up and learn the game for the first time, surrounded only by other adults of the same age, who are also brand new to the game.
This initiative is a natural fit for a game that seeks to maximise its footprint in the Australian psyche. I am certain that people would be less intimidated, if there was sign-on from within the community, or if they were playing with some of their mates, or their fellow mums – and if they knew everyone was starting from scratch as well.
In terms of practicalities, there could be half-hourly sessions run for parents at the same time as the kids, get an extra coach along and take them through some fitness, some handball drills, some kicking practice to each other, ball drops – a mix of fitness, but teaching genuine skills as well. Maybe one during the week, and another on weekends for an hour.
At the end of the two-month Auskick session, the parents have a 20 minute game after their kids on the last day and show off what they’ve learnt. The important thing is that it should not be patronising, or dumbed down – the emphasis should be on encouraging people to physically and mentally challenge themselves, and use AFL as part of whatever their wider plans are for their own self-improvement.
Learning Australian Rules footy or having at least some experience of playing it, should be something the AFL is aspiring to plant in the cultural psyche alongside the working holiday, going to Cape York or learning to surf – a serious undertaking that is almost part of the fabric of being an Australian.
They’re not, for whatever reason – and I maintain there’s a cultural cringe about footy that is playing its part – but they should have enough confidence to put the game out to adults and say hey, if you want to get fit and challenge yourself, you don’t need to go rock climbing or become a ninja warrior, here is an activity that is physically and mentally challenging, very technical and has a lot of depth once you get into it, and on the field – offers almost limitless possibilities.
In Australian Rules football you are only limited by how hard you want to run and work. You can run anywhere on the field. You can chase the ball wherever you want for however long you want. You can expend as much energy as you want and be contributing – perhaps not efficiently, but you’re contributing.
Ultimately the only person you’re really fighting against is yourself, and trying to outlast those around you fighting the same battle. This sort of mentality and approach – that this is an activity like chess, or bridge, that you could spend a lifetime playing and never master, needs to be the emphasis.
Most adults experience of footy is Auskick – an activity aimed at being fun, inclusive and targeted at 5-12-year-olds, combined with the dim memory of 20 years ago isn’t going to do much to prepare anyone for life playing footy as an adult.
I reckon you’d get a bit of interest. Not saying it’d be game-changing, but as Chris Fagan keeps saying, sometimes you just have to get those little incremental improvements happening. It’s the fear of the physicality or the unknown that deters a lot of people, but if it was supported – the details would work themselves out if you had plenty of interest.
Link it with masters footy – a small number of underaged players with no prior experience are already welcome anyway, so this would only help boost ongoing participation at older age levels.
What does the AFL buy with all of this? Interest, and relevance. Greater engagement. Word of mouth referrals are always the best sort – if people go and have good (or bad) experiences they will undoubtedly talk about it at some point, and any interest is good interest in this sphere.
And because the AFL loves a good social cause, against a backdrop of a society where growing obesity and physical inactivity is an issue, don’t you think we should be maximising every opportunity to use this sporting infrastructure the AFL has invested in for the community, and further illustrate its relevance?
I see plenty of aussie rules grounds idle during the week, there would be room for this sort of thing. More to the point, if the AFL isn’t out doing this sort of thing, then who will?
Sometimes it’s not always about the eyeballs on the TV or the dollars – most of the time it is sure – but as a long-term investment, positioned at teaching and bringing a game based around physical fitness and mental focus to Australians, this would be an initiative that would be rewarding in the long run.
The game has to be more than a just plaything for elite athletes, and a thinly veiled audition process for children to try and find as many prodigies as they can.
If it continues down that path, where once you hit high school only the elite talents remain involved in playing the game, audiences will decline and fall over time due to lack of interest, ongoing engagement or boredom with the product. It may already be happening.
By making a statement that Australian Rules remains a game not just for the young – due to the relative age and fitness of those around you, it can remain an even and fair contest well into your 30s and 40s – and by emphasising this by starting out a whole generation of players who missed out when they were young for whatever reason and bringing the game into their lives – the AFL would show that it remains committed to making the game available to all Australians, as widely as possible.