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What can we learn from the AFL and FFA's participation rates?

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Roar Rookie
4th April, 2019
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1629 Reads

March is done and so to a degree is the big sports reporting season. Let’s dive into the numbers.

With little fanfare the AFL 2018 annual report came out in recent weeks. The NRL 2018 annual report has also landed. The FFA has their 2018 annual review, and split out from that now is their 2018 National Participation Report. All codes like to report ‘record’ or ‘number-one’ status.

We are far better served now than ever before. You can download annual AFL reports dating back to 2005. The NRL archive goes back to 2014. As for the FFA, what you can find is a bit more hit and miss.

Nevertheless, the reporting is done and the numbers are on the table. It’s not survey extrapolations we’re after but numbers based on actual registrations, the coalface of national sport. That said, there is some need to drill in to work out just what the total numbers represent.

I’ll focus on the two biggest players, the FFA and the AFL.

Governments across all tiers have driven the codes into a ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ statistical culture. This is summed up in the FFA’s ‘Football participation grows to record levels‘ proclamation, with the annual census identifying a roughly $500 million facilities funding gap.

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David Gallop was quoted as saying, “We are calling on government to join with us to deliver improved facilities and programs which can help improve participation even further, drive gender equality, integrate new communities and deliver strong preventative health outcomes”.

This is like a policy speech before an election – all the right boxes are ticked off. The problem is that it’s a crowded marketplace, and working in partnership with governments of all tiers is often the best way to get the desired outcomes.

Via personal experience I saw firsthand during the 2000s that local government, when considering funding requests, was going to look very favourably upon pretty well all of those areas that Gallop referred to. At the time I was involved with a local sporting club committee and we couldn’t tick female participation, we weren’t a clear multicultural standout, we had no juniors and at the time we did not cater to people with disabilities, though we went down that path eventually.

At that time football in the FFA era was experiencing a boom in female participation. In Melbourne suburbs like Box Hill and Glen Waverley, the local councils were interested in engaging the growing Chinese and Indian populations. It was very important for the sporting codes to be on the same page as those who hold the public purse strings.

And so here were are, the 2018 numbers are in. What’s it all look like? And what do the numbers mean? What is the context?

MCG generic

Will the Australian cricket crisis ever end? (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Starting with the FFA, their 2018 national summary proclaims a total participation of 1,851,683 people. That’s an impressive number and a 13 per cent growth on 2017’s 1,631,041 participants. It’s even more impressive considering they reported in 2016 participants numbered only 1,188,911. That’s a jump of over 660,000 in two years. That’s impressive and sure to catch the attention of government.

Breaking it down, we can review the key reporting areas. The first is “outdoor affiliated football” which comprises the MiniRoos, youth and senior registered players. This number hasn’t varied that greatly – from 499,361 in 2016 to 527,650 in 2018. The female proportion has grown from 20 per cent to 21 per cent. An additional 28,000 players during a period proclaims a total increase of 660,000 participants. That’s curious. Where are the other roughly 630,000?

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The major increase since 2016 is an increase of 393,211 in the imaginatively titled “tournaments, events and community programs”. This accounted for over 304,000 of the 442,130 increase from 2016 to 2017. However, in 2017 some new subtotals were added to increase the bottom line, those being coaches and referees, which added pretty well 40,000 in 2017. In 2018 the bottom line has been further boosted by tallying 19,417 volunteers, 8317 via “diversity and inclusion” and a further 7000 or so extra coaches and referees.

What is clear is that boosting that bottom line by whatever means is clearly a strategy. Just how truly reflective it is of unique individual participation comes into question when we ponder the potential for overlap of participation. The FFA tally includes a tick under 140,000 futsal and “social” players along with almost 560,000 via schools (287,000 in competitions and 271,000 in programs). That’s fine. However, there must be a large number of school participants who also play club sport and likewise club players who play social or futsal.

What is interesting too is that the FFA proclaims the MiniRoos as the leading junior introductory program within Australia. However, it is also bundled under the category of outdoor competition rather than programs. This is a note to consider as I launch into the AFL review.

Central Coast Mariners A-League fans

(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

The AFL total participaton number for 2018 is 1,649,178. At this point the FFA has it by almost 200,000. It’s clear cut. Or is it?

The AFL ‘competitions’ tally is 739,716. However, that number includes social and school competitions. As per my point above, there must be scope for overlap or double-dipping on participants. The school competitions tally is an impressive 328,760, so head to head the AFL is leading the FFA.

While the AFL includes school comps in this category, it does not include its introductory AusKick. This instead is tallied under ‘programs’. The AFL did in 2018 breakdown their ‘club’ participation into junior, youth, senior and vets.

As best as I can match like with like.

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Category AFL FFA
Juniors 140,414
Junior intro program 205,755 227,734
Youth 122,811 161,848
Senior 115,407 138,068
Vets 8,292
Subtotal (clubs/intro) 592,679 527,650
School comps 328,760 287,527
Comps total 921,439 815,177

This might declare the AFL as the winner. However, of course we’ve not added in the FFA’s tournaments and events wildcard, which doesn’t have an AFL equivalent.

So rather than declaring a winner, I would like to assert that anyone can pretty well make the reported number validate pretty well any argument they wish to launch.

It appears the AFL wins in schools with a combined 1.01 million via competitions and programs against 558,000 for the FFA. I don’t know, however, whether the AFL adds coaches, umpires et cetera into the bottom line or not. They get reported, but it’s not clear whether they are included.

As it is, the international participation number also gets reported but is not included in the bottom line, and I have seen references that distinguish between participants and coaches and umpires, so I’m really not sure. I would appreciate clarification from anyone who knows for certain.

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The trends are important, but even then, as with the FFA boosting their bottom line, you still have to ensure that the trend you believe you are observing is based on a consistent set of metrics.

So the real trends are as follows. For the FFA, the MiniRoos program has grown 6.2 per cent from 2016-18. Youth participation is up 4.06 per cent and senior participation is up 6.69 per cent.

For the AFL, Auskick has grown 5.1 per cent in this time. Club footy is up 7.28 per cent and female club footy has grown by about 218 per cent, with overall female paticipation rising by about 39.5 per cent. That’s a total participation growth of 17 per cent.

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The AFL is currently riding the wave, the boom time, of growing female participation – girls in schools and girls in clubs. It seriously has been an explosion that has caught many off guard, which brings us back to the fight for facilities, the fight for the ear of government and of course the importance of reporting the numbers.

It also helps illustrate the challenge for the codes to sustain growth (or the perception of it) across all demographics.