In early March Sydney received the news that AFL in the city had shut down indefinitely.
From Auskick to school programs and decade-old footy clubs, the decision had been made to shut down all AFL-associated events for the foreseeable future.
For most states in Australia this shutdown would have a minimal long-term impact, but the concern when talking to a colleague of mine named Harry was that this may damage the AFL’s ‘foothold’ established in Sydney in recent years.
When discussing AFL in Sydney, the term ‘challenger sport’ is often mentioned, and Harry described this as “upsetting the status quo”. Historically AFL has not been viewed as Sydney’s main sport, having to compete in the most crowded elite sporting market in the world. However elite-level success along with strong community involvement has increased support and participation for AFL in recent times.
Harry suggested that historically “small things that wouldn’t generally matter elsewhere were blown completely out of proportion”. Upsetting the status quo is bound to bring heavy criticism, but it’s the continued effort to grow the sport in the difficult areas of Sydney that has been the most admirable.
Sport is an integral part of Australian culture, AFL is an integral part of Harry’s life. Being involved with development, coaching and playing, Harry is currently experiencing the void left by this shutdown. Many are aware of the physical benefits of playing AFL, but Harry suggested it’s “definitely the social aspect that’s missing the most”. To mend the bridge between footy and its fans, Harry suggested kicking by yourself and zoom video chats but admitted that “it’s just not the same”.
In turn, this may be the issue. With the AFL introducing a range of initiatives in order to stay relevant to the broader public, it may not be enough for the challenging Sydney market. For example, Fox Footy have been playing archived matches in place of the live product. Despite the reaction being positive and engaging, Harry suggested that this is just “filler”. In the states where AFL is a major commodity, the AFL is showing free-to-air football on the Channel Seven. This is not the case in Sydney, and this might just show the priorities of the AFL.
Harry suggested that these initiatives are intending to “keep the fans on board”, but as the AFL shutdown is now looking like a long-term possibility, it is tough to say if these can maintain the foothold of AFL in Sydney.