The AFL executive has used the cover of COVID to implement crippling austerity measures across the industry, with junior talent pathways copping it the worst across the eastern states.
The 12 Victorian NAB League clubs are furious at changes to the junior competition, despite getting improved funding for the girls’ pathways (about time) and an increase in player ages to under 19s, with the truncated preseason and long gaps in the fixture creating a chaotic calendar for an already crowded season.
The NAB League boys 2021 fixture wasn’t even released until a month before it started, with a massive five-week gap happening right now plus a weekend with no footy in June, July and August, with clubs essentially playing 12 games plus finals across a five-and-a-half month season.
However, Tasmania were the biggest losers of all, with their promised entry into the VFL in 2021 kicked down the road in favour of merging with the six surviving NEAFL clubs, although their junior pathways are still included in the full NAB League season.
The Northern Territory, which provided four draftees in 2020, cancelled their involvement in the NEAFL after the 2019 season and were subsequently not invited to participate in the so-called VFL, have but two games for their under 19s to pit themselves against NAB League teams (which will probably be understrength).
The other three NEAFL teams that have not been able to afford to join the VFL were Canberra Demons, Sydney University and Redland Bombers, which are all key areas for AFL recruitment that have now lost Tier 2 representation.
Indigenous Northern Territory draft prospect, Ned Stevens, has relocated to the Gold Coast under the same pathway that brought Malcolm Rosas (who debuts tomorrow) and Joel Jeffrey to the Suns, where he will play for the Suns Academy team and try to win a place in their VFL side plus he is in the AFL Academy squad, but that means he won’t suit up for NT Thunder at any stage.
The Coleman brothers from NT, Keidean and Blake, were drafted by the Brisbane Lions in successive years in 2019 and 2020, although they moved from Katherine to Brisbane over a decade before their respective draft years because the opportunities for education and football were simply better.
As much as pathways to professional football in remote areas generally tend to gravitate toward the cities, the funding that goes toward facilitating teenagers in an academy, be it the youth programs in the non-traditional football states or the Next Generation Academy programs run by clubs for indigenous and migrant teenagers, is vital for the welfare of the youth they support and the chances of success.
The northern academies have also been left in the lurch as far as their fixture is concerned, with each club only getting two games with NAB League opponents and further fixtures yet to be announced, which is down from the five games in the 2019 Academy Series, when Victorian junior clubs hosted or travelled to the six academies in Darwin, Hobart, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Sydney and GWS Aaademy boys just played one game and the Suns versus Lions game allegedly scheduled for this weekend cannot be found on the internet, such is the volume of the AFL’s disdain for the Northern Academies, and they aren’t included in the NAB League fixture as they have been in the past or listed by any AFL affiliated site.
Essentially, when the AFL cuts hit the Northern clubs, they were forced to put a broom through their staffing for the academies and cut funding to their junior programs.
At the Gold Coast Suns, which has academy players relocating from Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Darwin and Port Moresby, parents were suddenly asked to foot the bill for costs previously covered by the club.
Jye Lockett, the nephew of Plugger, grew up on the Gold Coast and is one of the Suns’ brightest prospects coming through their pathways, yet he has decided to play footy in Victoria for GWV Rebels in his draft year because there are far better opportunities for development, although he is still tied to the Suns.
Austin Harris is currently in his third year of living away from home in Cairns, a move which has paid off as he is playing VFL footy and was selected in the AFL Academy, yet the expenses of travel and the funding shortfall are a hardship for his parents, who have had to stump up rent and board if they hope to see their son succeed.
Will Bella, when he’s not dropping 60-metre bombs through the goals or clunking marks in the VFL over AFL listed defenders, lives with his sister, Suns AFLW ruckwoman Lauren, and they have also had to endure living away from the home ten hours drive away in Mackay. Young Will is fortunate to have the support of his sister, who herself made the move as a teenager and succeeded to become one of the best ruckwomen in the competition.
The Suns academy has produced 45 players who have graduated onto senior lists of AFL and AFLW clubs, and yet the program appears to be a victim of austerity at a time when it needs investment to continue to grow the game in Queensland.
The club operates on a shoestring budget and is short-staffed beyond imagining. The website page for the Suns Academy has not been updated in over a year. The Facebook page has 101k followers, yet very little content. There is nobody doing it because there is no money to pay anybody to do it.
The AFL gave the Gold Coast Suns $27.8 million in 2019, then cut $10.6 million from their 2020 funding, which was the single largest shortfall across the league. GWS got $9.6 million less and the Lions got $8.1 million less.
The Suns were pretty close to balancing the budget, but with great pain and at what cost? Sydney and GWS posted horrendous losses, while Brisbane scored a massive government grant to put them in the back in the black.
If the AFL is serious about investing in the future of the game, 2021’s austerity model simply has to be the blip on the radar and not the norm. Right now, Australian Rules footy is cutting through with families in areas that have been rugby league mad for a century, but it is the very worst time to rein back spending in these regions.
But if the federal budget is anything to go by, there is much more financial pain to come and the gap will continue to widen between the haves and the have nots.