Contributed by: Brett Northey Friday, June 29 2007 @ 01:12 am ACST
The British Australian Rules Football League have held an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the upcoming Brit Cup, the 2007 finals and their proposed strategy for the way forward for the sport in Britain. The rival UK Footy plan was also put up for discussion as an alternative structure for the organisation of Aussie Rules in the United Kingdom. The UK Footy plan would see the existing BARFL set aside and a new body put over the top (see UK Footy unity plan being debated for more details). It's fair to say that although the new concept has been launched as a way of unifying the game, it can only do so if it gets widespread support. If it is seen as simply one side trying to roll the other then it will be politics as usual. Given that the BARFL recently discussed the proposal at the EGM, we spoke with BARFL Secretary Donald Eastwood to gauge the response of the Committee and clubs to both the new BARFL strategy and the opposing model. It seems they too would like to see some changes, but don't believe the radical step of dissolving the BARFL is necessary.
WFN: The BARFL called an Extraordinary General Meeting on June 13th. Was the primary reason behind that to address the UK Footy plan being proposed and to put forth the BARFL's own strategy document?
Donald: The reasons for the meeting were several really but at the heart of the meeting was to address mounting concerns about the direction and strategy of footy in the UK. Several things were on the agenda including arrangements for the 2007 Brit Cup, discussions on how our Finals will be structured (bringing in Premiership, Conference and Social finals into all the finals weekends), the proposed BARFL Strategy and AOB (any other business). The meeting was primarily to discuss the strategy document and general comments about pulling together for a set of common goals. Glen's proposal (Glen Ocsko authored the UK Footy plan) was raised under other business and following the discussion of the strategy document and subsequent discussion of Glen's proposal, it was agreed to generate two streams of work. One to look at the completion of the strategic goals and a high level roadmap to support it and a second to discuss governance within the context of the strategic direction.
WFN: You've shown WFN the initial presentation given, with the seven key points being Promoting the Game, Junior Pathway, Regional Structures, Increased Participation, Revenue Generation, Administration and Building Relationships. The "Statement of Strategic Intent" was "To implement a development and playing model in Great Britain that introduces British participants to Australian Rules football who can subsequently develop within the model to play for an AFL club". These are certainly laudable ideas, but I must ask the obvious questions, how long have the plans been in development and is this simply a reaction to the UK Footy plan?
Donald: We have talked about formalising a strategy for some time but this particular plan has been in development for about 6 months. Unfortunately, the BARFL Committee have not had the time to focus on this plan and one could argue that talking about it for over a year and working on this for 6 months is a long time, which it is, but the majority of the work on this was done in the off-season whilst our minds were not on the day-to-day operations of running footy. The work was fast-tracked to a completed state for comment following productive conversations with the AFL who provided both good direction and feedback and through that some impetus for the completion of the document. We were keen to have formalised the strategy before taking any 'next steps' regarding development.
WFN: Was the UK Footy plan discussed in detail at the EGM? WFN understands that the group developing the plan were seeking widespread support across Britain, meaning the BARFL clubs, including the SARFL, and ARUK and AR Wales. The originators are presenting the plan as a way of unifying all regions and we've received correspondence supporting that, but we've also been told some people see it as simply a way of delivering control to ARUK. Quite frankly we're finding it difficult to know what to believe - any of the suggestions across the whole spectrum could be true, and we've heard that range of opinions from trustworthy people from both sides of the debate. Does the BARFL Committee have an opinion on "UK Footy" and are they concerned the BARFL could be sidelined? It seems clear the BARFL took a hit when ARUK started its senior 9s competition this year. Is there a possibility that the other BARFL clubs may opt for a new direction, and have the BARFL Committee considered whether it could be time for a change?
Donald: I think the BARFL Committee are pragmatic enough to know that with all of our time focused on running day-to-day operations, little else gets done, including looking longer term at the growth of footy in the UK. We fully understand that Junior Development is key to that growth and we have tried several times to work with Brian Clarke on this front, to no avail. I think we all respect the time and effort BC puts into this area, none of which we could do ourselves. We embraced BC in a Junior Development role during 2005/2006, but Brian decided to opt out - that was his decision, not the BARFL's. Again, Brian was elected onto the BARFL Committee this year (2007) but resigned the very next day. His reasons were that his plans were in direct conflict with the BARFL's. Even now with our current proposal the most ideal candidate to take on the Junior Pathway programme would be BC and we would welcome his involvement in that if he is the best candidate (and I personally believe he is). I suspect BC will not entertain this idea.
In answer to your original question, yes some parts of the UK Footy plan were discussed. The BARFL believe that in its current guise, ownership needs to be localised with structures put in place to manage and organise footy similar to how this operates in both Wales and Scotland. Currently, the SARFL run pretty much autonomously but are still affiliated with the BARFL and there is no reason why this should be changed. The BARFL would become a new body/entity overseeing UK footy, but with regional structures in place to manage and organise footy in their own regions, but with representatives on a new all-encompassing BARFL Committee. So, to simplify the explanation, don't think of the 'BARFL' as it currently exists but as a more higher level UK body, with a new committee (probably based on the current committee, but through new elections) managing and organising footy in London.
At the meeting, support letters were produced from ARUK and AR Wales for the new UK Footy Plan, but these are simply letters of support from BC, in our opinion. Glen (UK Footy Plan) also stated that SARFL support was being sought, but we already have a good relationship with SARFL and have started initial discussions with them on support for our own proposal. Initial reactions from them are they support the BARFL proposal. On the whole, most of the existing clubs support the BARFL and the new plan. There is one club who are opposed and I believe there may be 1 or 2 other clubs who want a change and are open to either proposal, although they don't feel there is a need to disband the BARFL if the BARFL plan is acceptable as a way forward.
We have read the UK Footy proposal in detail and don't feel there is a need to disband the BARFL in order of a new identity - why re-invent the wheel? We do understand that the structure needs to change and that's what our proposal states, as I have reiterated above. We also feel NO threat from the ARUK 9's competition as this also has a place in UK footy. The BARFL have been dedicated to running a full Aussie Rules programme of 18-a-side as we believe this is ultimately what people want to play and also what any development programme would aspire to. But we do understand there needs to be more focus on development and our plan addresses that.
There is no concern from the Committee that the BARFL will be sidelined - we only want what's best for footy and starting from the ground up with a new organisation will set footy back in the UK at least a couple of years, in our opinion. There is also no evidence that there is no support for the BARFL at official levels. All talk about "recognised bodies" is simply hearsay - there is nothing on record from either the Government or Sport England that BARFL is not recognised. In fact, there is a more official statement from Australia House here in London that they recognise BARFL as the organiser of footy in the UK.
WFN: Do you see a likely resolution to the divide between UK Footy, ARUK and the BARFL any time soon?
Donald: Absolutely, we have to. We have set a timetable for action on our proposed plan. The first milestone for that timetable was Friday 22nd June whereby we expected to have discussed the plan with all parties involved. I suspect that will not include ARUK but their feedback is welcomed. Personally, I think I know what their reaction will be! We are also interested in working with Glen on his ideas and proposals for footy in the UK - if someone has the enthusiasm and experience to work in that sphere then we welcome their involvement. [Update: we are still awaiting feedback from certain quarters, so this timescale has slipped slightly.]
WFN: Would it be fair to say that a summary of what you've said here is that you see some merit in the UK Footy plan but feel the best way forward is to develop that within the BARFL and that you feel you have the initial support of most of the clubs to pursue that path? If it goes this way can you see a mechanism that would bring the AR Wales and ARUK leagues into the system? Would they be free to pursue 9-a-side football in their current format?
Donald: There is merit in any plan that looks at the long term strategy of footy in the UK, in particular the development of Juniors and of regional setups. These views are held by the current BARFL Committee and always have been. The UK Footy plan simply beat us to publication. But the BARFL has always had a Junior Development plan (albeit slightly unsuccessful) and a Regional Plan as can be seen by our implementation of a regional league. We have discovered, as ARUK is now discovering, that running leagues in less populated areas but where there is interest, is a very difficult task and I think the BARFL should be commended for its time and effort in this area.
But we do feel the best way forward is to get people in the correct positions to implement the new strategy that has been proposed by BARFL. This means that BARFL internally will change but the brand and the development is still consistent. We feel that on the whole, our plan has a lot of support and will see some changes. I would say that some quarters are slightly sceptical that any or some of this will not happen, but I can assure everyone that this new strategy/plan has to work otherwise footy in the UK will suffer continuously.
Bringing in ARUK and AR Wales are very much incorporated into the strategy. This is not about bringing ARUK and AR Wales into the BARFL structure - more about how we can all work together to develop these areas. We just feel it is better to use the existing brand and established links in doing that. Whether these two organisations will enter into the plan is another question and probably rely on just one person, but everyone and everything has a part in making the strategy and development of the game in the UK a success. Again, with regards to the 9-a-side competition, where this exists and is successful, there is very much a view that this should be continued and be incorporated in one of the development streams we have proposed. The 9-a-side competition needs to be further aligned to the full 18-a-side competition as these people need to have aspirations for the excitement and thrill of the great game of Aussie Rules. 9-a-side is not so much of a spectacle as the full game but is a valuable vehicle for the development of the game both in less populated areas and also bringing younger involvement into the game.
WFN: So where to now for the BARFL, how will the BARFL strategic plan be developed further and then implemented - can we expect to see any tangible changes in the short term?
Donald: We need tangible changes and need some of them to happen quicker than others. As mentioned above, there is a timetable for action at least for some of the more immediate parts of the plan. Getting the regions sorted out is high on the agenda. Also, getting development into a good shape is probably highest on the agenda but we need the right people in the right places to exploit these opportunities, and we accept this is not going to happen overnight. If money was not a barrier, I'm sure these programmes would have already started, but we work purely on a voluntary basis and getting people in place to look at specific areas will take time. The Junior Development programme will be a paid position but will be self-funded. We can help and assist where necessary, but a person cannot expect to start in this position and get paid from day one. Their first task will be to looking at sponsorship for Junior Development which also incorporates their own time.
WFN: Can you confirm that all the London-based clubs were represented at the meeting, as well as Reading?
Donald: Yes, all London based clubs were represented including Reading. Wimbledon were late in turning up and actually left early too, but they were in attendance and contributed to the discussion. Every club has a view but as mentioned earlier, most clubs support the new way forward with the proposal that was put forward.
WFN: Will the BARFL Regional clubs and the Scottish ARFL also be involved in developing the plan? Does the BARFL have a dialogue with ARUK or AR Wales? If the BARFL doesn't expect the UK Footy plan to gather support, are you hoping to create an environment in which the BARFL and the other leagues can work constructively together? Can the BARFL be on-side with Sport England if it supports the work of ARUK?
Donald: Yes, the current Regional club setup and SARFL are included in the development of the BARFL plan, as is any setup currently in existance. We have not and will never exclude any footy setup within the UK. I don't believe the BARFL have any officially recognised dialogue with ARUK or AR Wales, although Remon Gazal (BARFL President) has had some dialogue with AR Wales.
The BARFL believe with its new strategy and plan that all Leagues within the UK can work together. Our belief is that the BARFL need to change but the name doesn't need to change. We have proposed that in our plan. I don't believe the question of working together constructively is one for the BARFL - it would be interesting to see what the response to this question would be from other leagues - ARUK specifically.
Regarding Sport England, there is nothing officially from Sport England that they will not support BARFL - this is all hearsay from ARUK/BC. We are actively seeking dialogue with Sport England to establish a relationship with them as the organiser (governing body) of Aussie Rules in the UK. Official governing body status in the UK is as setout by the government, not Sport England. Sport England are seen as a channel for revenue for sports in England (they do not cover Scotland or Wales) and are a very small percentage of support for sports in the UK. But it is an avenue we will pursue.
So , the responses are there for readers to draw their own conclusions. It appears that there are three groups - BARFL aligned, ARUK aligned and BARFL people who would like to see change but could be described as "swinging voters". The question is whether the UK Footy plan will draw enough support from those people or whether the BARFL can successfully argue for change but without throwing out the current system. For either camp to have a clear victory they'll need to win support from the other side. Presumably that could be won over time through results at grassroots level. In the short term it seems likely that the stalemate will continue, though there could be a chance it may resolve more easily. Some people involved in the UK Footy plan have expressed that they would be prepared to work for the good of the game regardless of whether their plan got up. If that's the case and if the BARFL have the support they believe they do and push on with an improved strategy, just maybe the UK Footy people will get on board and give the BARFL a chance. That's probably an unlikely outcome, but let's hope we see some real progress from whatever emerges in the next six months.