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Opinion: Why South Africa?

  • Wednesday, August 29 2007 @ 01:00 am ACST
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Regular readers of WFN will be well aware that South Africa is most certainly the hot spot for international Australian Football development, with good news and funding stories appearing regularly. On a footy chatboard recently someone asked the question that could be summed up as "why is South Africa so heavily favoured?" This article looks at what those reasons might be and whether lessons can be learned by other nations.

There are plenty of stories on this site to support the various reasons I'll give for why South Africa is receiving more support than any other country - in fact in some ways of measuring it, more than all other countries combined. So here is a list of the fundamental reasons as I see it.

  • Strong initial establishment efforts by Australians (such as Marty Alsford)
  • Early recognition of the sport by the North West Province government and NW Academy of Sport
  • Early success in getting AusAID volunteer positions approved and filled
  • Persistence by locals such as Mtutu Hlomela who wouldn't let the game die when initial support faded the first time
  • Significant third party funding from Tattersals (believed to be involved with South African Lotteries)
  • Strong advocacy by high profile former Melbourne footballer and politician Brian Dixon
  • Relatively low costs meaning the Australian dollar goes a long way
  • Large numbers of youth without access to organised sports
  • Demonstrated potential of accessing/creating large volunteer networks in local communities
  • Strong parallels to the AFL's work in developing football in indigenous Australian communities, including a sense of philanthropy
  • Success in South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, would likely make success in further African countries much easier

Every one of those factors are important but together they add up to a very persuasive argument. If we assume that these sorts of reasons led the AFL to decide that South Africa was the best option then the next question is why so much support into one country and not spread the support around? The argument is that it is better to put maximum resources into one country and really thoroughly test whether Australian Football can be transplanted to another country and grown into a major force. The flipside being that to do small amounts in many countries risks having no major gains in any. Of course the counter-argument would be that putting all your eggs in one basket is also a risk, and the more baskets you have the more likely you are to have everything go right and one or more countries become major successes. Obviously the AFL have chosen the former path, not the latter, though we should make it clear that this doesn't mean the AFL have abandoned all the other nations - simply that it unashamedly has made South Africa its priority.

So are there lessons that administrators of other countries can learn from South Africa? Certainly many of the core reasons for the AFL's focus there can't be replicated in other places. However ensuring junior development is a fundamental part of a league is obviously vital for support - without a clear path to developing large numbers of children playing the game it seems significant AFL support is unlikely. We realise this is of course easier said than done, as just running a senior league week to week can be an enormous task for volunteers.

The other area that might warrant close attention that could more easily be overlooked is building a network of contacts and high profile advocates within Australia. This can be a little hit and miss, but any small connections are worth developing. It doesn't mean finding the telephone number of an AFL coach or media personality and cold-calling them to be your patron, it means slowly building relationships which will add credibility to your program. Over time these can assist in reassuring other people that your program is legitimate and going somewhere, and could result in very worthwhile partnerships down the track. The USAFL is an excellent example of this. After having the good fortune to secure the support of Paul Roos and a few other notale AFL people, US Footy has now grown their contacts such that they have an amazing array of highly respected football and business people on their Australian and American Advisory Boards, and have now launched their USAFL Ambassadors Program. With people such as high profile former player Robert DiPierdomenico, former Hawks President Ian Dicker, outgoing AFL Commissioner Colin Carter, former player and AFL coach Peter Schwab (now Chief Executive Officer of Football Victoria) and Brisbane Lions coach Leigh Matthews, to name but a few, these efforts could result in support from Australia and enormous opportunities for Aussie Rules in the US over the coming years, provided they are leveraged correctly and the grass-roots work is still done at home. Other footy nations should look to build similar (if more modest) lists of contacts that could lend credibility to their program and perhaps a foot in the door with various AFL and business bodies.

There is no question that South African footy is the current focus but we should all wish it luck. If it were to fail then it's difficult to see the AFL investing again. The great Australian game doesn't have to have AFL support to succeed overseas, but its chances are much improved and it will progress far quicker with that support. So let's hope South African footy fulfills its dreams and the experiment can be extended to other locations across the planet, giving one of the world's great sports the participation and profile it deserves.