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Opinion: Time for VFL to embrace local communities

  • Wednesday, October 24 2007 @ 11:30 am ACST
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Victoria is home to 5 million people and ten of the sixteen teams in Australia's elite football league, the AFL. A year ago I wrote a controversial article challenging the AFL to make some tough decisions and truly nationalise the league whilst ensuring football remains at the forefront of Victoria's sporting scene. I believed that reducing the number of Melbourne clubs would be the key to improved performances from the city's remaining clubs and would mean new clubs in unrepresented parts of Australia. This article looks at the relevance of my arguments a year on, following much improved results by Victorian clubs. It also looks in depth at the underperforming VFL (Victoria's prominent state league) and possible measures to lift the league to the status it could enjoy.

Thirteen moths ago I wrote an article on the condition of AFL clubs in Victoria, and how I believed that the market was overcrowded and how in order for the competition to move forward, a restructure of its Melbourne club licences was needed, with a more national focus. It was written at a time when the Melbourne teams were struggling on and off the field and some may feel that with current performances, is irrelevant now. Geelong defeated Port Adelaide in this year’s Grand Final, with the Kangaroos and Collingwood (also from the state) rounding out the top four. The state also took out Brownlow, Norm Smith, Rising Star, Leigh Matthews Trophy and Pre-season premiership honours, in addition to having 13 players named in the 2007 All-Australian side, and Geelong’s Mark Thompson selected as coach.

Yet what much of the local media fails to see is that this year’s bottom five clubs were also from Victoria. And as I mentioned in Memo to AFL: Victoria needs you!, Geelong shares the advantage of an interstate club by being based in their own city and enjoying the bulk of support from a single area, plus sponsorship and media benefits (which they are keen to exploit further, desiring future finals matches to be scheduled at their own Kardinia Park when capacity permits). Furthermore those previously mentioned awards won by Victorian clubs were in fact all won by Geelong, with the club also comprising 9 of those 13 Victorian All Australian spots. Breaking down the stats, Victorian teams make up 62.5% of AFL teams, and a respectable 56% of the All Australian squad, Melbourne teams make up 56.25% of AFL teams and only 18% of the All Australian squad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking a cheap shot at Victorian clubs, as their performances have been much improved on the past few years (and my own club is based in Victoria), but I get the feeling that people are limiting their view to the positive when the broader picture is a little bleaker.

AFL aside, there was another important mention I made in the article and that was about the VFL. This article takes a look at the Victorian Football League – a second-tier football league in Australia, and possible improvements that can be made to a league that I feel fails to operate at its full potential.

The VFL was established as the Victorian Football Association in 1877 (renamed in 1995), and is Australian football’s pioneer league. For years they competed on equal terms with the VFL (a breakaway league, which has since evolved into the AFL) before the original VFL finally gained an edge through going national. Since that day the VFA (now renamed VFL) has had little choice but to accept the AFL’s dominance, and by 1994 was administered by the VSFL (Victorian State Football League – what Australians know as the reserves competition). It was without question a fall from grace, but one the league should be learning a lesson from.

The new VFL has free reign over the semi-professional Victorian football market, a protected television contract with the ABC, noteworthy facilities and a local sponsorship market that is largely untapped. These are the kind of things that fledgling overseas leagues can only dream about. Yet even with all these opportunities, the once risk-taking league that had clubs in outer suburbs is taking a conservative approach. Most clubs remain inner-city, crowds are generally small and your average Victorian doesn’t align themselves to a VFL club (and in instances when they do, it is usually their AFL club’s VFL affiliate).

Underneath the AFL, the VFL is the next most senior football body in Victoria. It shouldn’t simply be a run-around for AFL-listed players who don’t make the firsts in a given week. At the same time many VFL clubs need to embrace their own identity, instead of simply being ‘an associate club’. This is supported by the recent parting of Collingwood and Williamstown and the Kangaroos and Tasmania.

Two potential solutions to this problem are:

1) Bringing back the AFL reserves (in addition to the state leagues), although I feel this is a dead-end solution as it pulls more talent away from the state leagues and may not have great crowd-pulling power either (nor would it result in greater VFL attendances).

2) Divide the AFL players equally amongst all VFL clubs. This too has its problems such as how to divide the players equally (talent-wise) amongst the clubs, especially when you consider most won’t play in the VFL each week but it does help alleviate AFL coaching pressure on VFL clubs and should help breach the gap between the VFL’s haves and have-nots (i.e. AFL-aligned and unaligned).

The VFL encounters a similar problem to the AFL on the issue of relocations. They remain reluctant to shift clubs with long and detailed histories, for example Port Melbourne. Yet a greater market should be able to be reached with minimal disruption to the current club allocation. At the same time it is important to remember that clubs that may need to be shifted would be done in the most pain-free fashion. If the AFL’s Kangaroos are to shift to the Gold Coast in future years they leave behind close to 20,000 Melbourne members, most of whom could not afford (money or time wise) to fly up to see their club play each week. But in the VFL’s case, a shift from Preston to Epping isn’t such a far trip. Currently the “Victorian” Football League’s clubs aren’t truly representative of Melbourne’s population let alone Victoria’s. So what is the solution? Whilst starting from a fresh slate (such as soccer in Australia has done with the A-League) is an ideal scenario, it is not viable nor is it fair to the established VFL clubs. Yet a revamp can occur whilst remaining largely inclusive for the current clubs.

This would be done by having a two-division VFL. One division would be country-based and incorporate the major population hubs in Victoria outside of Melbourne. The other league would be based in Melbourne, and would divide the city into divisions. These could be based in suburbs – Box Hill Hawks “representing Melbourne’s East” or regions/municipalities – “Outer Eastern/Whitehorse Hawks”. A major disadvantage of having clubs set in municipalities is the number of councils in Melbourne. It could only realistically be achieved by limiting the Melbourne division to around fourteen clubs, and having nearby councils form combined teams to fill the quota (and thus defeats the purpose of naming a club after a council). For consistency reasons it should be a standard move across the board and this may prove unpopular with historical clubs (Port Melbourne would become Port Phillip Borough or something similar).

Complicating matters, we currently have the scenario in Victoria (with the original VFL having evolved into the AFL) where a Victorian resident might live closer to their AFL club than they do to a VFL club. While the AFL clubs are all essentially Melbourne sides, on paper it appears differently. People want to feel included and if their council or a club in their area is gaining recognition they’re more likely to follow them. Currently, a Hawthorn supporter with no interest in the VFL is offered little incentive, to follow a VFL club. The Box Hill Hawks, effectively “Hawthorn’s seconds” provide a run for a few Hawthorn players each week, but the fan probably won’t develop a passion for them. Yet if there was a VFL side in Melbourne inner east, that played nearby and had no links to an AFL club (their own or a rival), that fan may become interested.

To support these VFL clubs, each club, whether pre-existing, new or promoted from a lesser league would be supported by the amateur clubs under their ‘jurisdiction’. While many VFL players aren’t fed from amateur clubs (they’re either ex-AFL or from the under-18’s competition) these lower-level clubs would help generate interest in the league. The state’s TAC cup would also be abolished and the new VFL would either have an under 18 division (greater reach than the current competition), or the juniors would be fed directly into the senior competition, which may improve both age group’s prospects of being drafted into the AFL. The VFL needs to be marketed as its own league whilst being recognised as a clear pathway into the AFL. This will not only help encourage local sponsors to come on board, but should build a solid brand name. This may also entice ex-AFL/older AFL-aspiring players to remain in Victoria (currently many opt to play in the SANFL).

The league could also be looking for other ways to be successful. Football has traditionally been played over winter in Australia but perhaps the VFL could hold its season over summer. For suburban clubs this isn’t viable as ovals are used by cricket clubs, but for the VFL with their greater resources and bargaining power this may be a possibility. Positives are that the league isn’t competing against the AFL for fans (indeed many football fans may be hungry for football action) whilst negatives include player availability, especially those from AFL clubs.

The VFL should also be looking to involve those disgruntled football fans that stopped attending matches when the AFL ceased using their suburban venues. They already have a passion for football, and it is only a matter of convincing them to give their state league a chance. Just because the VFL is affiliated with the AFL doesn't mean the VFL needs to promote itself this way.

The league also has the advantage of having several stadiums (many ex-AFL) at their disposal. Some improvement may need to be made, and a few new venues sought if more clubs were admitted. A significant amount of football fans are familiar with the game at both grassroots and elite level, however when someone pays money for entertainment (regardless of what kind) they expect their money's worth and would want basic amenities. The venues also need to be accessed easily. Whole stadiums can't be shifted next to train stations, but the league should work closely with bus companies/council to have special services to the ground from major stations. If a fan was weighing up whether or not to go to a VFL game, accessibility may decide whether they attend or not.

VFL clubs should also work closely with their community. Where possible, helping with Auskick clinics, keeping in touch with local footy clubs and local schools would all help build the league. The VFL's footballers are one step down from AFL level (some are at AFL level). They are talented individuals, and I can't see a reason why school kids can't know the names of a few VFL footballers on top of their AFL heroes. Free tickets could be distributed to local kids who in turn drag their parents along. These actions teamed with decent exposure in local papers could help the VFL improve their crowd figures.

I also feel the VFL needs a new logo which will then distance themselves from the old VFL (now AFL) and confirm to fans that the state league is a new league, determined to entrench itself in Victoria's sporting landscape.

The country division would be just as imperative to the league's success as the Melbourne division. As seen by the strong crowds at the Wangaratta round during the 2005 International Cup, football is often the lifeblood to rural communities. Due to their smaller population they aren't rewarded with their own AFL club (except for the larger and close-to-Melbourne city of Geelong) and rarely host matches themselves (some country towns host matches for the elminated clubs during the preseason). Their own VFL division is suitable reward for continued support of the game, and may act as a uniting force for communities. If run properly, I have no doubt that these matches would be the crowd-pullers. By separating the Melbourne and Country divisions you are minimising costs of travel and including more clubs whilst keeping each division at a manageable size. Perhaps at the close of each season, the premiers of the Country and Melbourne divisions could face off for ultimate glory, or alternatively random match-ups between Country and Melbourne teams could break-up the season.

These are all drastic recommendations, but hopefully they will serve as food for thought for those in control. I am passionate about football and its spread around the globe. As a Victorian I am also passionate about the condition of the game in my state. I judge football’s health on how much media coverage it gets here and how many people I see wearing footy jumpers and talking about matches. With Geelong this year’s premiers this has generally been high but I get the feeling we’re building on shaky foundations. The VFL can’t change the number of AFL football clubs in Victoria, nor how well they perform, but if a new format was implemented properly at state-level, perhaps the AFL would be less nervous about making difficult decisions themselves. On top of this, a strong VFL might lessen the negativity should Victoria’s AFL clubs fail to perform.

Potential location of teams:

Country division

Melbourne division
Ports (Port Melbourne)
Inner North (Coburg)
Outer North (Epping)
Inner East (Box Hill)
Outer East (Ringwood)
Inner South (Sandringham)
Outer South (Frankston)
Inner South East (Oakleigh)
Outer South East (Dandenong)
Inner West (Sunshine)
Outer West (Sunbury)
South West (Werribee)
Mount Dandenong and Surrounds (Rowville)