“But I’m a bit of a funny one. I like that boy who sits in the classroom and now has a voice. Instead of being laughed at or ridiculed or ignored, now he’s got a friendship group that actually understands what he’s involved in.”
More than just an elite talent pathway, the AFL academies are a recruitment program for the code wars – and business is booming, particularly in areas that were once regarded as rugby union heartland.
AFL insiders are reluctant to broach that subject, even privately. They insist they have grown the sporting pie in NSW – not eaten into rugby’s share of it. But the evidence is compelling.
According to AFL NSW/ACT, participation in Sydney’s north and around the city has rocketed by nearly 200 per cent over the last decade. Sport Australia’s AusPlay data shows that, between 2016 and 2019, adult AFL participation in NSW (71,325 in 2019) overtook rugby (52,999).
In 2012, Waratahs amost matched the Swans for average crowds sitting in the mid-20,000 range. After a steady decline since, the Waratahs’ average crowd is almost one-third the size (31,069 vs 13,176 in 2019).
The north shore and eastern suburbs have emerged as footy strongholds, and GPS schools which once pumped out Wallabies are now putting up AFL goalposts to satisfy surging student demand. In 2013 there were only six independent schools in Sydney with AFL programs. Now there are 14, with 62 boys teams.
The academies have helped accelerate a process that was already underway. There are myriad factors involved: the Swans’ ability to contend for finals almost every year, the addition of the GWS Giants in 2012. A cohesive governance and management model, where junior clubs and state bodies know their place in the pecking order. The raging success of AusKick, and growing concerns amongst parents about concussion in the rugby codes. All of these have combined to boost Aussie rules at every level in NSW.
Rugby’s recent struggles, and the woes of the Waratahs, certainly haven’t helped. Anecdotally, there has been a migration of fans from the Waratahs to the Swans, which former ARU chief executive John O’Neill first noted to the Herald two years ago – and current Waratahs boss Paul Doorn also admits has probably occurred.
Greg Harris – the former Waratahs CEO, who played first-grade football in Aussie rules, rugby union and rugby league in Sydney, and was the Swans’ chairman of selectors in 1994-1996 – can also recognise it.
As he made his way to Olympic Park for a Wallabies Test match in 2018, he saw families clad in red and white, orange and charcoal, heading the other way after an AFL derby at Giants Stadium.
“I said to my wife, there’s a whole generation rugby’s lost,” Harris said.
“These things are generational. They don’t happen overnight. I don’t think it’s been a deliberate strategy by the AFL to say, ‘let’s take rugby union’s supporters’. But the AFL long ago identified that every participant brings along a commercial partner. In other words, if my kid’s playing footy, I go and watch footy, and so does my wife and my parents. Participation brings commercial benefits.
“The most important thing you have in any business model is control of your business. That’s what the AFL has. The attitude in rugby is if we beat the All Blacks, the game will be OK. Any business that depends upon one focal point to develop its income stream is always going to be susceptible to failure.”
The phenomenon is being led primarily by the Swans – although that’s to be expected given they have a 30-year head start on the Giants, who face a much tougher task converting the masses in the western suburbs. Most of GWS’s academy graduates come from regional NSW, not western Sydney, but their presence is still being keenly felt, and their average crowds are now almost on par with the Waratahs.
”We are struggling for players. We’re not the only ones,” said Brian Blacklock, the president of the Western Sydney Two Blues rugby club, which is based in Parramatta.
“Whether that’s a byproduct of the growth of Aussie Rules I can’t say, but it certainly wouldn’t be helping. From a branding point of view, they’re killing it. In terms of their ability to be able to clearly identify what their offering is and the potential pathways are, they’re miles in front.
“I remember 20 years ago, there was a fantastic campaign, I want to be a Wallaby. How do I become a Wallaby? Well you start playing here and away you go. That doesn’t exist now. I struggle to name Waratahs players and I’m in the game. Now I couldn’t name a single Swans or Giants players either, but I’m sure their fans have clearly identified who they are and what they’re about.”
Blacklock recalled an old story from a friend, whose son – a Swans and Waratahs fan – was turning 10. He contacted both clubs to see if they could send him any memorabilia.
“The Waratahs sent out a couple of posters and a signed footy. The Swans sent out two injured players to his birthday party,” he said. “It was a while ago, but it sort of shows the difference in resources, and that’s the bottom line.”
Getting them early seems to be the AFL’s modus operandi, and it’s working. Smith said the influence of winning over young athletes, who are “peer leaders” in classrooms and friendship circles, was key to bringing more kids into the tent.
Doorn, who joined the Waratahs at the start of 2020, watches on in envy.
“I’m sure there’s a percentage of people that have shifted from one sport to the other,” he said.
“And I’d like to suggest that when rugby’s going well, there’s a lot of people who would come back. But I’m happy to admit that the success of the Swans in particular and the growth of the GWS Giants means that people have other things they can support.
“We don’t see them as a threat, but they do certain things really, really well, and we aspire to do as well one day.“
A crowd of around 30,000 is expected on Saturday for the AFL derby. The Swans are heavily favoured to go 5-0, and are still riding the wave of energy provided by an influx of impressive draftees – like Gulden, the academy product who is already a fan favourite, four games into his career.
The next ones are coming. Smith can remember how at the start of the Swans academy, there were only about a dozen players in each age group who were competent kicks.
“Now within the academy, the way the boys are whizzing the ball around – and we’re slowly getting that traction with the girls as well – the skill level and the game knowledge has increased significantly over those 10 years,” he said.
“We’ve always been confident that our game, once you actually do play it, it’s a very enjoyable game. All we needed to do is at least give kids at school and in the community an option to play it.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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